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date: 23 June 2017

Elite Schools and 21st-Century Class-Making

Summary and Keywords

Whatever else it involves, elite schools’ core work is to help to make and remake class through education. Here, we provide an overview of their everyday practices of class-making and present ways of categorizing them: the spatialization of their social imaginations, their mobilization of feelings, and their class-based disavowals. These practices are well established in the local (national/state) context, and we devote the first part of the article to these. In the second part, we shift the angle of scrutiny and outline such schools’ class-making practices in the contemporary global context.

Keywords: elite schools, social class, mobility, globalization, space, imagination, feelings, disavowal


What is the relationship between elite schools and social class in the 21st century? This article seeks to provide a way of understanding this relationship. We argue that two main broad foci are required—firstly, a focus on the conventional elite schools/social class nexus as it exists locally (nationally and subnationally) and, secondly, on the manner in which globalization is reconfiguring this nexus.

We emphasize class-making and remaking (class formation). Our thinking about class is inspired by E. P. Thompson’s classic text The Making of the English Working Class (1963/1980), and, more broadly, by the rich traditions of cultural Marxism. This means that we concentrate on the manner in which those who share similar economic situations and political interests strategically deploy various institutional and ideological resources to form their own and others’ class subjectivities, cultures, and collectivities. We also gesture towards class structures and relations. These should not be overlooked given that classes always make themselves in relation to other classes.

There are various ways of analyzing elite schools’ class-making projects. Further, such schools undertake such class projects in somewhat diverse ways. Our intention here is to document the broad patterns involved, not the differences, and to provide an original line of analysis. We offer three lenses through which to view their class-making endeavors: (1) the spatialization of their social imaginations, (2) their mobilization of feelings, and (3) their class-based disavowals.

In Part One, we show how the social processes involved are evident in the local (national/subnational) context. In Part Two, we expand the focus and consider such processes in the global (international, transnational, and globalizing-local) context. In so doing, we reference others’ research and our own, concentrating on more recent studies. To assist readers, we italicize the concepts that are central to our analysis.

Elite schools are, by definition, the “best of the best”—superior, distinctive, distinguished, and exceptional—usually understood nationally but, also, increasingly regionally and globally. Why, and how, certain schools have come to be understood as “the best” are sociological, political and geographical questions which cannot be properly pursued here. Suffice it to say that the shifting power and politics of the nation state are central and such state politics reflect changing political configurations and ideologies as illustrated in the twelve national examples from different parts of the globe in Maxwell and Aggleton (2016). And, if one takes a more global perspective, then the wider politics of colonialism and capitalism, and their national expressions, come into play as we demonstrate in Kenway, Fahey, Epstein, Koh, McCarthy, and Rizvi (2017).

That said, let us clarify the criteria that we, and most of those we cite, use to classify schools as elite. These include all or most of the following but to varying degrees. Such schools usually have consistent and significant records of success in end-of-school public exams and entry to prestigious universities and faculties. They typically have influential alumni across government, industry, the professions, the arts, and sport. They habitually have connections with powerful figures in a range of significant spheres of influence and, overall, high public esteem. Most are wealthy. Those that are charge high fees and have high levels of income from donations and bequests. Largely, their facilities and resources are superior to most schools in the national education system that they are part of. Many have existed, in various forms, for over 100 years. In terms of income and governance, their relationships to the state vary. However, most depend on the public purse in one way or another, no matter how much they claim to be private or independent.

Additionally, when referencing our own specific research,1 we focus on elite schools in countries that were, in one way or another, part of the vast former British Empire: Founders College, Australia; Old Cloisters College, Barbados; Highbury Hall, England; Cathedral College, Hong Kong; Ripon College, India; Straits School, Singapore; and, Greystone Girls School, South Africa. These schools, and others like them, have sculpted themselves according to a post-Arnoldian British public school model. In these countries, be they private, public, or hybrid, these schools have the highest status and commonly mobilize a history of distinction.

We exclude from our discussion schools that do not emulate this model,2 the many schools that just claim to be elite and the many more that aspire to be. In the so-called public (government) sector these strivers include various types of “selective entry” or magnet schools. In the private sector, they include the more expensive schools that call themselves “international” (Bates, 2011) and those that are lavishly funded by national or international corporations and property developers as commercial ventures. The latter charge exorbitant fees and cater to the very wealthy. Some see them as “new elite schools,” not on the basis of their results but because of their clients’ wealth and their luxurious resources. Neither do we include the English public school “outpost,” “satellite,” “branch,” “clone,” or “replica” schools, or sets of schools, in various countries in the Middle East and Asia. Such schools may have links with their English counterparts and may even be licensed by them. But they may also be operated by private for-profit companies and involve a form of elite school franchising or “school chains.” Importantly, these schools carry the name of an elite English public school with all its signature robes and rituals, and English is the medium of instruction. These are seen to add elements of eliteness.

First, some quick comments about the extant literature.

Research Trajectories

English-language publications on elite schools tend to come in waves. There has been a surge of publications since 2010. Similar surges occurred in the past—in the sociology of education in the 1960s and 1970s and, at least with regard to English public schools, in the history of education during the 1960s through to the 1980s. Kenway and Koh (2015) provide an overview of these waves in the sociology of education, and Kenway et al. (2017) dedicate a chapter to these histories. Such published research originally concentrated on schools in the Anglophone world. But a feature of the most recent wave of English-language publications, such as van Zanten and Ball with Darchy-Koechlin (2015), is the inclusion of schools from many different national and subnational locations around the globe. Further features include comparative studies between elite schools in various national locations. And there is an emerging focus on the schools’ transnational populations and curriculum.

A dominant overall emphasis in most such studies, no matter what the topic or location, is on the ongoing and shifting, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, links between elite schools, the socially dominant and other related dynamics of power and privilege. Consequently, this is our focus here.

