By Dr Simon Walker, Human Ecology Education, 22.6.2015


Findings released today (22 June 2015) from our major UK research study suggests that a ‘tribe effect’ is giving boarding school pupils a lifelong advantage over those who went to state school and provides a new explanation for their continued dominance in elite roles.
Now these factors have been identified, it means that state schools could change their environments to give their pupils similar advantages.

The ‘tribe effect’ is about how good someone is at creating strong bonds of friendship and using the resources of the relationships they have. The study, involving nearly 4,000 UK schoolchildren, found that boarding school pupils have a state of mind more conducive to forming relationships and obtaining mutual support, whilst day pupils showed a greater autonomy and self-reliance. The psychological difference was most pronounced between independent boarding schools and state day schools.

The study used a pioneering technology to identify and measure, for the first time, psychological factors at play in different school environments and provides a new explanation for the continued dominance in elite roles in society, politics and business of those who went to boarding school, even though state school academic performance has improved.

The study, ‘Measuring the Unmeasured’ by Human Ecology Education, also found boarding school pupils to be more expressive, socially adept, connected to each other by shared culture, and socially and emotionally agile. Day school pupils in both independent and state schools exhibited a state of mind that was more self-reliant and less socially flexible.

Importantly, the research found that boarding pupils were no more individually confident than day pupils.

The findings strongly support the conclusion that it is the ‘tribal’ social environment experienced at boarding school which confers a lifelong psychological advantage, quite separate from any academic factors.

The findings point to ways in which non-boarding schools can change to narrow the social gap, say the researchers. The team say there are many ways that state and independent day schools can alter their environments which would strengthen the sense of being ‘in a tribe’.

Tests were completed by 8,000 pupils aged 13-18 in three types of school: boarding; independent day; and state. The research used a pioneering technology developed by Human Ecology Education to measure the impact of school upon the psychological development of pupils, and whether the psychological states of pupils during their education was different. The technology measured 600,000 tiny cognitive adjustments in the minds of pupils from both boarding and day schools, when they were faced with different social and cultural situations. This contrasts with previous research which has focused on whether boarding and non-boarding pupils go on to achieve different academic or social outcomes.

The differences suggest that boarding environments engender more sensitive social and emotional ‘steering’. These are likely to result in greater social skills and the abilities of winning influence and finding inclusion in groups beyond school than equivalent peers from state day schools.

Lead researcher, Dr Simon Walker explained: “These findings show that it is not so much about who you know – the ‘old boy network’ – as how you are able to create strong bonds and use the resources of the relationships you have.

“When schools are places of strong social and cultural bonds, pupils leave with what is called a ‘tribal asset’. It is the knowing look, the shared stories, the similar historic rituals which include you in a smaller group and allow you to access the advantages of membership.

“We found that boarding pupils were no more individually confident than day pupils,” he said. “However, they exhibited the shared confidence of knowing to which ‘tribe’ they belonged. This shared tradition may give boarding graduates greater resources on which to draw when facing the challenges of the adult world.

“Contrary to the myths that boarding creates a stiff upper lip and emotional repression, our technology found the reverse. Boarding pupils exhibited a state that was more connected to each other by shared culture as well as being more responsive socially and emotionally, but it also means that, emotionally, they depend more on their peers and their school. By contrast, day school pupils were more socially cautious, more self-reliant, less interconnected by a shared culture and less socially flexible.”

The research identifies the ‘engine’ behind these differences as the tribal social environment that boarding schools create. Being at a boarding school, and living in a boarding house with up to 50 others for up to seven years during secondary school, gives a close knit sense of belonging and shared rituals. The greater emotional dependency also highlighted why the quality of pastoral care in boarding schools needs to be central in the support of the pupils’ emotional welfare.

“What we are seeing here is what pupils gain from being part of a small, close group with distinct traditions. It’s such a strong social experience that people almost instantly recognise it in others who have had it. State school pupils have tended to lack this strong sense of shared history,” said Walker.

The Sutton Trust recently found in studies in 2013 and 2014 that despite improvements in academic outcomes from the state sector and, notably, from academies, former boarding school pupils continue to dominate elite roles in society, politics and business. This suggests that previously unmeasured factors might be contributing to their success when compared with children who have not been to boarding school, in both the state and independent sectors, and these factors were identified and measured in the Human Ecology Education study.

Sir Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, whose school took part in the study, said: “These findings provide compelling new explanations for the positive impact that boarding has, and the heartening realisation that all schools can do more to engender similar effects. These effects are not academic, but about how schools are structured and run, and how young people can be encouraged to experience life together. Houses, rituals, traditions and competition are all fundamental at Wellington, and at every boarding school, but not in all state schools. Closing the divide between state and independent schools has never been more important and I welcome this research for the new opportunities it provides for this to be achieved.”

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of The Sutton Trust, said: “Independent and boarding schools continue to provide a real advantage in admissions to elite universities and the top of the professions. It is valuable therefore to have new insights into the reasons behind such advantage that could be more widely drawn upon in the education system.”

Walker says that any school can create similar effects to those achieved by boarding schools by adopting four approaches:
• Use uniform, stories and media to create a distinct and unique sense of identity
• Construct rituals and customs which give pupils unique, shared memories of their school journey
• Create small vertical groups or ‘houses’ within a large school, which have strong, distinct spaces, traditions and differences of tone between them, and lively competition between houses
• Give meaningful roles to pupils to serve, lead and be valued for the contribution they make to the house

The research was carried out in 2015 on 8,000 13-18 year old pupils, across 11 boarding and nine state and independent UK day schools. Some 600,000 data points were analysed in the study. The results of this phase of the study will be published in full in autumn 2015. The next phase of the research will be with schools in the USA and South Africa who will be participating in a global study called Measuring the Unmeasured starting in 2016.