Elite Schools in Globalizing Circumstances
Have you ever visited schools like Eton College in the United Kingdom, St. Albans in the United States, or Geelong Grammar School in Australia? Maybe you were among the lucky few to have attended one. These schools are primarily reserved for children from the most privileged families, members of the 1 percent, as we would say today. The schools are steeped in tradition, covered in oak and ivy, and cost a small fortune to attend. The fees at St. Albans, for instance, run as high as $58,000 USD. For that price, it’s no wonder that these schools offer some of the best education money can buy and have produced some notable graduates. For instance, 19 prime ministers from the UK attended Eaton. Talk about a small circle!
These schools, which are found worldwide, produce and sustain social class and have had to adapt to changing global and local circumstances over the decades. Many started as all boy’s schools but have since become co-educational. Others were reserved for national elites to produce competent colonial administrators but have since turned their attend to the growing market of international students.
My guest today, Debbie Epstein, has been part of a research team exploring elite schools in former British colonies, from Australia to Barbados and Hong Kong to India. The team, comprised of Jane Kenway, Johannah Fahey, Debbie Epstein, Aaron Koh, Cameron McCarthy, and Fazal Rizvi, have recently co-written a book on their findings entitled “Class Choreographies: Elite schools and globalization.” Debbie, a Professor of Cultural Studies in Education at the University of a Roehampton, joined me to talk about some of the major themes explored in the book.
I should mention, for full disclosure, that this project holds a special place in my heart. I met my future wife, Johannah Fahey, while she was collecting data for this project while in Hong Kong. Please excuse my biased opinion about this excellent research!
If you would like to order the book, the authors have provided FreshEd listeners with a 30% discount. Don’t wait: the offer ends July 31!
Citation: Epstein, Debbie, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 69, podcast audio, April 17, 2017. https://freshedpodcast.com/debbieepstein/
Will Brehm 2:48
Debbie Epstein, welcome to FreshEd.
Debbie Epstein 2:50
Thank you. I’m very happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Will Brehm 2:55
You have been part of a research group that has looked at elite schools across the former British empire. I guess, to start, what are elite schools?
Debbie Epstein 3:07
Well, we are defining elite schools in a particular way. There’s so many arguments about what makes a school elite. So, we’re defining it as a school which is locally regarded as elite, which accepts a selective group of students, usually by how much fees they can pay. And also, in some cases, by how they’re performing in selection tests at the beginning. And we’ve been looking at schools which are in the model of the British independent school, which in Britain we call ‘public schools,’ and which are at least 100 years old. And they’re in seven countries. Seven schools in seven countries, six of which are in former British colonies, and one in England. And I say England advisedly because it was actually in England, not in one of the other countries that’s part of the United Kingdom. And so, they’ve been around for a long time. They get good academic results, and their kids supposedly do very well in the future. That’s the premise on which they operate. And to a significant extent, it’s true. Whether they do well academically or not, they do very often get becoming to be in positions of great power. Either in corporations, or in government, or as senior policymakers of one kind or another. So, the alumni of those schools are often governors of the countries with the ruling class of the countries in which they operate. And increasingly as part of a transnational ruling class, if you could call it that.
Will Brehm 5:20
So, you said you’ve been looking at schools in the model of the British public-school model. Can you talk a little bit about what is that model?
Debbie Epstein 5:31
Okay, so that model originally was one for boys. Eton, which isn’t one of the schools we looked at, was set up under the rule of King Henry the Eighth. And they were called public at the time because they weren’t attached to a particular guild, trades guild, or church. So, they were open to the children of the aristocracy if you like. And to wealthy merchants, and so on and so forth. So, they’re usually boarding schools. Although not all of them are boarding schools completely. And the boys’ schools have a tradition of particularly sports and liberal, classical education. So, you know, classics, languages, history. And, until fairly recently – when I say fairly recently, the last hundred, hundred and 50 years – less emphasis on sciences, maths, and so on. So, the girls’ schools came later than that. The oldest of the girls’ public schools were founded in the mid-19th century. So, and they, in some ways, were like the boys’ schools, but they were also had some kind of feminist imperative about educating girls. So, they’re a bit different. But basically, in the same model.
