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Are we all old school now?

Old Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists dominate all spheres of public life in Britain. Irena Barker asks whether it is possible for state schools to replicate those influential old boy networks

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Old Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists dominate all spheres of public life in Britain. Irena Barker asks whether it is possible for state schools to replicate those influential old boy networks

Although Winchester College is too posh to have anything as bourgeois as a school uniform, it understands the importance of the old school tie.

That is why, when sixth-formers leave and become "Old Wykehamists" they are presented with a tie in the official school colours. Fashion-conscious old boys may also wish to purchase the official boxer shorts or socks. Traditionalists may opt for a fetching panama hat band, cufflinks or scarf.

And from that day forth, the old boys of this, one of the most prestigious of public schools, will belong to an exclusive club where a gentlemanly disposition and a top-flight education is a presumption.

As they stride out into the world to become leaders in whatever field they chose, they will look out for a literal, or figurative, flash of blue, red and brown: the mark of the fellow former Winchester boy. Shared experiences of formative years in boarding houses, dorms and knowledge of the college's arcane in-house language and obscure sports, will bind them together for evermore.

Old boys who have long given up sports are known to form rugby-like scrums known as "hots" when they meet for work and pleasure at locations the world over.

The same is more or less true at the other great boarding schools such as Eton, Harrow and Radley. About 15,000 members of the Old Etonian Association roam the planet, a network of privileged, incredibly well- educated gentlemen who would surely help each other out without thinking about it. The bonds are reinforced by school reunions and a whole calendar of sporting events such as Henley Royal Regatta. Membership of an exclusive gentlemen's club on St James's Square prolongs the party way into old age.

Many of these "old school tie" cliches seem a quaint throwback to less meritocratic days when the ruling elites would think nothing of giving an old school friend or his son a leg-up. Or even a top job he may not be qualified for.

Unadvertised jobs

We now live in an era of the all-powerful human resources director, of transparency and soul-searching over privilege and social mobility. Many in education and recruitment would say that the networks of the top private schools and grammars don't have the force they once did to ensure people's career success. When private school alumni do well, they insist it is just their high-quality education and superior self-confidence that sends them flying up their career ladders.

But examples to contradict this abound: when Old Etonian David Cameron chose Old Etonian Charlie Taylor to be his behaviour tsar, was it coincidence? Perhaps he was simply the best special school headteacher for the job. But that didn't stop some people speculating that it could have been the old school tie in action.

If these networks still have weight beyond a shared picnic basket at Henley, then shouldn't comprehensives be trying to be foster them, too? And if it is true that, according to some estimates, 40 per cent of job vacancies go unadvertised, then shouldn't state schools do more to encourage their alumni to interact with current pupils and to share gossip and information? There are, however, those who argue that times have changed and that the old boy or old girl network is no longer a passport to power and prosperity.

Bernard Trafford, former chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and headmaster of the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne, says that the professionalisation of recruitment means that school ties no longer open doors on their own.

"It's not the school tie that counts - the HRs have ironed that out," he says. "It's the quality of the education. Employers look ruthlessly down the list to see what sort of an education you have had, where you went to university."

But a glance at business networking site LinkedIn suggests that Trafford's analysis is not strictly speaking the case. It reveals that private school alumni are harnessing the internet to strengthen their bonds and advantage. Old Wykehamists have a particularly high presence, including groups for their media and communications, private equity and hedge fund and real estate "guilds". And Old Harrovians may wish to join the old boys' "city" or "property" clubs, for example.

Mood of meritocracy

On the flipside of this are those who argue that this technology is not the preserve of the rich and privileged.

Julia Hobsbawm, visiting professor in networking at Cass Business School at City University London, argues that the internet means that people from all walks of life - not just elite schools - are now able to benefit from broader and more varied networks.

"There's a new mood of meritocracy surrounding networks and networking," she says. "Technology has been a great leveller. Networks are going to need to become more accessible to groups that weren't in the old boy network, including women, non-whites, middle class or upper class. The idea of forming networks isn't new but the confidence to create them outside the traditional groupings is."

It is, perhaps, a mixture of the two.

"People are putting less importance on where they went to school because they are forming such a range of groups on the internet," says Charles Bush, headmaster at Oundle School in Northamptonshire - a leading boarding school.

"You're just as likely to be part of the Barmy Army as your alumni network. It will be interesting to see if the Facebook group becomes more significant than the old school tie."

Bush admits that there are still people in the private school worlds who rely on their friends to fill posts. "I knew a man running an operation in London. He said he could use headhunters to recruit and they got it right about four-fifths of the time. He said he could recruit the children of his friends, and that also worked about four-fifths of the time. He ended up doing a bit of both."

While the most coveted jobs may not be automatically handed out to the well connected any more, one area where highly developed private school alumni networks really excel is in procuring work experience. Dreary as it may seem, swinging a couple of weeks' work photocopying at a top law firm or making tea at a national newspaper can be an invaluable foot in the door for any sixth-former.

In July 2012, the Education and Employers Taskforce published a research paper that examined just how private schools do this. It described the rich opportunities offered by independent schools to meet former pupils in high-flying jobs through talks, social events and one-on-one advice sessions.

Schools openly ask former pupils in the professions if they can offer work experience to final-year pupils, sometimes via their websites. This process, the report says, will "expose their pupils to communities of practice, role models and experiences that will enhance university applications and subsequent entry to elite professions".

