A lattice of self-love: elite private schools and the making of the ruling class

2 September 2016
Jane Kenway

Elite private schools have always been involved in the making of class. They do “class work” on behalf of their usually wealthy, well-connected clients, patrons and advocates by reproducing their privilege, power and status over the generations.

Such schools are immersed in extensive networks. People in these circuits of privilege and power are intensely and often obsessively, even blindly, loyal. They put in much effort to “give back” to the school and the sector of elite schools that spawned them and continue to provide them with social status.

They are part of a lattice of self-love. The elite private school system continues to connect them in various ways to each other well beyond their graduation. Ex-students’ associations, for example, are an organised and institutional part of this mesh and help to provide the sentimental glue that binds these people to their school and its class practices over their lifetime – particularly when children and grandchildren attend the same school or one of its friendly rivals.

They, and other less institutionalised parts of the lattice, do such things as raising big money (often for educational luxuries), helping ex-students with career placement (thus further distorting the labour market in their favour), providing social and career networks nationally and internationally and assisting each other to get a foot inside the doors that count.

Elite schools tend to define themselves as progressive, liberal and responsive to callings and causes that are more important than the links they have to the powerful and privileged.

The cultivation of class-based collective identity often occurs under the rubric of the “school family”. Some of the building and bonding work is undertaken through alumni and parent associations at the occasions they organise – local, overseas and interstate reunion lunches, dinners, cocktail parties, fundraising events – which are often addressed by heavyweights from politics or business or enhanced by the attendance of an interesting, high profile cultural figure. Schools may also have foundations chaired by wealthy benefactors. They often receive hefty bequests from ex-students and even former staff. One way that loyalty is expressed and recognised is through money.

“Class work” includes conspicuous socialising at glittering high status events (charity, sporting, the arts) where the elite of various class fractions are served by the people they look down on. It includes wheeling and dealing in various circles of power, in which decisions are made about the lives and livelihoods of others. It also involves the more mundane, everyday friendship and kinship groups, parties, sport, clubs, marriage, mothers’ groups and family holidays in select locations. Regular social interaction contributes to class maintenance and integration. This is the class work of living day by day, and elite schools are often the fulcrum balancing such work, for parents, students and ex-students.

The privileged as victims

People in these circuits, along with various elite school/private school formal lobbying organisations, put pressure wherever, whenever and on whoever to advance the situation of elite schools and to defend them against detractors and against policy and funding shifts that might negatively impact them.

For example, their networks in useful places in the media industries provide them a platform to ensure that attendance at an elite school is widely understood as an emblem of success, a destination worth “sacrificing” for, as social arrival par excellence. This understanding is not necessarily crudely asserted, because it is filtered through narratives about high standards, quality and values. They rarely acknowledge the well-documented links between social class, educational provision and educational “success”. Indeed, such links are often downplayed by many (not all) people in the education establishment (senior policy circles, advisory bodies, the consultancy circuit and the like).

This platform, then, helps them to amplify their class-based myth making and to silence and stigmatise. In Australia, these silencing discourses take the form of derisory complaints about class envy and class warfare. In England, class work is more convoluted. There we see attempts by the current Tory government to curb the continued colonisation of elite universities by elite schools and to increase representation of state school students through the use of targets.

In turn, there has been a backlash from elite schools, complaining, in the pages of the Telegraph for example, of “posh prejudice”, “jealousy and hostility” and “discrimination”. One headmaster even advocated a university boycott. Here the privileged portray themselves as victims and mobilise class animosity against both the government (in which, ironically, male graduates from elite schools are massively over represented) and state schools.

False independence

Elite schools are usually part of a highly privileged sector within national education systems. But they can also be part of an international network of schools without a national base. Either way, their existence impacts negatively in all sorts of ways. Organisations such as the OECD have found that countries without private schools have better educational and equity outcomes. Despite such evidence, elite schools’ entrenched power ensures they survive and thrive.

These negative impacts are well documented and can best be understood in terms of what they suck, drain, deplete or bleed from the state school system. Even though they suck the lifeblood from other, “lesser”, schools with regard to such things as reputation, money, highly qualified teachers and high-achieving students, they still claim to be independent. In reality, they depend on these other schools as a source of negative comparison and as a pool of potential benefits.

Over the years and in different countries, elite schools’ class work has taken different forms. These forms depend on the national configurations of social class, particularly as they intersect with race, religion and thus with colonial and post-colonial or national projects. In such new nations, elite schools can be used to fast-track the rise of new ruling and professional groups. They help the newly minted ruling and professional classes to entrench their improved social circumstances. Although this fast-tracking may have originally sprung from a democratic, anti-imperialist impulse, it is not necessarily passed on to new generations in such schools. The first-comers may try to pull up the social ladder behind them.

Inside the citadel

Despite national differences, there are common class-making practices inside elite schools. These involve subscribing to a hierarchical social and educational value system that is used as a form of self-justification (We have the best because we are the best); as a guide for self comparison (Who am I superior and inferior to and why? Which schools are superior/inferior to mine?); as a “handbook” for emulation and aspiration (Who “above me” should I emulate and aspire to be like?).

