A new study by Debrett’s, the etiquette experts, in association with The Sunday Times, reveals that two-fifths of the 500 most powerful and influential people in Britain went to private schools. This is despite the fact that the sector accounts for only 7 per cent of all schools.
Crucially this cuts across all spheres of influence, including not only traditional careers, like business and politics, but areas like architecture and acting too: witness the amazing global success of Eton-educated Eddie Redmayne, still only 33, as Professor Stephen Hawking, in The Theory of Everything.
Obviously the many critics of the independent sector will now be having a field day. It will be “open season” on Eton and Harrow yet again. But is any of this news really that surprising?
Not at all, in my view. Of course private schools are always going to produce far more than their fair share of Society’s most powerful “players”. This is inevitable, given the fact that most successful people educate their own children privately; thus the system is guaranteed to be perpetuated, with success breeding success.
For example, high-flying parents will have all the key contacts – whether in commerce or theatre – to help ensure their own offspring have that first, vital helping hand up the career ladder.
Indeed I see this happening quite often, as a teacher. “Plum” work experience slots inevitably go to the children of top business people or lawyers, for example – as inevitably their parents have the contacts to find precious openings.
What is the point of paying all those fees if this were not the case? Yes, the fabled, oft-ridiculed “Old School Tie” may be long out-of-date, along with the world of PG Wodehouse and Bertie Wooster. But contacts still matter.
As just one example, I once took a party of sixth-formers to a “work experience” day, held at the headquarters of one of Britain’s most successful luxury brands. The company happened to be run by someone who’d attended the same school, which was how we’d managed to secure the prized slot in the first place. His parting shot to the pupils were these precise words:
“If any of you ever want to get into the business, just give me a ring. I will guarantee you an Interview.”
I don’t think, at the time, any of the group realised just what a precious offer this was: a crucial “first step” ahead of the rest. I almost felt like giving him a call myself.
And anyone who has been to a private school, whether big or small, famous or not so famous, will know that there will be many such high-achieving parents. Their added influence opens doors more easily – and, crucially, other pupils can also benefit from their contacts.
For example, successful parents are often instrumental in prompting high-profile acquaintances to visit schools as speakers: spending time with pupils and offering invaluable advice on “How to succeed” in the process. That way, everyone benefits from their expertise.
This is indeed how the system works on a termly basis: little nudges here and there, but nothing too blatant or nepotistic. And that is why I would, frankly, be amazed if this study showed anything different. People should stop moaning. Private schools are very good at producing successful pupils.
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