It also describes how independent schools are using their alumni networks to provide continuing support to pupils throughout their lives. One headteacher told researchers how she had scrambled support for a girl who was struggling in the first week of a medical degree at Oxford.

"I got on the phone to another old girl from the school who was doing medicine at the same place but two years ahead and she was around with a cake later in the day," she says.

While independent schools may take this kind of access to work experience and support for granted, research shows its informal nature puts less privileged pupils even further behind.

In his May 2012 progress report on Fair Access to the Professions, social mobility tsar Alan Milburn says: "Informal work experience opportunities are difficult, if not impossible, to gain unless young people have family contacts to help them to gain access . Internships should no longer be treated as part of the informal economy. They should be subject to similar rules as other parts of the labour market. That means intro-ducing proper, transparent and fair processes for selection."

The issue has led to the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg bringing in the Business Compact, as part of the government's official social mobility strategy.

More than 100 major employers have signed up to an agreement giving their commitment to opening up careers and work experience opportunities to a wider pool through more transparent recruitment. Some will also try school-blind application forms, to put state school pupils on an even footing with independent schools and prevent discrimination.

The government has also recently launched another scheme - Inspiring the Future - to enable children in state schools to meet inspiring professionals in a variety of careers.

Initially, the online service will match professionals with schools and colleges to give talks, but the aim is to expand it to mentoring and work experience, as well as literacy and numeracy support.

Its sister programme, Speakers for Schools, founded by BBC business editor Robert Peston, arranges for professionals who are "leaders in their fields" to give inspirational talks to state school pupils.


But while these schemes are all well and good, shouldn't state schools be reducing reliance on outside agencies and helping themselves to exploit their own often scattered alumni? Why should the old boy network be the preserve of the independents?

This is the space that Future First, a new social enterprise, is attempting to occupy. Its scheme, Future First Networks, helps teachers to set up a database of school leavers and mobilise them as future careers role models and providers of work experience. This list can also be used to recruit future governors, volunteers, mentors and also financial donors. Alumni are also kept up to date with news from the school, to foster a sense of belonging. It is all very standard stuff in private schools' alumni offices, but fairly revolutionary among many state schools.

The not-for-profit project has already received the backing of the Cabinet Office in the form of a pound;250,000 grant and 500 schools have signed up for help setting up databases for free. In only the past three months, 25,000 people have signed up to alumni communities they are creating.

The company also organises "career sessions" at some of the schools it works with, getting pupils to meet former pupils who have gone on to become successful. TES attended one such session at William Ellis School, a comprehensive in Camden, North London, and one of the first schools to sign up to Future First, which is founded by one of its former pupils, Jake Hayman.

Year 8 boys were presented with Robin, Alex, Dave and Carl, all former pupils now in their late twenties. One pupil correctly guesses that Robin works in the theatre, but not that he is a professional puppeteer. Pupils put Alex down as a writer, but he's a social entrepreneur. The boys say that Dave - a management consultant with model good looks - works in fashion. Carl, a black man with braids, is put down as a footballer, musician or bodyguard. He is an architect.

Make your own opportunities

The visitors then talk about their jobs and how they got into them - recounting the twists and turns of career progression. After the assembly, the boys identified as having the lowest motivation are put in groups with one alumnus each, where they are given the chance to ask more questions and do exercises around their own possible career aspirations.

"The message about creating their own opportunity is very important, and they can really relate to these people who have been in their situation," says Sam White, headteacher of William Ellis School.

"The boys don't have a very wide experience, despite being in London - some don't go further than the end of the road."

He points out that the former grammar had a strong old boy network up until the 1980s, when it became a comprehensive. Now the school was bigger, taking from a much more diverse range of cultures and backgrounds, the alumni had become more disparate and fragmented.

While most comprehensives don't have established systems for soliciting donations through alumni, Future First's research shows that former pupils would be willing to donate up to pound;250 million a year to their former schools.

The experience of the independent sector backs this up. David Fellowes, director of the Winchester College Society, points out that formal alumni networks now largely exist as a spin-off from their main fundraising aims.

"Ultimately, we are cultivating them to support the school: give us your dosh. Maybe most state schools don't have the motivation to do it because they don't do alumni fundraising."

Certainly there are those who are cynical about the ability of maintained schools to mimic private schools' success at leveraging the power of the old school tie.

Tim Finn-Kelcey, the head of politics, PSHE and citizenship at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, Kent, who has written about the subject, says he feels "sceptical" about an outside agency - such as Future First - coming into schools to help create networks.

"It lacks the organicism of a traditional network; that is very difficult to replicate," he says. "It instrumentalises the old school tie network as being just about getting a job or careers advice, but they are just as much about congregating around an issue or project, around social and cultural interests."

Mixing with like-minded people

He argues that the old school tie networks are more about "cultural capital" than handing out jobs. "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," he wrote in an article for the online magazine Spiked.

"It is because they gain pleasure and fulfilment from mixing with like- minded 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."

This, then, is key, and relates to other concerns about whether developing alumni networks in state schools can effectively help social mobility.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, warns that if a school is in a particularly deprived area and illustrious alumni are few and far between, the programme would fail, while other state schools with more affluent catchment areas surge ahead. "If you just relied on alumni, this could actually reinforce social stratification," he says.

Illustration by Brett Ryder

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