Can state schools emulate Eton?
There’s more to ‘old school tie’ networking than posh people helping other posh people to get jobs.
One of the arguments used to explain why people who went to private schools dominate the top jobs in Britain is that they have a superior ability to network. The idea is that the ‘old school tie’ can open doors and get you going places in industry and politics. Now the government has unveiled plans to spread the benefits of such school-related networking, promising to help state schools join the party and create networks of their own.
A group called Future First has been awarded half a million pounds to pilot a scheme to set up school networks in 500 schools. The initiative encourages the use of databases and emailing, texting and social-networking websites to help schools keep in touch with ex-pupils. Schools can then contact alumni and recruit them as pupil mentors and invite them to give careers talks or even become donors and fundraisers. Future First will collate data that will help pupils at a school contact former pupils from that school who are now in the world of work, for advice or work experience.
It’s an interesting initiative. Given the time pressures on state schools, and the huge numbers of pupils, it is quite difficult to accomplish things like this. This could potentially be a useful source of ‘real’ careers advice, something sorely lacking in the state-school sector. I went to a state school myself, and to describe my secondary school as a ‘bog-standard comp’ would be a disservice to bogs. Fortunately, being the offspring of a fairly middle-class family, I had various sources of advice available to me regarding careers and universities. But many children do not and anything that can help them is a positive.
Unfortunately, though, while I applaud the spirit behind the Future First initiative, it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of good networking and, therefore, it is unlikely to achieve its aims. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, the scheme is far too instrumentalised. As such, it fails to reflect the complexity and richness of a social network. The networks proposed by Future First are overtly focused on jobs and job opportunities. This points to a fundamental failure to understand why networks at places like Eton and other private schools work so well.
Such networks are not just about getting a foot in the door. Characterising them in this way is both derisory of their members and analytically sloppy. The trouble with much of the contemporary critique of the wealthy is that a lot of it is driven by envy and bitterness and thus it fails to look closely at what the rich do quite well. The ‘old school tie’ networks do not revolve around handing out internships or careers advice – they are primarily driven by social influences, by shared cultural practices and shared educational interests.
The sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron famously talked about ‘cultural capital’ – non-financial social assets, educational or intellectual assets that promote social mobility. This is precisely what ‘old school tie’ networks give their members, not just a job interview.
The reason many people from these schools stay in touch with one another, and recruit younger students to their circles of acquaintances, is not because they harbour a dark desire to exclude the poor. It is because they gain pleasure and fulfilment from mixing with likeminded people who share their social and cultural outlook. The job opportunity side of it is a consequence of the network, not the reason for its creation.
To fail to see this is to fail to understand that, yes, even the rich are human beings. It is important that those piloting the new state-school networking initiative acknowledge this deeper role of the social network, since to build a network on job opportunities alone is to build it on sand. It will likely end up as an expensive gimmick that fails to last more than a couple of years. The schools piloting this project will need to ground it in and around social and cultural interests, in order to give its members a human reason for wanting to be an active part of it.
The second, related reason why the new initiative is a shaky one is because the proposed network model is contrived. Social networks, by their very nature, are organic rather than forced. The Future First project relies on the idea that experts and officials can go into a school, set up a network, recruit members from the school’s alumni, and then the whole thing will just work.
But the very thing that makes this initiative appealing to many schools – the fact that outside actors are being paid to set it up – is also the thing that is likely to be its undoing. The human element is missing. For school-related networking to work properly, schools need to do it themselves, otherwise there are no real organic underpinnings to the project and it will fail to engage pupils and alumni in any meaningful way. In the school I teach in, we have created an organic, enriched social network around our Debating Society. But it took a good few years to do so, and it has been predicated upon student initiative, on a desire among former students to return to the school and take part in debating events. This couldn’t have happened without our links to the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters project, which fosters similar ideas in its alumni network. Through this network, many students have got university advice, even internships from older ex-students. But as I say, this is an off-shoot and a bonus of the existence of the network, not its raison d’être.
Outsiders cannot simply come into a school and magic up a social network. What is needed is a culture within schools themselves that encourages the creation of bonds based on shared ideas and interests and ambitions. That is the best way to drum up some useful cultural capital for state-educated young people and to make their ‘school ties’ count in the real world, too.
Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics, PSHE and citizenship at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Faversham.
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