Will Brehm 7:36
Are there co-educational British public schools?
Debbie Epstein 7:39
There are now. They weren’t before, but increasingly they’ve been going co-ed. Some of the boys’ schools … When I say they have been increasingly been going co-ed, that’s the boys’ schools have gone co-ed. The girls’ schools have remained girls’ schools. They’ve been at admitting girls initially, mostly only in sixth form – the top end, the last two years of schooling. And then some of them have been admitting them further down the school as well. Yes, so there are a good number which are now co-ed, and certainly in other countries, several of them are co-ed, but not all.
Will Brehm 8:33
I did want to ask about these different countries. I mean, the British Empire expanded over many parts of the world. And this model was found in a lot of these colonies. But were there differences between the way these schools looked in the different countries where the British Empire was?
Debbie Epstein 8:57
Yes, there were because they’re always nuanced or changed by local and national imperatives as well. So, there’s a sort of basic structure to the way the schools are organized, and their values, but they also have to do something that makes them appropriate to that country. So, for example, in India, the schools were set up to support and create an Indian aristocracy, which would rule India in a British kind of way, if that makes sense. So, they were to have a British education as close to what they would have got if they sent the kids to Eton or Harrow, the boys to Eton or Harrow, or any of those schools. And, of course, people like Nehru did go to those schools. And, but in Africa, in sub-Saharan Africa, which is basically where the British Empire was, to a large extent, they were much more about making sure the colonists had the ability to govern the natives. In Australia, and New Zealand, they’re about getting, refining the settlers, who, as you will know, many of the settlers in Australia were originally convicts and very working-class origins. But as they became settled and gained money, power, and so on, then those schools were set up to help the settlers become more civilized. So, it was different in each of the different colonies depending a bit on the different form that colonization took in those places.
Will Brehm 11:27
And has the purpose of the schools changed over time now that the British Empire obviously is not around any longer?
Debbie Epstein 11:35
Yes, it has because the national issues have become different and have changed. So now in the 21st century, and since … certainly since the sort of 1990s, the effect of globalization has meant that these schools are part of a neoliberal network of schools, which are sharing different approaches to learning and to teaching, some of which come from corporations like Microsoft. And they have international organizations, there’s one called the G20, which is a G20 of the best schools in the world. It has actually got more than 20 schools in it, but they still call it the G20. You know, and there are various organizations which are regional, and some which are based on some kind of religious foundation. The one that’s very big and influential is called Round Square, and quite a lot of them are in there. So, the one in South Africa was in Round Square, and one in Australia was in Round Square, and so on.
Will Brehm 13:04
What is Round Square?
Debbie Epstein 13:05
Round Square is an organization of schools based on the ideas of a chap called Kurt Hahn, who was German, as you would guess from the name. And he had these principles which he called the seven pillars of these schools, and they were all about … Well, the first one, I think it was the first one … was about teaching the children of the privileged to use their privilege wisely. That’s not how he put it. We’ve got the quote, actually, in the book somewhere, but I can’t remember the exact quote, but basically, that was, you know. And the phrase that he used was about bearing the burden of privilege and exercising that burden responsibly. So, a lot of the service stuff comes from Round Square. And then there’s Cross of Nails, which is specifically Christian, as you would guess. So, a lot of these schools belong to more than one of these organizations. There’s a regional one, there’s an Asian one, and so on and so forth. And they operate in different ways with exchanges of students, exchanges of staff, meetings for principals. And the Microsoft project, which you can find on the web, on the Microsoft website, is huge. And it’s about warding schools for technical, for educating in a particular way, which is also very stress … I was going to say stressful, I guess it is quite stressful, but in which the stress is very much on IT as you would imagine and developing those kinds of skills and sciences.
