Historical analysis of Who’s Who, led by researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has concluded that people who attended the nine leading public schools are 94 times more likely to reach elite positions in British society.
The study examined the past and present influence of the Clarendon Schools: Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul’s, Westminster, and Winchester College. These schools have traditionally educated around 0.15 per cent of all people aged 13 to 18, but still produce nearly 10 per cent of all Who’s Who entrants.
The paper, ‘The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment 1897 to 2016’, analyses 120 years of biographical data to explore the changing relationship between elite schools and elite recruitment. It finds that although the “propulsive power” of Britain’s public schools has diminished significantly since the beginning of the 20th Century, public schools remain extraordinarily powerful, and any decline in their power has stalled completely over the past 16 years.
‘While the democratisation of education clearly dented the influence of these elite schools, their power remains a testament to how far adrift Britain lies from true equality of opportunity.”
It also explains how the UK is an ideal context to explore how 20th century educational reform has only partially equalised opportunities in the labour market: “Not only does it have a history of radical education reforms, but it also possesses a centuries-old legacy of gendered public schools, which carry a remarkable legacy for incubating male leaders. For example, of the 54 Prime Ministers elected to office in Great Britain, 36 (67 per cent) were educated at one of just nine elite schools… Today, the distinct characteristics of these schools remain largely unchanged and their alumni continue to exert a profound influence. For instance, the two key politicians on either side of the Brexit debate – David Cameron and Boris Johnson- both attended the most prestigious Clarendon school, Eton College.”
The sample is divided into five-year birth cohorts, the most recent of which is 1965-69. During this time the Clarendon schools were male-only. The average age at which individuals are included in Who’s Who is 50. Notably, women constitute only 23 per cent of the most recent birth cohort, even though this number has grown steadily over time. The number of foreign-born entrants has also declined somewhat since World War II, making up 5 per cent of the same birth cohort. They were compared to census records of those aged over 35 who did not attend the Clarendon schools.
‘Although the ‘propulsive power’ of Britain’s public schools has diminished significantly since the beginning of the 20th Century, public schools remain extraordinarily powerful.’
The paper concludes: “Elite schools remain extraordinarily successful at producing Britain’s future elites; Clarendon school alumni remain 94 times more likely to take up an elite position than individuals attending other schools. Even alumni of the other HMC schools – our weaker definition of elite schooling – are 35 times more likely to be a member of Who’s Who. Moreover, alumni of elite schools are often very successful even when they do not pass through other elite institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge, or private members clubs. Thus while a reduction in elite recruitment from public schools is certainly noteworthy, it is important to situate this decline in the wider contemporary context of the continuing relative advantage enjoyed by these old boys.”
The joint lead authors of the paper, Dr Aaron Reeves of the International Inequalities Institute at LSE and Dr Sam Friedman of the Department of Sociology at LSE, commented: “Although the Clarendon schools have not always been the best performing schools in the country they have consistently remained the most successful in propelling their alumni into elite positions. Clearly their power lies beyond simple academic excellence and may be rooted in an extensive extra-curricular education that endows old boys with a particular way of being in the world that signals elite male status to others. While the democratisation of education clearly dented the influence of these elite schools, their power remains a testament to how far adrift Britain lies from true equality of opportunity.”