Elites and their teachers

Elites and their teachers

Saskia Papadakis

In October 2017, David Lammy MP accused Oxford and Cambridge, England’s oldest and most prestigious universities, of ‘social apartheid’. He was referring to admissions data which shows that Oxbridge applications and offers are dominated by white upper and middle-class students from London and the South East of England, with only a tiny minority of places going to black and brown students, students from the working classes, and those from areas such as Northern England and Wales. Lammy argues that the solution to these disparities lies in the active recruitment of students from under-represented groups, and debates in the national media have centred on how wider access to elite institutions would improve ‘social mobility’ and tackle the entrenchment of inherited privilege. However, criticising these institutions for not being accessible misses their purpose: from their foundations as schools for the British aristocracy, they have existed in order to reproduce elite status. High-status educational qualifications legitimate the passing on of social, cultural and economic capital between generations of elites, and conceal this injustice by allowing them to claim naturally superior talent and intellect (1). The few black, Northern and working-class students who make it to Oxbridge can be used as proof it is possible for any ‘talented’ student to access such universities, disguising the fact that the game is rigged in favour of white upper middle-class applicants. As my research with teachers at an English private school suggests, the presence of the working class and ethnic ‘other’ in elite institutions does nothing to tackle entrenched structural inequalities, and in fact may be co-opted by these institutions to reinforce their own moral superiority within the private sector.

When I conducted my research with teachers at Stonecroft, a girls’ independent day school in England, I found that all my participants were keenly aware of the inequalities that the institution perpetuates (2). Like Oxford and Cambridge, English private schools are elite educational institutions which have long safe-guarded the rights of upper middle-class parents to pass on their immense privilege to their children. Only 7% of English children are educated at fee-paying schools, and yet they monopolise the top grades in national exams, places at elite universities, and the most high-status occupations in British society (3). Stonecroft has a reputation for attaining exceptionally high academic results, and around a quarter of its Sixth Formers go on to undergraduate study at Oxbridge. Entrance to the school is via competitive 11+ and 16+ exams followed by interviews for the highest scorers, and while some means-tested bursaries are available, most parents pay full school fees, which are considerably higher than the government’s minimum spend of £4,800 per state school pupil in 2018/19. In a competitive educational market, Stonecroft offers upper middle-class parents a relatively secure way to ensure that their own social, economic and cultural capital is reproduced, and that their children are educated alongside those in possession of a similar level of privilege.

The exclusive nature of the school in which they worked posed a problem for teachers at Stonecroft. Nearly all of those I interviewed criticised the role private education plays in preserving the privilege of a small elite at the expense of the state-educated majority. The perceived ill-effects of private education, and the symbolic and economic capital embodied by both their pupils at Stonecroft and themselves as teachers in a private school, were at odds with participants’ ideals of teaching as a public service. In order to mitigate this ideological dissonance, participants attempted to justify both the existence of private schools in general and the existence of Stonecroft in particular. These justifications were largely based on criticisms of the quality of state education in England. According to participants, state schools have poor behavioural standards, fail to provide for intelligent students and able teachers such as those at Stonecroft, and are subject to the interference of government policy, limiting teachers’ professional autonomy. Private schools, on the other hand, were portrayed as the exemplification of a ‘good’ education, giving government policy and less generously funded schools something to which to aspire. These criticisms of the state sector conform to wider understandings of working-class students as unruly and unmanageable, rendering themselves undeserving of educational success by through their lack of aspiration (4). Teachers’ portrayals of themselves and their students as too able and intelligent to thrive amongst such students, and therefore in need of an exceptionally high-achieving school like Stonecroft, conceal the inherited privilege that has enabled these individuals to study and work at such an exclusive institution, and reinforce the class divisions that provide the basis for elite education.

Despite their criticisms of English state education, participants remained conflicted about the societal value of private education. Justifying Stonecroft itself appeared to be less problematic: according to these teachers, whilst other private schools take their privilege for granted, Stonecroft’s parents, teachers and pupils are deserving of their privilege due to their hard work and lack of complacency. This characterisation of Stonecroft as a place which values hard work, and the link teachers made between this and the school’s educational success, is in line with understandings of English society as meritocratic – the most talented and hardest working rise to the top, whilst the stupid and the lazy take their place at the bottom. But, as Shamus Kahn asks, ‘if the world is a meritocracy of talent, then why are so many of the talented children of the wealthy?’ Obtaining and maintaining a place at Stonecroft requires the investment of large amounts of cultural, economic and social capital, which on the whole is not available to those outside of the upper middle classes. By positioning Stonecroft as meritocratic, teachers attempted to disguise the wealth and privilege that enables the school to maintain its status as an elite institution.

Not only did participants see Stonecroft as more meritocratic than other private schools, but they portrayed the school as unusually liberal, inclusive and diverse. Evidence for this included the presence of black and brown students in the school, and the availability of bursaries for a few students whose parents would not otherwise have been able to afford the fees. Casting Stonecroft as providing a social good by accepting these students divorces individual disadvantage from structural inequalities, and allows the school to position itself as inclusive in relation to other private schools. As Sara Ahmed writes, ‘saying diversity’ is not the same as ‘doing diversity’: whatever its staff may say, Stonecroft is inherently not diverse because of the way it selects its students (5). Offering places to a few girls and young women who are not from the white upper middle classes does nothing to address the entrenched inequalities that allow this elite to preserve its power in society. Instead, Stonecroft’s teachers were able to instrumentalise the working class and ethnic ‘other’ within the school, drawing cultural capital from their presence and using it to legitimate the institution’s privilege and moral superiority.

