Alumni from Britain’s top public schools 94 times more likely to reach elite positions

Their power remains a testament to how far adrift Britain lies from true equality of opportunity
Eton students

The alumni of nine leading public schools are 94 times more likely to reach the most powerful elite positions in British society than those who attended any other school, according to a unique historical analysis of Who’s Who led by LSE researchers.

The study examines 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 contained within Who’s Who 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.

Who’s Who, the leading biographical dictionary of “noteworthy and influential” people in the UK, has been published every year since 1897. Many  entrants are included automatically upon reaching a prominent occupational position, such as MPs, Peers, Judges, senior civil servants, heads of public bodies, Dames and Knights,  Poet Laureates, and heads of museums and large arts organisations.  The rest are selected based on “a noteworthy professional appointment or sustained prestige, influence or fame.”

The paper, published in American Sociological Review, 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.”

No researcher has ever gained access to this data on over 120,000 people.

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.

The number of Clarendon school alumni in Who’s Who has clearly declined across birth cohorts born between 1830 and 1969. Among those born in the 1840s, approximately 20 per cent of Who’s Who had attended one of the nine Clarendon schools, whereas the figure dropped to eight per cent by the most recent birth cohort of 1965-69.

The researchers say that one possible driver of this downward trend may be the changing occupational composition of the British elite and, in particular, the waning significance of the military and the clergy due to the decline of the British Empire and the secularisation of British society.

Another may be the combined effects of educational reforms, such as the 1944 Education Act, which transformed access to education, eventually enabling nearly all young people to attend school up to the age of 16. This, combined with even earlier reforms that standardised credentials across schools, such as the School Certificate, may have hampered the ability of ‘old boys’ to trade off the name of their school in the same way as they may have in the past. In other words, elite schools may no longer provide educationally less meritorious alumni—epitomized by Harry Enfield's caricatured comic figure of old-boy Tim-Nice-But-Dim —with the same guarantee of a future elite position.

However, the decline “must be viewed in a wider context of persistence rather than cessation.” The proportion of new entrants in Who’s Who from the Clarendon schools and 209 other independent schools in the elite Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) remain relatively constant over the past 16 years with the proportion of new entrants remaining at around 8 per cent for the Clarendon schools and around 30 per cent for other elite private schools. This suggests then that the decline in the reproductive power of elite schools has largely stalled.

The researchers also examined if the power of elite schools lies more in their ability to place alumni in other elite institutions by examining the connection with Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Oxbridge graduates have always comprised between 30 and 40 per cent of the people in Who’s Who. The majority of Clarendon alumni in Who’s Who reached the elite via Oxbridge (58 per cent) whereas alumni from other schools were far more likely to reach Who’s Who via other universities (71 per cent).

But significantly the authors find that even among those who attended Oxbridge, Clarendon alumni continue to be approximately twice as likely to reach the elite as Oxbridge graduates without the good fortune to attend a Clarendon school. They note: “This shows the distinct cumulative advantages that flow from following this elite pathway from elite school to elite university”. 

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.”

The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment 1897 to 2016, led by Aaron Reeves  and Sam Friedman is available here: