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Knowing Your Place Politics

You and the Old School Tie

Eton (c) Juan Salmoral

When together, images of David Cameron and George Osborne (British Prime Minister and Chancellor respectively) trigger in many minds the power of the ‘old school tie’ – the old boys’ network where the saying ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ rings loud and true. They represent a sense of confidence, assuredness and authority that can only come from what people curiously still call ‘breeding’ – an education in the ways of privilege and entitlement in the company of others from the same breed.

Of course the legitimacy of the old school tie and its power resides in the eye of the beholder – where some see evidence of elitism and undue privilege, others see the victor justly taking the spoils of a struggle for competitive advantage. What is arguably not in dispute is the social status attached to particular social networks and backgrounds. Being born with a silver spoon represents the golden ticket in the struggle for reputation, position and distinction, a ticket that effectively guarantees safe passage through the stress and uncertainty of schooling and work.

The question that researchers have struggled with for decades is: what are the mechanisms through which this passage is assured? In an age of formal democracy and supposed meritocracy (leaving aside the problems with that phrase), what are the processes via which class has maintained its status as the key signifier of inequality? Key among the attempts to understand these processes are the various theories of ‘capital’ that have been generated in the last three decades. Regardless of form (social,
cultural, emotional, etc.), theories of capital explore the ways in which the benefits of class position maintain and reproduce those benefits across individuals and groups, a regulatory process that explains the reproduction of class structures in general.

But when debate moves away from the narrow confines of location and position, it becomes clear that ‘the old school tie’ represents something stronger and more impenetrable than just the unequal allocation of contacts, associations, mindsets and symbolic values. As a sign of distinction and power, the old school tie is shorthand not just for inclusion into a club for the rich; it is also shorthand for exclusion. And to exclude you must be active in the process of guarding and defending access. The old school tie helps to vet and keep at bay those who are undesirable – those who could weaken or dilute the reputation, status and prestige so jealously guarded by members of the club.

All it takes is a cutting remark or a disapproving glance. It happens in the blink of an eye, its power more about its reception than its delivery. Rare is the person that will openly admit to rejection and invisibility. No one wants to feel excluded and unwanted.
But that is precisely where the power of the old school tie really comes into its own.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.