Various ways of theorizing the socially dominant have been employed over time. Currently, some use the key concepts arising from elite theory (e.g., Almeida, 2015), others use the language of power and/or privilege (e.g., Howard, Polimeno, & Wheeler, 2014) and yet others employ various types of class analysis. Here, class structures tend to be understood in categorical and hierarchical rather than relational terms. The relationships between ruling class/or “power elite” fractions have attracted some interest (e.g., Windle & Nogueira, 2015), but the relationships between the socially dominant and their subaltern others are often ignored. Cultural perspectives predominate over those economic, although Prosser (2016) writes on “the economy of elite-ness.” Many are theoretically eclectic. Despite occasional challenges to his signature concepts, as by Draelants (2016), Bourdieu has the greatest theoretical footprint.

Interestingly, despite the emergence of studies from outside the Anglo-sphere and Europe, the theorizing of class/privilege/the elite remains primarily “Western”—albeit adapted to local circumstances. Whatever the theory, most studies focus on how the schools’ clients shape themselves within the confines of the nation state. Global class structures, formations, and relations have recently come onto the research agenda but only tentatively. The focus is on transnational curriculum or student/family mobility, often, again, via Bourdieu’s theorizing.

Importantly, the schools’ class articulations with gender, race, and religion have attracted increasing research attention in diverse locations. For example, studies of elite schools and girlhood in Anglophone countries are flourishing (e.g., Charles, 2014; Epstein, 2014), and so too are studies of elite schools and masculinity in, and in relation to, various Asian countries (e.g., Goh, 2015; Yeo, 2016).

Much such research adopts assorted qualitative methods. Howard and Kenway (2015) offer detailed references and debates about these methods, which include institutional and online ethnographies (e.g., Forsey, Breidenstein, Krüger, & Roch, 2015; Gaztambide-Fernandes, 2009; Howard, 2013), studies of such schools’ material (e.g., Koh, 2015), and virtual (Iyer, 2016; Wardman, Hutchesson, Gottschall, Drew, & Saltmarsh, 2010) semiotic ecologies and, more usually, interviews, focus groups or observations. Researchers, such as Swalwell (2013), have also used participatory, action-oriented research to explore and promote social justice education within elite educational contexts. All such approaches have allowed close-up consideration of different aspects and angles of class-making, although, arguably, this has meant less systemic analysis.

There are several valuable overviews of the literature. These include the introductions to, and commentaries in, the collections in our Readings List. They point to the commonalities, and time/place differences, between elite schools’, and school families’, class-making/remaking endeavors. More generally, they synthesize the field, critique it, and suggest fresh research directions. Readers can readily turn to these. So, rather than offer another such exercise, we adopt a less standard approach.

Part One: Conventional Local Class-Making

Spatializing the Imagination

Space always matters to the formation of class and a spatial imagination is a central part of elite schools’ class work. We refer readers to Koh and Kenway (2016) for elaboration of this concept. Subscribing to a hierarchical social and educational value system is a central feature of these schools’ spatial imagination. This is used as a form of self-justification (We have the best because we are the best). It is used as a guide for self-comparison (Who am I superior/inferior to and why? Which schools are superior/inferior to mine?). And, it is used as a “handbook” for emulation and aspiration (Who “above me” should I emulate and aspire to be like?). The schools invoke the celebrity status of their most powerful, esteemed, or positively famous ex-students as an incitement to students to “aim high” and as indicators of their own success and their powerful connections.

Such hierarchical value systems apply to future study and employment. Only the “top” universities and high-status employment or self-employment will do. Maintaining a tight nexus between themselves and elite universities involves schools, parents, and students in constant and comprehensive cultivation (Weis, Cipollone, & Jenkins, 2014), particularly as such universities’ selection criteria become ever more complex, as Deresiewicz (2014) describes in his Yale admissions committee reflections. Insistent direct and indirect advice to students about their curricular and extracurricular choices make it very clear which universities to aim for and which entry achievements are regarded as praiseworthy. Ye and Nylander’s (2015) discussion of the obsession of Singaporean elite schools with sending their students to elite universities in the U.K. illustrates this. Anything “lower” is regarded as “disappointing.”

This spatial imagination is also expressed materially. The spatializing aspects of elite schools’ class work involve social and educational selection. This begins with exceedingly selective entry criteria usually involving such things as money,3 “merit” through testing, family connections, religion, caste, and behavioral style. This selection also usually involves the selective extraction of small numbers of “top” students from other educational sectors/social classes and awarding them various types of scholarships. Their perceived elevation involves intensive scrutiny by the school to ensure that they live up to its standards.

Exclusion is also central. Students or parents who don’t fit the mold or who won’t “add value” are either not allowed in or are eased aside or out, as observed in the “trial periods” in Irish boarding schools (Courtois, 2015).

These schools’ spatial practices of class-making also include segregation and seclusion. This involves students primarily mixing with students from other similar schools through educational, sporting, cultural, and social occasions. Boarding schools are at the most extreme end of these processes and involve a heightened sense of intimacy and intensity between students who, even despite disputations, often see each other as more family than family. Beyond having specific spaces for males and females (boarding houses, toilets), these schools, both in design and effect, can also encourage differential gendered spatiality. For example, the girls’ school in Scotland that Forbes and Lingard (2015) studied demonstrated an “enfolding and community focus” (p. 119). The boys’ school they examined encouraged boys to use school space in expansive ways.

Such overall school and sector segregation means that students do not have to cope with the everyday chances of meeting strangers from across the class divides. There are few such encounters, and this leads Macedo and Araújo (2016, p. 166) to refer to “social and cultural autism” whereby “the inability to acknowledge, understand, and embrace the richness of diversity [among social groups in Portugal] … may lead young adults to justify and accept inequalities as necessary for the ‘proper’ status quo.” Treating the “concentration of privilege” as more of a problem than privilege itself, an elite school in Ireland enrols students from poorer backgrounds so that privileged students can “experience” them in the safety of the school citadel (Courtois, 2015). Others merely exploit such students for these purposes.4

School members’ class work also involves using place and space. It includes the conspicuous socializing of parents and students at glittering high-status events (charity, sporting, the arts) where the elite of various class fractions are served by the people they look down on. It includes school products and patrons wheeling and dealing in various circles of power.

But school members’ class work also involves mundane places and spaces. It includes the everyday life of restricted friendship and kinship groups, parties, sport, clubs, marriage, mothers’ groups, and family holidays in select locations. Authors in Howard and Gaztambide-Fernandez (2010) examine elite students’ lives outside school, recognizing the effect this has within school. Regular and intimate social interaction matters for class integration and maintenance.

Such social segregation and seclusion have consequences beyond the school. They contribute to ex-students’ useful, but restricted, social networks. These help to ensure that elite school graduates, especially males, are overrepresented in the spaces and places of power associated with business, industry, politics, and the professions. They also contribute to the restricted spatial and social imagination that elite school products carry with them. This potentially impacts on the decisions of consequence that they make about the lives of others.

The Mobilization of Feeling 5

Elite schools have unyielding “feeling rules”—those “affective conventions” that construct understandings of emotional propriety. The “framing rules”6 within which they operate are largely associated with highly restricted notions of “success” and an insistence upon “perfection”.7 When students comply with these feeling and framing rules, they gain a sense of belonging and entitlement (Gaztambide-Fernandez, Cairns, & Desai, 2013). But these are also alienating atmospherics and involve high levels of stress and distress.

“Hothousing” (Lambert & Millham, 1968) is an emotionally intense form of class work undertaken by elite schools. It involves mobilizing and amplifying deep emotional investments in an unrelenting, hypercompetitive, hyperambitious sensibility. In Portugal, elite students spoke of opportunities to “be young” and to have leisure and family time that were lost in the endless competition towards a good life (Macedo & Araújo, 2016). Highly contagious, these dominate and constrain curriculum engagement and students’ plans for their postschool educational and working lives.

For students to break away from class expectations is unthinkable and largely unthought. Hothousing draws on a framing/shaming rule in which “failure” of any sort cannot be countenanced and where the pressure on the students to be glittering trophies for the school, their families, and each other is unrelenting.

Mollycoddling accompanies hothousing. Students are taught that their every need should be met to help them “be the best they can be.” This is reflected in the high workloads and stress of teachers. It is also evident in the provision of a plethora of institutional and extracurricular opportunities (clubs and societies). Through these, students can demonstrate “their best” as well as their leadership skills.

The normalization of affluence and influence is also a “framing rule.” Both are an everyday part of the schools’ emotional and sensory patterns and social aesthetics. Fahey, Prosser, and Shaw (2015) discuss the application of these concepts in different schools. One way this is evident is in the quality, beauty, and size of many schools’ buildings and grounds and the range of their facilities which may include state-of-the-art science, sporting, multimedia and performing arts centres.

Investing in leading is an “affective convention.” Students are encouraged to see themselves as future leaders in the areas of their “passion.” The schools provide them with “early leadership” opportunities which they can display on their CVs. Well-known, distinguished, and powerful alumni are regularly on display as role models and are available as advisors and mentors. School governing bodies invariably involve influential local “dignitaries.” They all provide “framing rules.”

The cultivation of class-based collectivism often occurs under the rubric of the highly affective notion of the “school family.” Some of the “family” building and bonding work is undertaken through alumni and parent associations at the occasions that they organize—local, overseas, and interstate reunion lunches, dinners, cocktail parties, and fundraising events—often addressed by heavyweights from politics or business or by “interesting,” high-profile, cultural figures. Numerous schools have foundations led by wealthy benefactors. They also receive lavish bequests from ex-students and even former staff. One way that loyalty is expressed and recognized is through money. Elite schools’ customer relationship management (CRM) strategies reward such loyalty in various ways—the widespread practice of offering alumni’s children priority admission, for example.

School/class loyalty is a feeling rule. Some graduates can be intensely loyal to their old school and to the elite school system per se. They exert much effort to “give back” to the school and to the sector of elite schools that spawned them and gave them social heft.

Ex- students’ associations are part of elite schools’ affective work and help to provide the sentimental glue that binds ex-students to their school and to its class practices. Their purpose is largely to connect ex-students to each other and to the school over their life course; involving children and grandchildren. These associations raise money (often for educational luxuries), help ex-students with career placement (thus further distorting the labor market in their favor), provide social and career networks nationally and, increasingly, internationally, and, overall, assist members to get a foot inside the doors that count, as Watters’ (2016) study of U.K. old boys’ networks confirms.

Class-Based Disavowal

The contemporary face of elite schools involves a form of class-based disavowal. This is particularly the case in countries that claim to be egalitarian and where anti-elitism is a proclaimed popular ethic. Class advantage is denied via a range of discursive practices. For example, Bertron (2016) explains how Swiss private boarding schools avoid the term “elite” and present themselves, instead, as “family businesses.” Our research schools similarly obfuscate so we use them as examples.

Other disavowal discourses include, for example, inflated claims about open access to, and social mobility through, the school via such things as scholarships, bursaries, or meritocracy. Amara Marie’s experience illustrates this. Attending an elite school in Barbados did not expedite the degree of social mobility she anticipated. Aiming for a scholarship to attend an overseas university following school, she had to lower her expectations to match her economic reality. She was unable to accept a part scholarship to study in London because “half [the tuition costs] is not enough” whereas school friends have different choices—“They have more opportunity because most of their parents are going to pay for their education… So it’s all these little factors that stop me from going away and doing all these great things” (interview, 2012). After graduation, Amare Marie’s future mobility faced further hindrance from the impending introduction of university fees for Barbados students: “If fees come in, I’m going to be put back by a few good years by having to work” (interview, 2014).

Disavowal discourses also include the celebration and exaggeration of the “differences” (race, religion, ethnicity) within the school, such as declarations by Founders College (Australia) of being a multicultural community to demonstrate its inclusivity (whereas the reality is separate “Asian” and “Anglo” communities within the Founders “community”), while underplaying the economic similarities associated with such differences. This sort of thing happens at the same time as our research schools seek to smooth over any differences through the production of a new “we” involving the class assimilation of “outsiders.” In turn, this acts as a social release valve and contributes to the individualizing notion of social mobility.

Currently, elite schools around the world tend to represent their relationship to the social order in shared ways—they are about social stability and collectivity as well as social change, mobility, and generosity. Through various acts of altruism, students are encouraged to believe that they are social justice champions (Howard, 2013). This may be through the curriculum, such as the International Baccalaureate at Founders in Australia, the Community Immersion Program at Straits in Singapore or (Round Square) International Service at Greystone, South Africa, and Ripon, India. Or as school-endorsed cocurricular activities like Key Club International at Old Cloisters, Barbados, or the Duke of Edinburgh International Awards at Highbury Hall, England. Via these conduits, elite schools offer students the chance to refashion themselves with a (socially endorsed) mantle of empathy to subdue the garishness of their (socially disdained) elitism.

These schools are inclined to the view that even though they are actually elite (by virtue their usually superior resources and results), they are not elitist. Instead, they tend to define themselves as progressive, liberal, and responsive to callings and causes that are more important than their links to the powerful and privileged.

The contradiction here is that such schools need to be recognized as elite by their current and potential patrons, beneficiaries, and networks, but they do not want to be regarded as such by those who gain no benefit from them. Being seen as too elite goes against national democratic impulses. The narrative of elite but not elitist enables these schools to maintain their sense of their own superiority while also implying that there is a commonality of interests across the social divides that their very existence helps to produce.

Part Two: Globalizing Class-Making

Changing Class and Classifications

Contemporary globalization is altering class structures, formation, and relations. Exactly how, though, is much debated. Many ponder the causes and consequences of increasing global economic inequalities. Broadly, the literature upscales and reconfigures debates about elites, class, and capitalism. It identifies the fractions involved (corporate, governmental, professional, and philanthropic) and the frictions between them. It point to the inner and variously endowed, outer circles (e.g., the professional cadre who service the inner circles). It also considers the relationships between the transnational capitalist class (TNC), or global elites, different nation states, and their dominant class fractions.8

The swift global mobility of money, data, knowledge, and ideologies is a central component of contemporary global power dynamics. So too is embodied global mobility. Many in the inner and, variously endowed, outer circles of the footloose, powerful, and privileged class are engaged in “frictionless mobility.” This is supported by “intra corporate transfer policies, the divisions of labor within transnational corporations, professional networks, social connections, corporate and professional training regimes” and so forth (Smith & Favell, 2006, p. 10).

Such mobility may be juxtaposed, in global class terms, with that of forced, or “economic,” mobility. This is usually associated with necessity and survival—with extreme hardship before departure and rejection and/or exploitation on arrival (Bauman, 1998).

Current global mobilities also involve globalizing local class formation. Wealthy migrants’ settlement in their adopted country impacts on the local (national, subnational) social order. It potentially changes local class configurations in racial and national-origin terms. Migrants with money usually try to translate this into social and cultural capital in their new country. And the locally dominant may well try to defend their turf through various class protection practices.

How is this impacting on elite schools’ class-making? There is a relative paucity of literature with a global reach and focus, hence we now draw primarily, but not exclusively, on our research project mentioned earlier. The schools’ strategies on the global stage can be regarded as emergent forms of global class-making. They are currently learning to be players on the global stage, often building on familiar approaches.

An Extended and Mobile Spatial Imagination

As the field of class power has become more extended and complicated, the schools are trying to imagine, as well as to navigate, it. They are upscaling and reculturing their endeavors.

Segregation and seclusion remains a feature of their spatial imagination but on a more extended scale. The schools continue mixing, primarily, with other similar schools nearby but also, now, they increasingly mix with similar schools outside their national location. This involves such things as student and teacher exchanges, partner-school visits, joint travel to third places, international conferences and events, membership in international organizations involving only, or mainly, elite schools from all over the globe (Kenway et al., 2016). Through these activities, new class affinities are potentially created between students who differ by nation, race, religion, gender and culture but who enjoy common economic circumstances. The beginnings of socially useful (e.g., corporate, professional, and philanthropic) global networks are put in train. As they hone their “networking quotient” (Brown, Lauder, & Sung, 2015, p. 225), the wealthy young begin to weave a new global social fabric, “transforming international attributes into transnational capital” (Réau, 2016, p. 200).

On the global stage, our research schools continue to subscribe to a hierarchical value system but current circumstances mean they need to clarify which global and regional social and educational hierarchies matter. Organizations like the G20 Schools, Round Square, and International Baccalaureate, which vary from highly selective in their membership to less so, provide useful guides to principals, teachers, and students as to who’s who and what’s worthwhile in the global elite schooling system. With like-minded others, members inspect the globe from above. They conduct global scanning exercises whereby they assess global conditions, identify new opportunities, adjust their aspirations, and identify challengers to be warded off. In effect, such organizations are sites for anticipating possible futures, for constructing shared, transnational, dominant-class imaginaries in ways that also encompass diversity according to nation, culture, and religion—but not class.

Our research schools’ socially selective activities now involve students from wealthy families in other countries—those who either travel to study in these schools or whose families move to the host countries and become temporary or permanent residents. These families are part of a highly competitive global market in elite schools (Kenway, Fahey, & Koh, 2015).

Most elite schools now compete with relevant others for cashed-up, globally or regionally mobile families. Some have established overseas educational franchises or campuses to compete with newer elite schools in other countries. For now, older elite schools are more attractive because they have the class cache. For example, to maintain their social position in Nigeria by embodying British eliteness, parents send their children to established elite U.K. boarding schools (Ayling, 2016). They also retain long-standing links with elite universities and with the top rungs of the local social order. But, some such schools are recognizing possible challenges to their supremacy from new elite schools and are undertaking defensive class work; for example, casting themselves as top-notch heritage schools while also stressing their innovations.