Will Brehm 15:17
So, it seems that the schools obviously have changed as the times have changed, and perhaps are now embracing more of this neoliberal, kind of global, capitalism. But are there things that have stayed the same? I mean, in some senses, these schools that have such a long history, they would presumably pride themselves on that sort of tradition, that constant that status quo.
Debbie Epstein 15:41
Absolutely, absolutely. This tradition is incredibly important to them as well. So, the organization of the schools, the traditions they have, go back a long way. And the dance they have to do record the book class choreographies, as you know, is partly about the dance between tradition and innovation. And how do you make innovation look traditional? And how do you make tradition look innovatory?
Will Brehm 16:14
How do you do that? What are some examples?
Debbie Epstein 16:19
Well, if you take the notion of excellence, and always increasing excellence, which is a very, you know, it’s there, in public schools, in government schools, as well. All over the world, it’s there with the OECD, and so on, that we’ve always got to be excellent, we’ve always got to be more excellent than we were. But for these schools, you know, they can claim that they’ve always been based in excellence, that they’ve always had that tradition of a really excellent education. And then there are other things like, you know, the emphasis on sport in a lot of these schools. It’s quite phenomenal how much that, you know, in the sound body and the sound mind, that kind of tradition goes on. Most of the schools still provided classics, at least in the form of Latin, if not Greek, as one of the subjects that they would teach. But, you know, they’ve moved on as well, in terms of other languages. So, they have both. They hold on to the tradition, and they use the tradition. They have these amazing coats of arms with the semiotics of the eagle, and the lion, and the griffin. And these are there, and their pictures are around of the head teachers going way back when. In the South African school, when we were there in 2012, they had an exhibition about, I think, it must have been 150 years of the school. And they had these banners with each decade illustrated by world events, and local events, and school events. So … and it was quite interesting to see what went into those world events, because in in the early 19th century, you know, South Africa was the Cape Colony as it was then. There were wars going on with black people, which are not mentioned at all, as a local happening. You know, so it’s like all history – selective. But as you go later on, like these visits from royalty to the school mentioned and that sort of thing.
Will Brehm 19:30
And so, it would be the historical memories selective to advance certain interests or ideas over others.
Debbie Epstein 19:39
Absolutely. And you know, history is the history of the present, as we know. All history is the history of the present. So, the histories are to advance a certain image – a certain brand if you like – and certain ideas of … particularly if you look at South Africa, and Australia, but in England, too. I think it’s most striking in South Africa because the change there has been so recent. The history of “This school has always been tolerant.”, “The school has always been on the right side of history.” But there’s also, you know, slave remains were found under the school when they were doing building work. So that not, you know. Certain objects that would have been used by slaves. And these are presented, you know, as if the slaves – because it was on the slave route – as if the slaves would have had leisure time in which they could do their cooking and their what have you. And so, it’s kind of interesting the way that histories are put together.
Will Brehm 21:11
I was going to ask who does the putting together? Who are the people in these schools that are constructing the narrative in that way to kind of, you know, whitewash history in South Africa?
Debbie Epstein 21:24
Well, some of them are, you know, there’s the school archivist. I mean, the particular school in South Africa had – before we were there, although we met her – a headteacher who was indeed very involved with the liberation struggle. So, it was kind of complicated, but that gave an extra oomph to that way of doing the history. But there’s also people who write histories of these schools, which we talk about in chapter one, I think of the book, and about how very often these histories are written in terms of the wonderful hagiographies of the headteachers, and the great roles the schools played. And often those histories are by alumni of the school who are, in the sense, in digging up the school are also digging themselves up.
Will Brehm 22:33
Let’s go into some of these schools that you’ve worked in with this team of researchers. What is it like to be a student at these schools?
