The social capital of a private education

Privately educated pupils earn more – but they also get better “quality” jobs. Why is that, ask Anna Vignoles and Francis Green

The role of private schooling has been controversial in England for many decades. Despite being a relatively small part of the school sector (about
7 per cent of pupils), private schools have an important symbolic role in UK society, with the perception that there is much social and economic advantage to be had from a private education.

Indeed, the Commission for Social Mobility in a report called Elitist Britain, puts forward some quite damning facts: 71 per cent of senior judges, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 36 per cent of the cabinet and 33 per cent of MPs went to private schools.

We know that those who have attended a private school go on to have higher levels of qualifications and are more likely to go to one of the UK’s more research-intensive universities (that is, those in the Russell group). Indeed, work with Claire Crawford and Lindsey Macmillan at Cambridge suggests that nearly 40 per cent of those who attended private school go on to study at Russell group universities, compared with only 10 per cent of the population as a whole. This in turn brings benefits in the job market and higher pay.

In work with a colleague, Golo Henseke, we have investigated the real advantages associated with private schooling, not just in terms of pay but also better job quality. We also explored whether this advantage is purely because private schooling gives you a higher level of academic achievement or whether, in fact, private schooling provides advantages over and above any educational benefits it may bring.

We need to consider the employers’ role

We found that privately schooled adults have higher pay and do jobs that provide greater levels of participation in decision-making and more leadership opportunities: better quality jobs in other words. Equally, they also do jobs that require more job effort, as measured by how hard someone says they work.

Much, but not all, of the private school advantage is of course due to the higher levels of education achieved by those in private schools. Nonetheless, those who went to a private school do earn more than those who went to a state school, even if both have very similar levels of educational achievement. The additional pay benefit from attending a private school is largely explained by the fact that those who went to private school get better jobs and work in higher paid sectors.

But what is it about private education that helps people to secure these high status jobs? There are many possible reasons: a better (resourced) education leading to higher academic achievement; stronger social networks; and more intangible things such as self-confidence, leadership skills and social skills. Certainly, educational achievement is a key driver and more thought needs to be given as to how we can improve access by poor students to high quality education, whether in the state or the private sector.

Successive governments have done much in the way of investment and policy to try to narrow the socio-economic gap in education achievement. We are still, however, a long way off ensuring that individuals from all backgrounds have similar educational opportunities. Although the private sector has different resourcing levels and admits very different kinds of students, we should not dismiss the notion that we can also learn from that sector in terms of improving the educational opportunities for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

The school system does not have all the answers, however. Labour market advantage comes from securing high quality jobs, and recruitment into those jobs is key. We need to consider the employers’ role, their hiring practices and improve our understanding of the skills they seek, to ensure that the odds are not stacked against those who lack the “social capital” of those who attended private school.

Anna Vignoles is professor of education at the University of Cambridge, and Francis Green is from the UCL Institute of Education

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  1. Penny Rabiger

    The big difference is often described as a sense of entitlement that is inherent in the day to day socialisation of privately educated people from an early age. Their social capital is also an important and inter-related part of this. If you are used to moving in circles where people are well-off, work in certain professions, and this is your ‘normal’ of course you are going to expect to be spending your working life among them too.
    There is still nothing proven that private schools provide a better education than state schools but they will indeed have better resources and facilities and will also have an institutional self-regard as something exclusive and special.
    Educational achievement in raw grades will never be enough. The biggest barrier to any and all of the many charities and programmes that try to address social mobility will be cracking that social capital, the networks and inherent sense of entitlement that privately educated people have.