Students’ individual class projects involve complex global geometries. Take Grace’s case. Second generation Malawian with family originally from Mozambique, she graduated from Greystone Girls’ School in South Africa. Vehemently determined to obtain a medical degree, she left South Africa to study science in India as a pathway to her goal. Grace considers her prospects very much on a global scale. She contemplates staying in India, where she has a permanent residency permit, to study medicine or, wanting to “try out” Europe and Australia, doing her medical training in Sydney. She has retained her French lessons outside university in India because she also plans to study in France. Grace remains emotionally connected to Malawi, but she sees her future in the elite, mobile, professional, global diaspora and is unequivocally heading there.

Such complex global geometries are evident, particularly, amongst students who see their futures in the corporate fraction of the dominant transnational class. Some covet senior positions in multinational companies and/or expect to provide them with professional consultancy services. Others are oriented towards local (national or subnational) companies (maybe owned by their families) that have global interests. They exploit their overseas experiences and connections to develop the sorts of translocal interconnectivity that is valuable for such businesses, as a Singaporean student observed:

When you are setting up your own business … networking [with other international students] becomes really, really important … [If] we’re talking about outsourcing of services or … goods or raw material. It will definitely come into play … [If] you want to internationalize your business then definitely these networks [become useful]. (Aish, Singapore, focus group, 2011)

Alternatively, there is an expectation that high achievement at elite overseas universities will mean returning resplendent to their country of origin to take up very high-end careers and powerful positions. Even those with low academic drive or ability can still entertain global imaginaries. For instance, Molly (from Highbury Hall, England) showed little interest in grades or study, wanting to study art after school (“maybe sculpture … I can’t really draw” [interview, 2011]). She nevertheless saw her future on the global stage. Armed with the global cultural capital she’d accumulated—from growing up in Trinidad, from her school art trip to New York, and from attending Highbury Hall itself—she foresaw herself living, studying, and working in high spots around the world.

What of the local class implications of the temporary or permanent relocation of wealthy people? Their social class will not necessarily travel with them. They may, for example, be professionals in their home country but not recognized as such elsewhere. The elite school, intensive tutoring, and the development of various cultural accomplishments, by their children, are central to their class renewal strategies in their new location. Such resettlement affects the locally dominant and those seeking social mobility in their home country. Class/racial/national barriers may arise.

In some of our research schools, such barriers were erected despite their proclamations of multiculturalism. For example, in our Australian school, the percentage of such clientele was kept below a threshold to ensure the school remains “Australian,” read predominately “white.”9 “International” students and parents were largely outsiders within no matter what cultural accumulation strategies they adopted to enable them to “fit in.” Alternatively, some chose not to “assimilate” in the manner expected. This was not well received (Kenway, 2016).

International students’ and their parents’ membership of “the school family” is usually ambiguous in our research schools. Some local “family” members exhibit a racist resentment towards them. Recent alumnae of our research school in England talked about how their school was becoming known as “the school with all the Asian girls” (Lacey, focus group, 2012). This is regarded as a problem for the school, as the Chair of the Parents’ Society observes:

I wouldn’t be happy about boarding with that number of overseas students because … there is this clumping … I think there was something like 22 Chinese and 3 other. And there were 2 [Chinese students] who talked to Margaret. The rest of them talked in Chinese to each other. And that’s not really where you should be… . I just think you have to be very careful not to overdo it. Not because it’s not interesting to meet them, not because they’re not charming girls, but it’s a question of proportion … (interview, 2011, emphasis added)

The issues here include racial and global challenges to conventional local class configurations and how the schools deal with them.

How are elite schools implicated in global/local relations between classes? In Hong Kong, India, and Singapore, we can, for example, discuss “economic migrants” who face a norm of social subservience, even social absence. Employed as live-in maids in elite students’ homes and service workers in schools, few of these mobile workers were treated as people with families, qualifications, and skills beyond the menial or a right to respect. While the occasional Cathedral College boy in Hong Kong acknowledged the significant caring role their (international migrant) maids played in their lives, others were scathing and mistrustful, exerting their right to tyrannize without an inkling of conscience. Indian live-in maids, still economic migrants, usually come from “disadvantaged sections” and poor regions of their own country and are unashamedly exploited. Elite school students derided their families’ domestic workers as innately inferior and undeserving—“biologically, genetically, these [lower status people] aren’t the brightest” (Rekha, interview, 2013). In Singapore, service staff were rarely acknowledged by students. For one Chinese student, this culture of invisibility shifted somewhat when, at university, he struck up a friendship of sorts with a fellow-Chinese canteen vendor, “the so-called foreign labour” (Xue, Singapore, interview, 2014). But, this friendship did not extend beyond the canteen.

Mobile Feelings

Some of our research schools have abandoned state-provided curriculum, “enriched” it, or run others in tandem with it; e.g., the International Baccalaureate (IB)10 or Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). Such curricula are seen to gratify mobile populations, enhance the likelihood of entrance to prestigious universities, and to provide yet another mark of distinction.11 They reinforce the feeling rule of class loyalty and extend it beyond the nation.

No matter what curricula, the pressure on all to excel becomes even more intense. The framing rule becomes global hothousing. The stakes are higher even for students who want to stay local, particularly in Hong Kong and Singapore. Gaining access, and preferably a scholarship, to globally elite universities in the United States or the United Kingdom is widely considered the pinnacle of success and a guaranteed path to power. Many are so desperate to succeed/not to fall behind that they resort to expensive private tutoring, sometimes in all curriculum areas. The atmospherics of fear, stress, and anxiety are intensified. These play out in myriad ways, including the propensity for anorexia in Highbury Hall’s boarding houses.

But the promised, postschool paths to power do not necessarily eventuate. Even those who are able to follow the promised paths to the promised land encounter unanticipated and disquieting obstacles. They are confronted by social and cultural constraints from which they have been sheltered—mixing with people outside the school “family”; recognizing racism without its cultured camouflage; being elitist but not so elite in wider settings. For instance, “[t]he real challenges came when I got posted to an operational [army] unit, because the difference from the officer cadet school was that people now come from a much broader spectrum … it’s difficult to adapt because of different values, different habits…” (Warren, Singapore, interview, 2014). Another example is Sally. Leaving Highbury Hall (England) to accept a (non-Ivy League) offer in the United States, Sally found the change of environment illuminated the nonbelonging she, as Korean, would face anywhere outside Korea and had, in fact, faced even at Highbury Hall, although she’d been unaware at the time. Or Mara (Australia). Mara lived at the most expensive university college where “you can tell the private school kids immediately” after leaving school. There, she felt both inspired and intimidated at being in the midst of the “School Captains” and “All Rounders” (interview, 2013).

Furthermore, most students do not win entry to highly esteemed universities or gain lucrative scholarships. This is seen in Barbados, where the prize of a government scholarship is their ticket to their imagined career in, usually, the United States or Canada, but the vast majority of students must reconcile themselves to local tertiary education. Similarly in Hong Kong, many students face the shock of not immediately attaining their goal. This unsettles their school loyalty and invites illegitimate feelings of indignation, shame, and betrayal. Even so, most students’ hothousing experiences still seem to serve them well. They keep their class destiny in sight, galvanizing their well-coached desires and mobilizing their abundant resources to travel alternate, but still globally elite, corridors.

But, despite all such globalizing imperatives, hyperexpectations also continue to be localized for many students, particularly those from the wealthier sectors within wealthy Western countries. In our research, domestic students from both South Africa and Australia rarely looked further afield than their home country for tertiary education, sometimes within their home city. For them, educational payoffs in stable, high-status careers (e.g., medicine, law) are more predictable. The benefits of staying put outweigh those associated with the risks of testing themselves on the global stage without the local social supports they have so patently benefited from. Their class security, they believe, is locally guaranteed. Along with Wang (2014), we found that migrant parents with children in elite schools are often particularly emotionally invested in ensuring their children have secure, influential careers in the new location, especially if their own professional careers have been interrupted.

So who are the students on the move internationally? With the exception of Singapore, where postschool global mobility is normalized (Kenway & Koh, 2013), students from less economically or politically secure countries seem most prepared to take the personal and emotional risks involved in education and work abroad and are least likely to anticipate returning. Many want to move from a poorer to a wealthier country (Kenway, Langmead, & Epstein, 2015). Helena (Greystone, South Africa) explains it thus: “I’ll go study [outside Tanzania and] … get a job … Tanzania is not really a … high-class kind of country. It’s not as good as South Africa. South Africa’s way beyond it and Tanzania is way at the bottom” (focus group, 2011). But such views may be changing.

With India and China rapidly developing their own high-end universities, these trajectories of ambition are altering. Both countries are “investing heavily in university systems and high tech and science infrastructure” and, along with American companies, “they are opening up engineering facilities and laboratories” (Smith & Favell, 2006). Some top students in our Indian school are staying in India to attend such prestigious institutions. These now constitute part of the alluring fantasy world that once was dominated, almost exclusively, by Oxbridge, the Ivy League and top business schools in the United States. But, again, many students did not achieve the necessary exam results so had to suffer the indignity of attending “lesser” institutions.

Hothousing for the global is designed to assist students to become, and to think of themselves as, world-class, multiply endowed performers—high skills are no longer considered sufficient, as discussed in Brown, Lauder, and Sung (2015, p. 223). Hothousing involves such things as language, historical, and cultural study tours. It involves taking students out of their local “comfort zone” and exposing them to “other cultures” in other countries. Such school-related travel is part of, what we call, their cosmopolitan curriculum. It is seen to help students to become global citizens (Loh, 2016)—to develop their “intercultural competencies” and “international mindedness.” More importantly, these are seen to help equip them for membership in globally mobile, senior managerial and professional groups where a certain, class-based, confident cosmopolitanism is regarded as an important component of employability.

This cosmopolitan curriculum is often class- and gender-blind (see Kenway, Langmead, & Epstein, 2015) and involves superficial universalisms. It naively imagines a mobile world in which the culturally sophisticated and highly adaptable students it supposedly produces will freely circulate. There is an implicit assumption that privilege and power are transportable without change in effect or extent. But this is invariably undermined by the political realities of the context from which they emanate and to which they travel. Understanding such complexities requires more than the glib cosmopolitanism they are exposed to.

The normalization of affluence and the naturalization of influence happens, in part, through the normalization of privileged mobility and connectivity, as students increasing travel internationally for various curriculum and extracurricular activities often associated with their schools’ membership in various global networks. For example, when traveling for exchange visits from partner school to partner school on the global stage, students move from one boarding house to another, interacting at an intimate level with children of similar economic circumstances no matter what their cultural or national differences. In effect, they travel within a global citadel of elite school privilege and mix with a restricted global social stratum. Cathedral (Hong Kong) students spoke delightedly of their “global” experience visiting Straits School in Singapore for a Global Alliance of Leading Edge Schools (GALES) event, “we make a joke [saying the school’s] even as big as Disney Land in Hong Kong! … It’s big and it’s a good experience.” (GALES focus group, 2012).

By joining the activities provided by the schools’ global and regional networks and partnerships, the students mix with those who are regarded as desirable in global and regional affective affluent communities.

The naturalization of a sense of influence on the global stage is beginning through various international events and conferences such as Global Young Leaders Conference, TiltShift, Model United Nations, where “young leaders” gather to pronounce on matters of global importance. .Such activities help students to imagine themselves as important players on the global or regional stage—critical thinkers, problem solvers, and thought leaders extraordinaire.

