Privileging Enrty to Higher Education: When Capital Counts

  • Rachel Stenhouse

Student thesis: Doctor of Education


There is a widely held belief that students who attend independent schools have an advantage over students in state schools. This is in part due to the fact that students from independent schools are overrepresented at elite universities. In this thesis, I investigate how independent schools might give, or think they give, their students an advantage when applying to elite universities, and I draw on Bourdieu's theoretical tools to help me to do this. This research was conducted at an independent boys' grammar school, where I taught at the time of data collection, and it examines a preparation programme for students intending to apply to elite universities. This research uses a case study approach and draws on qualitative methods - a reflective writing task, lesson observations and semi-structured interviews - to explore the phenomenon of privileged access to scarce educational resources, in this case admission to elite universities. 17 out of 20 teachers on the Programme (including 5 in the pilot study) completed the reflective writing task; of these, 3 were interviewed and observed teaching a session. I draw on a Bourdieusian conceptual framework to analyse teachers' social and cultural capital and show how this can provide experiences that are thought to confer distinction. The study traces how this capital was acquired by teachers and how it is transformed and transmitted through the Programme. This study finds that the teachers are aiming to help their students 'stand-out', i.e. show distinction, in their applications to university by developing particular dispositions, skills and knowledge that elite university academics value (e.g. 'passion' for their subject, and advanced knowledge and awareness of their subject beyond the curriculum). The teachers do this through the Programme by providing experiences/activities for their students; the teachers' capital informs the content and pedagogy of the Programme. This study finds that the teachers draw on their social networks to inform what they do in the Programme. The social networks provide valuable information/knowledge, i.e. social capital. In addition the teachers' cultural capital informs the curricula and pedagogy of the Programme. As an insider researcher and mathematics teacher on the Programme, I was able to examine my mathematics sessions in detail and realise that the dispositions, skills and knowledge I was teaching the students in the sessions might in fact be privileging them in the university admissions process rather than just making them into better mathematicians. This study makes both a substantive contribution to knowledge and a methodological contribution to knowledge. By looking at one particular preparation programme in an independent school, this research makes a substantive contribution to knowledge by exploring how the teachers transform capital and subsequently transmit capital to the students and, as such, builds on extant research that suggests how students who attend independent schools can acquire an advantage over students in state schools. The methodological contribution to knowledge of this study is due to the reflexivity I employed as an insider researcher; this reveals differences in recognition of the functionality and 'cultural arbitrary' of the discipline by the disciplined insider from the outsider researcher.
Date of Award31 Dec 2017
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulian Williams (Supervisor) & Laura Black (Supervisor)


  • advantage
  • higher education
  • elite universities
  • independent schools
  • Bourdieu
  • cultural capital
  • social capital
  • distinction

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