Private schools like Stonecroft, from which Oxford and Cambridge draw around 40% of their undergraduate intake, form an important part of elite strategies for maintaining power and privilege: they will not be made less elitist if there is greater diversity amongst its student body. Although this was only a small study at one private school, my research at Stonecroft suggests that any pressure put on these institutions to improve accessibility may allow them to further justify their privileged status. The teachers in this study were aware of the negative impact private schools may be having on society, but they were invested in maintaining the inequalities which allow Stonecroft to exist. In consequence, they were unable to challenge the monopolisation of high-status educational qualifications by a white upper middle-class minority, and instead sought to justify their own role in the preservation of elite privilege. David Lammy’s work draws attention to the racist and classist discrimination inherent in our elite universities. In the unlikelihood that accessibility will make a substantial difference, perhaps we need to rethink the existence of these institutions altogether.

(1) Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: SAGE.
(2) ‘Stonecroft’ is a pseudonym.
(3) Brown, P., Power, S., Tholen, G., & Allouch, A. (2016). Credentials, talent and cultural capital: A comparative study of educational elites in England and France. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(2): 191–211.
(4) Loveday, V. (2015). Working-class participation, middle-class aspiration? Value, upward mobility and symbolic indebtedness in higher education. The Sociological Review, 63(3): 570–588.
(5) Ahmed, S. (2007). The language of diversity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(2): 235–256.


Saskia Papadakis is a PhD researcher in Royal Holloway’s Geography Department, where she studies the identities and experiences of Northerners who have migrated to London. This article is based on her dissertation for her MA in Social Research at Goldsmiths College. She is one-third of the Sociology podcast Surviving Society.

Image: New York Public Library

5 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    April 11, 2018

    The UCL people (Plomin, et al) say it is because the rich have more financial and social capital, and higher IQs because of better genes, and that schools don`t make much of a difference to educational attainment. Are they right, and if not, why not?


  2. Avatar
    August 09, 2018

    Oxford does not provide a detailed breakdown of state school applicants but Cambridge gives the success rate – accepting offers – as follows [1]:
    Private schools – 34%
    Grammar schools – 32.8%
    Comprehensive schools – 21.1%
    So it seems that the scepticism of the Stonecroft teachers concerning the effectiveness of comprehensive education may be justified while the grammar schools continue to close the gap with the private sector.
    [1] https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/chances-of-getting-into-oxbridge


  3. Avatar
    August 10, 2018

    A few random(and ironic) thoughts:
    Pupil and family profiles of pupils from public schools and grammar school are likely to be similar, whilst the profiles of comprehensive pupils are likely to be more diverse, with most disadvantaged pupils from poorer families attending comprehensive schools and performing less well in examinations than their peers from more affluent backgrounds. If this could be factored into the studies, we might be able to ask firstly whether pupils from similar backgrounds perform as well across all three sectors (,which would remove the focus from teaching performance to social factors), and secondly what can be done to improve the qualifications of those who preform less well? Given that the trajectories of learning are set very early in life, shouldn`t more attention be given to pupils from deprived backgrounds in the early years? (What about a Sure Start Programme to help disadvantaged children and families – with a focus on language use before school?! or later, state boarding provision to help pupils where there is family stress?! or guaranteed places in public schools for ” looked after” children? ) Oh, I forgot, we used to have all of these!


  4. Avatar
    August 15, 2018

    Oh dear, we keep getting comparisons between “rich” and “poor” children although we have known for more than half a century that material standard of living has only a marginal influence on academic performance.
    When I attended a (state) grammar school in the 1960s, my headmaster was also serving on what was popularly known as the Plowden Committee. We took an interest in its deliberations. Volume 2 of the Report is of relevance here: http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/plowden/plowden1967-2.html . In it, Piker deconvoluted data from several thousand pupils from nearly two hundred schools, covering all social backgrounds and education quality.
    He found the attitude of parents to be more significant than “all other factors, separately or combined”. The report stressed that even if the poorest families were to be brought to the material level of the most affluent, and the worst schools to the standard of the best, this would be less effective than bringing all parents to what he called the “most cooperative”.
    These findings have never been contradicted and have been supported by many reports, HMI and non-governmental. For example, when my own daughter started school we were in the recession of the early 1990s and the effects of this were investigated by the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER): https://www.nfer.ac.uk/reading-in-recession/ . Again, it was found that the failure of children to learn had little to do with finance but was largely due to the deteriorating quality of family life.
    Few ideas are less “politically correct” than suggesting that people should take responsibility for their own lives so the facts have been largely ignored. The last Labour government slung billion after borrowed billion at families and schools with precisely the futility Piker would have predicted.
    Eric, my old headmaster, went on to suggest, perhaps a tad whimsically, that parenting is of such importance that it should be included in the then-fledgling National Curriculum.
    So long as the debate continues to be prejudged by references to “rich” and “poor”, there is little prospect of progress.
    As Eric, a devout Church of England man, might have said, “And some fell on stony ground.”