Globalizing Disavowal

Students’ exposure to the subaltern Other, through international service with poor communities in third world countries (“volunteer tourism”), involves various power dynamics. They play the role of benefactor and others the recipients of such benefaction (Kenway & Fahey, 2015). Through such programs, elite schools intervene in the lives of people who lead precarious lives. Such precariousness, according to Bauman, involves “The combined experience of insecurity (of position, entitlements and livelihood) of uncertainty (as to their continuation and future stability) and of un-safety (of one’s body, one’s self, and their extensions: possessions, neighborhood community” (Bauman, 2000, p. 161). Elite schools cater to the social secur-i-at, at the opposite end of each of Bauman’s descriptors: secure, certain, safe. Students often talk about what they gain through such activities; that they come to recognize how privileged they are and value their own privilege more. “… being with [disadvantaged people] shows you, like, how much you have and what they don’t and it makes people appreciate what they have” (Helena, South Africa, focus group, 2011) We suggest that once students have witnessed the class precipice over which they might, perchance, fall, they potentially feel the need to even more fiercely protect the citadel to which they belong.

Such global class work is linked historically to postcolonial nationalism. In Barbados and Singapore, for example, meritocracy operated as postcolonial strategy as the colonial elite was replaced with local elites in each newly minted country. Both countries mobilized meritocracy as a way of changing relationships of power and also of cultivating an “enlightened” elite that would lead to “modernization.”

In Singapore, the notion of meritocracy was part of the way in which counter-elites, namely the Oxbridge-educated Chinese, gained power over the revolutionary elites. In our research school in Barbados, meritocracy led to a significant shift in the dominant population of the school; from a white plutocracy to a black meritocracy. Smart black students from across the social spectrum gained access and graduates went on to take up senior government and professional posts.

Our research schools in both countries take pride in the fact that the students who attended the school when colonial rule ended were often from “humble origins.” As a Straits alumni reminisced, “[D]uring my time, … we all came from poor walks of life … son of rickshaw drivers, son of people living in Tunpong … whether you’re poor or you’re rich you can come to Straits” (associate director of alumni association, Singapore, interview, 2013). Many such students went on to powerful and/or prestigious positions in each country. The humble origins narrative was recited, not just about each school’s history but also about its current client base. This is despite the fact that both schools now largely cater to the children of the privileged.


We have offered three lenses through which to view the class-making practices of elite schools. We pointed to the spatialization of their social imaginations, their mobilization of feelings, and their class-based disavowals. And we deployed each lens to consider such schools’ local, and then their global, class-making endeavors. In so doing, we suggested that, through their everyday practices, identities, and social standing, elite schools have continuously worked to make and institutionalize class. Citadels of privilege, they have been integral to the establishment and enforcement of new relations of governance and dominance. Under their framing orientations, elite schools inculcate spatial practices and turn social places, spaces, interactions, and inclusions into hierarchies. These give rise to feeling rules with their implied rewards and sanctions, all designed to saturate students with the markers and makings of the dominant and dominating class. We have shown that manipulations of segregation and seclusion, selection and connection, allegiance and affluence are standard class work.

Overall, our argument has been that, while such class-making has proved highly successful over the longer term in the local (national and subnational) social order, in terms of the global social order, the class-making elite schools must undertake has become infinitely more complex. In turn, we indicated that it is at an early stage of development. With current globalization, new class relations are less certain. There are more variables, different histories, and politics involved. Global imperatives have resulted in established strategies being intensified, some seemingly approaching breaking point, suggesting a need for the review and innovation of class work. The terms of reference are no longer prescribed by the elite school culture. Just as there are increased opportunities on the global stage, there is also increased competition. Economic advantages are recast. Who is the subaltern is being redrawn. Global mobility influences class geopolitically and vice versa. Entitlement may be more mobile but its transference is not guaranteed.

Elite schools’ efforts to identify, understand, and deploy the emerging, global, mobile, power structures, and opportunities to ensure that their role in class-making retains prominence face complications and frictions. They are struggling to adopt, and adapt to, a globalized world. As we have made clear, complexities are raining down on those who would reign. If elite schools are to retain control of the terms of class formation they face many challenges. This is in part because class formation, more broadly, has become more nuanced. Fortification of the citadel is a work (of class) in progress.

Further Reading

Bourdieu, P. (1997). The state nobility: Elite schools in the field of power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. Originally published in 1989.Find this resource:

Connell, R. W., Ashendon, D. J., Kessler, S., & Dowsett, G. W. (1982). Making the difference: Schools, families and social division. London: Allen & Unwin.Find this resource:

Cookson, P., & Persell, C. (1987). Preparing for power: America’s elite boarding schools. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Fahey, J., Prosser, H., & Shaw, M. (Eds.). (2015). In the realm of the senses: Social aesthetics and the sensory dynamics of privilege. Singapore: Springer.Find this resource:

Gaztambides-Fernandes, R. (2010). The best of the best: Becoming elite at an American boarding school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Howard, A. (2013). Learning privilege: Lessons of power and identity in affluent schooling. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Howard, A., & Kenway, J. (Eds.). (2015). New directions for research on elites and elite education: methodological challenges [Special issue]. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(9).Find this resource:

Kenway, J., Fahey, J., Epstein, D., Koh, A., McCarthy, C., & Rizvi, F. (2017). Class choreographies: Elite schools and globalization. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Kenway, J., & Koh, A. (Eds.). (2015). New sociologies of elite schooling: Theoretical, methodological and empirical explorations [Special issue]. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1).Find this resource:

Kenway, J., & McCarthy, C. (Eds.). (2014). Elite schools in globalising circumstances: New conceptual directions and connections [Special issue]. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 12(2).Find this resource:

Khan, S. R. (2011). Privilege: The making of an adolescent elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Koh, A., & Kenway, J. (Eds.). (2016). Elite schools: Multiple geographies of privilege. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Maxwell, C., & Aggleton, P. (Eds.). (2013). Privilege, agency and affect: Understanding the production and effects of action. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Maxwell, C., & Aggleton, P. (Eds.). (2016). Elite education: International perspectives. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

van Zanten, A., & Ball, S., & Darchy-Koechlin, B. (Eds.). (2015). Elites, privilege and excellence: The national and global redefinition of educational advantage. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Walford, G. (Ed.). (1993). The private schooling of girls: Past and present. London: Woburn Press.Find this resource:

