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Inequality on academic levels

A study of elite schools and inequality

The alumni of 12 leading girls’ public schools are 20 times more likely to reach the most powerful elite positions in British society than women who attended any other school. The alumni of nine leading boy’s public schools, known as the Clarendon Schools, are 35 times more likely to reach the most powerful elite positions.  

The numbers are from a historical analysis of Who’s Who by the University of Exeter, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The study examines the past and present influence of 12 of Britain’s most elite girls’ schools, including Cheltenham Ladies’ College, North London Collegiate School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

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“We find that alumni of elite girls schools have been around 20 times more likely than other women to reach elite positions. They are also more likely to follow particular channels of elite recruitment, via the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, private members clubs and elite spouses”, the paper says. 

“Yet such schools have also consistently been less propulsive than their male-only counterparts. We argue this is rooted in the ambivalent aims of girls elite education, where there has been a longstanding tension between promoting academic achievement and upholding traditional processes of gendered social reproduction.”

The schools were identified as the most ‘elite’ by the researchers at the outset of the project as they have historically been among the most successful in delivering their alumni to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. 

The research also examines the power of the wider network of around 200 private schools represented by the Girls’ Schools Association.

The paper, Is there an old girls’ network? Girls’ schools and recruitment to the British elite, analyses 120 years of biographical data contained within Who’s Who to explore if private girls’ schools have the same effect on the trajectories of women to elite positions as leading private boy’s schools do so with men. 

It finds that although alumni are 20 times more likely to reach the most powerful elite positions, these elite girls’ schools have been “consistently less propulsive than their male-only counterparts.”

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“Previous research, also based on Who’s Who, has indicated that the alumni of nine leading boy’s public schools, known as the Clarendon Schools, are 35 times more likely to reach the most powerful elite positions.” 

“Even at the peak of their power, elite girls’ schools educated just 12% of Who’s Who entrants, whereas the Clarendon Schools educated 17% of male entrants.” 

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.  The rest are selected based on “a noteworthy professional appointment or sustained prestige, influence or fame.”

The paper, published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, finds that 50% of women in Who’s Who, who have attended these elite girls’ schools, also attended Oxford or Cambridge. 

The paper includes provocative statements:

“We find that elite women who have attended private schools are more likely to have direct connections to other people in Who’s Who – particularly spouses. This, we explain, reflects the specificity of channels of elite recruitment for women, particularly in the mid 20th century. Here, in a context of entrenched masculine domination and powerful institutional and cultural barriers to occupational progression, women often relied on male partners to facilitate access to elite positions.”

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“Our results show that women in Who’s Who have consistently been more likely than men to have a partner who is also in Who’s Who, and that this is particularly the case for women who attended elite private schools and/or Oxbridge.”

Professor Sam Friedman of LSE, co-author of the paper, says: “These results illustrate that elite girls’ schools are also important engines of inequality. That certain old girls are 20 times more likely to reach an elite position than other women surely makes a mockery of the notion that equality of opportunity exists in contemporary Britain.”

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