Debbie Epstein 22:46
I think it varies a bit. It varies quite a bit from school to school. They live in a kind of … now, I’m tempted to say bubble, but we’ve spoken about this a lot in the team about it’s not really a bubble because you can’t burst that easily. I can’t think of the right word at the moment.
Will Brehm 23:15
Debbie Epstein 23:18
Well, if it’s a cage, it’s a gilded cage. They would agree that they were privileged, but they would not recognize what that means if that makes sense. So, for example, we showed in all the schools, when we were asking the students about their values, and the values they learned from the school, in one-to-one interviews, we found that they just gave us the answers which were the right answers. You know: “Yes, we really work hard on our service staff, and we’re very sympathetic to poor people, and we need to help those poor people in India,” or wherever they’re not. And so on. And we go and do the service work and so on. So, we thought we needed a different way in. So then, in the second round, we had focus groups, and we shared the students videos from the Occupy movement, which had been … which was happening what had just happened at the time. And we chose a YouTube from their own country. And we got them to talk about it. And the responses that came back, with exceptions, but the majority of responses that came back were very much about, “Well, you know, they’re not protesting about anything that they couldn’t do something about. It’s their own choice not to, you know, they could get jobs if they wanted to,” and that sort of stuff, which you also find in the media sometimes. You certainly do in this country. And there were exceptions. There were more politicized students. But on the whole, there was a kind of blindness to what was going on. There’s one young woman I remember in South Africa, and I asked her … The South African white students were very angry about the local universities having quotas for what they used to call, what they still call, previously “disadvantaged groups.”
It’s like, you know, black kids, basically. And they thought they would go on and on about how unfair it was because you know, they weren’t responsible for apartheid, they were born after ’94. And they could have the same results as a black kid; they could have had the same education in the same schools as a black kid, but the black kid could get preference at one of the elite South African universities: Cape Town or Witwatersrand or so on. And they thought that was terribly unfair. And there was really low recognition of the history. And, so, I said to them, “Well, what do the black people think about that?” And this one girl came back, and she said: “Well, I don’t really know any black people to speak to, so I don’t know.” White girl, obviously. So, I mean, first of all, it was something she hadn’t discussed with the black kids in her school, of which there were very few local black kids. Most of the black kids in that school were the elites from countries further north in Africa. But virtually every manual worker in the school, and there were many, whether they were doing the grounds, or whether they were cooking or cleaning, whatever they were doing, they were black. Or what Americans would call ‘people of color’. In South Africa, they still have the same classifications, racial classifications, as apartheid had. So black, colored, Indian, or white. So, she hadn’t spoken to those people. She didn’t recognize them as people who might have an opinion. She hadn’t spoken to the black servants that worked in her home. It was like she lived in this place where a certain groups of people were invisible.
Will Brehm 28:44
She had blinkers on.
Debbie Epstein 28:45
Yes, she did. They were there, but they were invisible. They made the world go round. They made the school operate, they sat at the gate, and were security guards, or they beautified the gardens, and they just didn’t see it. And similarly, in other schools, they all had, obviously, manual workers – you know, cooks, cleaners, maintenance people, and so on – who were largely invisible. I mean the same thing in Hong Kong, where … It was a church school that we looked at in Hong Kong, and they had a priest, an RE teacher who was a minister, I think, working there. A vicar, I guess. I’m not absolutely sure about that. But anyway, he was teaching religion, and he had told off a boy for letting the Filipino maid carry his heavy bags. And what he told the researcher there, who was Johannah Fahey, was that what happened was that the parents complained about him for telling the child off. So, there was this just assumption that it would be okay, that it was okay to treat people like this: that because you couldn’t see them as people. And even in cases where they said, “Oh, well, the servants are like members of the family. You know, we’re really close to them.” The servants didn’t sit at the same table and eat their dinner with them. You know, you wouldn’t have a member of your family there who didn’t sit down with you when you sat down to eat. So, what they meant by member of the family was not what most people would mean.
