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The benefits and disadvantages of elite education: Was it worth it?

Featch, J., Perry, L. and Ledger, S.ORCID: 0000-0001-7050-1001 (2019) The benefits and disadvantages of elite education: Was it worth it? In: AARE 2019: Education for a Socially just World, 1 - 5 December 2019, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane


Very little research has examined the long-term effects of elite schooling on life opportunities. While some Australian studies have examined the structures and processes used by elite private schools to reproduce social status and inequality, no studies have examined the perspectives of elite school alumni about the benefits and disadvantages [#_msocom_1] conferred upon them by an elite private education. Bourdieu’s cultural and social capital theory underpins the analysis of this study. In-depth interviews were conducted with three male and five female alumni, revealing common themes and patterns that spanned different time periods and outcomes. Alumni were sent to elite schools because their parents perceived they would experience a wider range of opportunities and academic rigour than they would in the public system. Reflecting on their school experiences, only one alumnus reported any disadvantage of attending an elite school concerning a lack of exposure to real world experiences. Others perceived the benefit of attending an elite private school steered them towards further education and away from risky behaviour, serving as a refuge from less refined peers and ‘dangerous’ behaviour at public schools. Post schooling reflections highlighted the main benefit related to social capital, rather than any cultural capital, with females reporting long-term friendships as a key benefit, and males leveraging the ‘old boys’ network’ for career opportunities and financial gains. However, these are not unique to private schools. Over half of the alumni chose elite schooling for their own children, with one participant choosing elite schools so that their children could mix with similar or higher classedpeers. While participants valued their school experience the individual benefits were limited and almost all did not believe elite private schooling benefited wider society. When compared to the status of their parents, participants were either at the same or of a slightly higher socio-economic status. Overall, the benefits of attending an elite private school centred on safety, social exclusion and social reproduction rather than on the development of cultural capital or social mobility [#_msocom_6]. The findings of this study – that there are only limited benefits to elite schooling - may be useful for families who are considering such an education for their children, elite schools to strengthen their relationship with alumni, and government policy makers to review funding and subsidisation of elite private schools. But more importantly it begs the question – is elite private schooling really worth it?

Item Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Education
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