Walford, G. (2005). Private education: Tradition and continuity. London: Continuum.Find this resource:

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Bertron, C. (2016). “We are not elite schools”: Studying the symbolic capital of Swiss boarding schools. In A. Koh & J. Kenway (Eds.), Elite schools: Multiple geographies of privilege (pp. 171–187). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Brown, P., Lauder, H., & Sung, J. (2015). Higher education, corporate talent and the stratification of knowledge work in the global labour market. In A. van Zanten & S. Ball with B. Darchy-Koechlin (Eds.), Elites, privilege and excellence: The national and global redefinition of educational advantage (pp. 217–230). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Charles, C. (2014). Elite girls’ schooling, social class and sexualized popular culture. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Deppe, U., Helsper, W., Kreckel R., Krüger H.-H., & Stock, M. (2015). Germany’s hesitant approach to elite education. In A. van Zanten & S. Ball with B. Darchy-Koechlin (Eds.), Elites, privilege and excellence: The national and global redefinition of educational advantage (pp. 82–94). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

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Draelants, H. (2016). The insiders: Changing forms of reproduction in education. In A. Koh & J. Kenway (Eds.), Elite schools: Multiple geographies of privilege (pp. 139–156). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Epstein, D. (2014). Race-ing class ladies: Lineages of privilege in an elite South African school [Special Issue: Elite schools in globalising circumstances: New conceptual directions and connections]. Globalization, Societies and Education, 12(2), 244–261.Find this resource:

Fahey, J., & Prosser, H. (2015). Approaching methodology creatively: Problematising elite schools’ “best practice” through a film about perfection and imperfection. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 38(9), 1033–1048.Find this resource:

Forbes, J., & Lingard, B. (2015). Assured optimism in a Scottish girls’ school: Habitus and the (re)productions of global privilege [Special issue edited by J. Kenway & A. Koh: New sociologies of elite schooling: Theoretical, methodological and empirical explorations.]. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), 116–136.Find this resource:

Forsey, M., Breidenstein, G., Krüger, O., & Roch, A. (2015). Ethnography at a distance: Globally mobile parents choosing international schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(9), 1112–1128.Find this resource:

Gaztambide-Fernandez, R. F. (2009). The best of the best: Becoming elite at an American boarding school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

Gaztambide-Fernandes, R., Cairns, K., & Desai, C. (2013). The sense of entitlement. In C. Maxwell & P. Aggleton (Eds.), Privilege, agency and affect: Understanding the production and effects of action (pp. 32–49). Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Goh, D. P. S. (2015). Elite schools, postcolonial Chineseness and hegemonic masculinities in Singapore [Special issue edited by J. Kenway & A. Koh: New sociologies of elite schooling: Theoretical, methodological and empirical explorations]. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), 137–155.Find this resource:

Hochschild, A. R. (2003). The commercialization of intimate life: Notes from home and work. Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

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Kenway, J. (2015). Ethnography “is not what it used to be”: Rethinking space, time, mobility and multiplicity. In S. Bollig, M. Honig, S. Nueman, & C. Seel (Eds.), MultiPluriTrans: Emerging fields in educational ethnography. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Publishers in collaboration with Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Kenway, J. (2016). Travelling with Bourdieu: Elite schools and the cultural logics and limits of global mobility. In L. Adkins, C. Brosnan, & S. Threadgold (Eds.), Bourdieusian prospects (pp. 31–48). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Kenway, J., & Fahey, J. (2015). The gift economy of elite schooling: The changing contours and contradictions of privileged benefaction. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36(1), 94–115.Find this resource:

Kenway, J., Fahey, J., Epstein, D., Koh, A., McCarthy, C., & Rizvi, F. (2017). Class choreographies: Elite schools and globalization. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

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(1.) The project is called Elite Schools in Globalising Circumstances. Through multi-sited global ethnography (Kenway, 2016) we studied seven elite schools, one in England and one school each in the former British colonies/protectorate—Australia, Barbados, Hong Kong, India, Singapore, and South Africa, Cyprus, and Argentina (not a British colony but with an influential British presence). The team involved Jane Kenway, Johannah Fahey, Diana Langmead (Monash), Fazal Rizvi (Melbourne), Cameron McCarthy (Illinois), Debbie Epstein (Roehampton), and Aaron Koh (Chinese University Hong Kong) and PhD students, who studied additional schools, Howard Prosser, Matthew Shaw (Monash), Mousumi Mukherjee (Melbourne). Funded by the Australian Research Council (DP1093778) and our respective universities (2010–2015).

(2.) The German system (Deppe, Helsper, Kreckel, Krüger, & Stock, 2015) and the Norwegian system (Aarseth, 2016) are two examples outside this structure.

(3.) Among our research schools, in 2011, domestic day students’ annual fees ranged from 36% to 412% (av. 42%) of national average annual/household income. Boarders’ fees ranged from 38% to 563% (av. 217%). International students’ fees tend to be many times higher. This is per child.

(4.) In our research school in Singapore, for example, domestic students in a leadership program temporarily board with international students to learn how to interact with those from different backgrounds and cultures.

(5.) See Maxwell and Aggleton (Eds., 2013) for various perspectives on feeling, affect, and privilege.

(6.) These terms arise from Hochschild (2003), pp. 97–99.

(7.) Fahey and Prosser (2015) present a nuanced analysis of the specter of perfection in elite schools.

(8.) For the most robust discussions see

(9.) Saltmarsh (2016) expands on cultural background and “elite” school selection in Australia, noting the different uptakes between elite schools and selective high schools by non-Anglo migrants.

(10.) Research abounds on the IB, much self-commissioned. Tarc’s (2009) is the most substantial.

(11.) See Lee, Wright, and Walker (2016) for an interesting discussion of the IB, elite schools, and “skyboxification” in China.