Will Brehm 31:27
So, I mean, it seems like that some of the students that obviously came from privileged backgrounds, and entered schools like this, it just reinforced a lot of the ideas they probably grew up with. But then it also seems like you have students who you know, quote, unquote, local students, those who perhaps didn’t grow up in privilege, but are attending those schools, attending the elite schools, it sounds like that must be a very difficult experience for students like that.
Debbie Epstein 31:58
It is. I mean partly because there’s so few of them. Because although all these schools have scholarships, the scholarships don’t necessarily mean that they don’t pay any fees. So, again, if you look at the Eton website, which is exemplary from this point of view, it says, “A boy with a scholarship will never have to pay more than 90% of the fees.” So, the fees are significantly more than the median household income in this country. So, if you’re paying 90% of them, that’s still a good deal more than the median household income, so there will be a very few children who loom large in the school’s imaginary, who are on full scholarships. And we did speak to some of those kids, and they did talk to us about the burden of representation it put on them. And how they felt everybody was watching them all the time. And that if they slipped up, if they didn’t do their homework, if they, you know, if they played up in any way, then it would be much worse for them than it would be for the regular kids. Now, whether that was true or not, that’s what they experienced. When I say whether this was true or not, whether it was true that the school was looking at them more because there’s a lot of anxiety in these schools, and particularly in the girls’ schools. Anyway, so yeah, there was quite a big burden on these kids. On the other hand, I mean, this is not part of the research, except that I watched it because we were doing research, Children’s BBC put on a … they do some mini documentaries called “Our Life.” And they did a miniseries of three about some working-class kids or regular kids from comprehensive schools who’ve got full scholarships to Eton. And they were very knowing about it, if you like. First of all, you saw them being fitted out with their uniforms, which are these tailcoats. You know what I mean by tailcoats, you know, you can see pictures of them on the Eton website if you don’t know. And they were being fitted out, and you could see them embodying Eton as they were dressed up by the tailor in these clothes. And the way they had to be taught to sit down by putting the tails of their coats behind them so that they weren’t sitting on them. There was a clear lesson in embodiment going on. And one of them, on the way to school, said, “I’m going to Eton, and my children won’t need scholarships.” I’m going to Eaton on the scholarship, so my children won’t need scholarships. So, I mean that, as I said, wasn’t from the research project, except peripherally, because I watched it out of interest, I was quite shocked that the BBC would actually do that bit of advertisement for Eton.
Will Brehm 35:47
So, it seems like these schools are obviously preparing students to become part of that elite class. It seems like it’s a very class-making project that these schools are a part of.
Debbie Epstein 36:04
Yes, absolutely, very much a class-making project. And again, it’s slightly differently nuanced in the different countries. It’s partly to do with the world they inhabit and the resources they have in terms of making class identities so that they can develop a kind of sense of entitlement. And it’s partly to do with the networks, the social capital, they develop in those schools and through those schools. It’s partly the chances of cosmopolitanism, in the sense that they do a lot of travel, those kids. And again, of course, that’s different for the scholarship kids. Because they have to find a way to raise the money because those trips are funded by parents; they’re not funded by the school. Singapore is a bit different. Singapore does a lot of funding itself of things, but it’s a very rich school. So, in Singapore, you know, there’s a national project about bringing people of talent to the island nation, and they have scholarships for the brightest kids and very good scholarships for the brightest kids in the independent schools in the whole of Pacific Rim. And the hope is that they’ll come to Singapore, and they’ll add to the national economy; they’ll live in Singapore, or there’ll be ambassadors for Singapore. And that’s quite explicit in Singapore. That’s absolutely explicit. And in England, there is just … you know, because we looked at a girls’ school in England, it’s not so much that they’re necessarily going to be the rulers themselves, but they’ll know how to be married to them. They’ll know how to be Kate Middleton, but also there is a kind of a sort of lean in feminist agenda, if you like, about, you know, we can do, you can do anything, you should do what you can do. So, there is an expectation that they will have careers, which, of course, originally, the expectation was that they would be wives and helpmates to their politician or local governor or whatever, husbands. So, there’s still some of that in the girls’ schools, but that’s much more, as you would expect nowadays about being able to go to university and to have your own career, in a way that it wouldn’t have been when the school started. So that kind of changes a bit over time, but there was always a kind of feminist agenda for the girls’ schools. You know, the girls needed to be educated, they needed to have the same subjects as the boys. They needed to be able to do those things.
