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Blog // Thoughts
May 9, 2008

Anti-Social Networking

The election of an Old Etonian to the Mayorship of London and the likely election of another alumni of that school to the Prime Ministership of the UK has raised the question of exactly how meritocratic modern Britain really is. In today’s Guardian, John Harris explores this in piece entitled, Networked from Birth. The article […]

The election of an Old Etonian to the Mayorship of London and the likely election of another alumni of that school to the Prime Ministership of the UK has raised the question of exactly how meritocratic modern Britain really is. In today’s Guardian, John Harris explores this in piece entitled, Networked from Birth.

The article highlights how over-represented the beneficiaries of privately funded education are in the upper realms of politics (especially, but not exclusively the conservative side). In a sense that’s a story we always knew, though it is alarming that in recent years the trend towards meritocracy seems to have been reversed. What’s more revealing (and far more disconcerting), is how networks formed very early in life appear to be quite closed, even before university and how crucial they are to future successes not just in politics, but in other careers such as journalism.

“But what is really going on? Lee Elliott Major is the research director of the Sutton Trust, which has made highlighting the apparent shutting-out of state-educated people from large swathes of public life its raison d’etre. To start with, he slightly echoes Johnson by claiming that whereas private schools often used to fall well short of academic excellence, these days they are often the educational powerhouses they claim to be. “But the other thing,” he goes on, “is that when you send your children to one of those schools, you’re also – and I’ve heard lots of people from independent schools say this – creating networks at a very early age. When we’ve done these studies, we’ve said to people, ‘Was it at Oxford that you got to know everybody you know now?’ And they’ve said, ‘No, actually it was at school that I met a lot of these people.’ While the rest of the population are hanging around, just being teenagers, there’s a small proportion of the population who are already developing the networks that will help them in later life.

“What we’re worried about,” he goes on, “is that things are getting even worse. The reason for that is that areas of public life – such as politics and journalism – are predominantly based in London, which is an increasingly expensive place to live. And more and more, you have to get over all sorts of barriers to even get a start in these professions. In journalism, you increasingly need to do a postgraduate degree, which means being able to afford the fees. In politics, with the young researchers who are employed in the political world, the ones who are able to survive are the ones with money to support them. Plus, they’ve got the contacts to get there in the first place.””

I’m a product of the Australian State school system and my high school was what would be described in the UK as a “bog-standard comprehensive” (with the emphasis on the bog). In recent years I’ve had the odd email exchange with old school aquaintences (mostly typical of the early mid-life desire to put the school years in context). But, in terms of real-life conversations, I’ve only had three with people from my school years in the last decade! One was a chance meeting at the theatre in Sydney, another was an even more random meeting at church in Delhi and the third was with the only person from my school years who has remained as as friend. Even then, the friendship was not forged by being at the same school, but was a consequence of being at the same church.

So, it goes without saying that my school never really played a positive role in the advancement of my career or any of the jobs I’ve held. In fact, if my schooling had any direction at all, it was towards a trade or factory job, which as my careers advisor reminded me, was a good “fit” for someone from my ethnic background.
Sure, I have made friends and networks that have helped to advance my work over the years, but these relationships were mostly founded in my twenties and thirties. What’s interesting about the picture of the new conservatism in the UK is that for these leaders networks are closing at around the time that for people with my kind of upbringing networks are only just starting to develop. To be honest, that mirrors my own experience of living in London. Quite a few people seemed to have closed the book on new friendships by the time they graduated university. It’s not that people were not nice, or friendly, it’s just that all invitations for the banquet had already been sent – so to speak.

This issue has tremendous importance, not just for the question of how representative a country’s leadership is, but for the problem of social cohesion in a multicultural and globalised era. Closed networks don’t just breed resentment, they also encourage ghetto-isation and sectarianism.

It’s deeply ironic that what may well have been Britain’s greatest period of meritocracy has breed a neo-elitism. But, the bitter twist could well come if this new class-based leadership undoes the benefits that have enjoyed from participating openly in the global economy.

[tags] Eton, Meritocracy, Class, Britain [/tags]

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