The schools always invoke the celebrity status of their most powerful, esteemed or famous ex-students as an incitement to students to “aim high” and as indicators of their own success and their powerful connections. Most school websites illustrate this practice of celebrating (and commodifying) the most reputable ex-students.

Such hierarchical value systems apply both to future study and future work. Only the most elite universities and only high status employment or self-employment will do. Anything less is regarded as close to failure.

Other practices include exceedingly selective entry criteria (money, “merit” through testing, behavioural style, family connections, religion); creaming “the best and the brightest” from other educational sectors/social classes via scholarships; excluding students or parents who don’t fit the mould or who won’t “add value” to the school’s brand.

“Class work” includes conspicuous socialising at glittering high status events (charity, sporting, the arts) where the elite of various class fractions are served by the people they look down on.

There is also segregation and seclusion – primarily mixing with other similar schools through social occasions, sporting and cultural associations and competitions, principals’ organisations and the like. Boarding schools are at the most extreme end of this process and involve a heightened sense of intimacy and intensity between students who see each other as more family than family.

School segregation means that students do not have to cope with the ordinary and unremarkable chances of meeting strangers from across the tracks. There are no everyday encounters with children from other classes, and thus students do not develop habits of civility. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his 2000 book Liquid modernity, civility is “the ability to interact with strangers without holding their strangeness against them and without pressing them to surrender it or to renounce some or all the traits that have made them strangers in the first place”.

The educational and social segregation involved in their school-based social cocooning means that private school students have little sense of life in wider society, let alone life on the “bottom rungs”. Such schools can be thought of, in Bauman’s terms, as “purified spaces … cleansed of variety and difference … tame, sanitised”. This is a problem because as adults, students from elite schools exert a disproportionate influence over the lives of people right across the social spectrum.

“Hot-housing” is another form of class work undertaken by elite schools. It involves instilling a hyper-competitive, hyper-ambitious mind-set that constrains students’ plans for their post-school destinations in education and work. Breaking from their class is unthinkable and largely unthought. Hot-housing produces a school climate in which failure of any sort cannot be countenanced and in which the pressure is unrelenting on students to be trophies for the school, their families and each other.

Mollycoddling accompanies hot-housing. Students are taught how precious they are, that their every need should be met. This is reflected in the high workloads and stress of teachers, who may even be expected to offer individual tutoring. It is also evident in the provision of a huge range of institutional and extracurricular opportunities (clubs and societies). These practices promote a culture of narcissism – of self-absorption, an inflated sense of self-satisfaction and of the accompanying self-delusion.

Elite schools normalise affluence and influence. One way that this is evident is in the quality, beauty and size of the schools’ buildings and grounds, the range of their facilities including such things as “adventure” campuses, state-of-the-art science, sporting, multi -media and performing arts centres. Some even have rifle ranges and pony clubs. Another is the up-market surrounding suburb.

Some schools may not have affluence normalised in these ways. The school may be an oasis of luxury surrounded by slums (India) or poor working class suburbs (Geelong Grammar, in Corio, Geelong, for example). Such proximity reinforces the need for class fortification. Alternatively, the school may have relatively humble buildings and grounds – but the expensive cars regularly dropping and collecting students nevertheless signal its class links.


“Leadership” is a recurrent theme in these schools; students are encouraged to see themselves as leaders-of-the-future in areas of their passion. The schools provide them with lots of opportunities to be in charge. These can then be displayed on their CVs. Well-known, distinguished and powerful alumni are regularly on display as role models and may be used as advisers and mentors. School governing bodies invariably involve the top end of town.

The ironic by-product of the embrace of privilege and normalisation of wealth is a certain form of class disavowal. This is particularly the case in countries that claim to be egalitarian and where anti-elitism is a popular ethic. Schools and their students and ex-students deny that they are class advantaged in numerous ways.

They make inflated claims about open access to, and social mobility through, the school via such things as scholarships, bursaries or meritocracy. They exaggerate small differences (race, religion, ethnicity) within the school while denying that most share economic similarities. They try to mystify class differences by assimilating a minority of “outsiders”, which they point to as proof that “anyone can make it”. And, through seeming acts of altruism (charity and community service, for example), students are led to believe that they actually contribute to social justice through what are only tokenistic endeavours with a feel-good factor.

So elite schools tend to represent their relationship to society in shared ways – they are elite but not elitist; they are about social change and mobility as well as social stability. They tend to define themselves as progressive, liberal and responsive to callings and causes that are more important than the links they have to the powerful and privileged.

The contradiction is that such schools need to be recognised as elite by their current and potential patrons, beneficiaries and networks, but they do not want to be regarded as such by those who gain no benefit from them. Being too elite is seen to go against national democratic impulses, so such schools navigate a very contradictory ideological space.

These schools maintain a sense of their own superiority while also implying that there is a commonality of interests across the social divides that their very existence helps to reproduce.



Class choreographies: elite schools and globalization

Builds on case studies from around the globe to highlight the prolonged influence of the British Empire on elite schools. Compiled by Jane Kenway, Fazal Rizvi, Johannah Fahey, Debbie Epstein, Cameron McCarthy and Aaron Koh.

Thursday 4pm, 1 December

Room Q219, 232 Queensbury Street, Carlton Victoria

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