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