Will Brehm 39:55
With all of the students that are obviously coming from different countries and moving to the schools for the education and all the international trips that these people are doing. Or all the students that are they’re able to go on, is this class making project that these elite schools are part of, is it in a way making class above the nation-state or beyond the nation-state? Because class is normally thought about in national terms. Like there’s an elite class in the UK, and, you know, these are people who end up becoming judges and MPs and things like that. But is there this transnational capitalist class forming through these schools?
Debbie Epstein 40:39
I think there is. I think it’s both, actually. I think it’s both because particularly, okay, so let’s do it country by country. In South Africa, they don’t have the students from all over the world, except as exchange students for a few weeks, or maybe a term at the most. What they do have is a number of students who come from English-speaking countries further north. And in the scale of elite, South Africa is one of the less elite of the elite schools. Although it’s elite in South Africa. However, the very rich in South Africa, the mine owners, would be more likely to send their children to a British or an American school. The kids who come from China, and particularly from Hong Kong, often come either with parents who are traveling because they’re senior executives in some kind of international corporation, or because there is a quite deliberate decision, and one of the girls in Highbury Hall, which is the school in England, talked to us quite openly about this. And she said, “My parents wanted me to be able to work both in the east and the west. So, I had my education in Hong Kong. And then when I reached 16, I’ve come here to England. And so now I can operate in both, and I can go to British elite university.” And so that’s going on. In Singapore, they’ve got, I think, the biggest entry of any school in the world, to Oxford and to Harvard. That may not be quite right as this biggest, but there have a very large number of boys who go on to one of those elite universities. On the other hand, it’s part of the publicity that, you know, that’s how you get into an elite university. And a lot of the kids don’t end up going to those universities and have to go to the second or even the third tier when they do go to university.
So, they’re very intensively prepared and hothoused for entry to the university. At Highbury Hall, they have academics come in who admission to Oxbridge, Oxford and Cambridge, is still done through interviews, which doesn’t happen at most universities. And so, they have practice interviews, and they keep on practicing. Having interviews with these academics who come in, or maybe parents of kids at the school, or academics that are known to them in some other way. Maybe they pay them; I don’t know whether they get paid or not. But they come in, and they do trial interviews with these kids, and the kids can do three or four, until they really know what to produce in the interviews. And they also have an American there who used to be an academic in the States and left and came to the UK – I’m not sure why. And he has a full-time job preparing students who want to go to an Ivy League university to do their SATs, which the entrance exams for these universities. So, it varies from school to school. Again, in South Africa, they really didn’t know how you got a kid into Oxford or Cambridge because their SATs were set at local universities, at particularly Cape Town, but also Witswatersrand because these are the local elite universities. But one of the Tanzanian girl who had wanted to go to a British University ended up at a university in India. So, there is some truth, but there’s also a lot of puff in the claim that this is a surefire way of going to an elite university and getting on in life. And there are particular sets of universities that they want to go to, and clearly, not all of them make it.
Will Brehm 46:44
Well, it really is an interesting class dance that is going on with this multi-sited ethnography that you have been a part of. So, Debbie Epstein, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It really was a pleasure to talk.
Debbie Epstein 46:57
Well, thank you. That’s thank you for interviewing me. I found it fun and interesting.