Most schools have a smattering of famous alumni, but Eton has so many it has lost count! Eton lists “about 450” on its website including the current Prime Minister (and 18 of his predecessors) and the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Whilst Eton has a remarkable record in producing successful alumni, across the board privately educated students seem to enjoy an advantage in the graduate jobs market. Figures from the Sutton Trust reveal that whilst 7% of children are privately educated, 43% of barristers and 54% of FTSE 100 Chief Executive Officers attended an independent school. Meanwhile research by upReach found that whilst state and independent students achieved broadly similar degree results, those students who attended an independent school were more likely to obtain professional employment. In the upReach study 58% of state school educated graduates obtained employment in professions such as surveying, engineering, banking, law and accountancy whilst the figure for ex-independent school pupils was 74%.
Independent school educated graduates also enjoyed higher average starting salaries at £23,149 compared to £20,559 for graduates with a state school background, and three years into their careers independent school pupils were still earning more, with one third enjoying salaries of over £30,000 compared to 14% for their state school equivalents. While salary is certainly not the only measure of career success, it is striking that such differences exist.
There are various possible explanations.
Some commentators argue that it is a case of privilege buying privilege and the replication of existing class divisions. They argue that children from affluent families can network with each other in top schools, and then use these networks to obtain sought after internments. Commentators claim these high quality work experience placements strengthen the CVs of such independent school students, and place them at a competitive advantage in the jobs market. They go on to suggest that independent school parents can bank roll their children through multiple unpaid internments to secure a top job. However, the cumulative effects of years of school fees and the presence of children from low income families in independent schools (via means tested financial support), mean that for many young people and their families this is not an option.
Detractors often fail to acknowledge elements of an independent school education that give pupils the knowledge and skills employers want. In ignoring these independent school strengths, opportunities may be missed for wider educational improvement.
Nearly half of the science ‘A’ grades at ‘A’ level are produced by independent school pupils, and thus independent students are disproportionately represented on science degrees, courses that prepare students for the scientific professions. It is also true that independent school students sit disproportionately more of the hardest ‘A’ level subjects (not the same as the much debated ‘facilitating subjects’) and thus acquire significant numeracy, language and thinking skills that improve their employability.
A CBI survey revealed that for 82% of employers the most important factor in selecting employees was their personal and interpersonal skills. Graduate recruiters are looking for high level organisation, communication, reliability, resilience, teamwork, and problem solving skills in applicants. These are qualities that have always been valued at The Perse and which permeate our curriculum and teaching. However, it is the vibrancy of extracurricular programmes that can give independent school pupils their ‘employability edge’. Sports fixtures, drama productions, overseas expeditions, house activities, cadet forces, music concerts, talent shows, rocket building, adventure training, prefect systems, peer coaching and charity fundraising all help pupils develop essential personal and interpersonal skills.
Not only do children acquire important life skills through vibrant extra-curricular programmes, but they also develop life interests – enriching activities that will be a source of fun, friendship and balance in the busy adult world. And of course for the most competitive graduate jobs, where applicants have strings of ‘A*’ grades, employers can only differentiate on the basis of what candidates do outside the exam hall.