Microsoft’s new boss is a window on a better school system

Britain’s classroom disability persists: the 7 per cent of pupils educated privately account for 50 to 70 per cent of senior professionals from law to politics


Floreat Hyderabad! This week we learned that Satya Nadella, a Microsoft veteran with 22 years’ service, will take over as the third chief executive of the software – and now tablet and games-console hardware – leviathan. News of the anointed successor to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer has uncorked many gushing tributes to upward mobility for migrants in the US in general, and hi-tech industry in particular. We can delete much of that loose talk as the purest spam. In relation to Britain’s own bitter-as-ever wrangles over educational privilege and the way to offset its tendency to create iron-clad elites, another aspect of Mr Nadella’s background deserves keen scrutiny. Before his three degrees in India and the US, he attended Hyderabad Public School in Andhra Pradesh state. “You are the eagle. To soar is your destiny,” runs the school motto – taken from the Urdu poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal. And soar the eagles often do.

Remarkably, Shantanu Narayen, chief executive of multimedia software giant Adobe Systems, also went to Hyderabad Public School.  Between them, these two gentlemen will have more day-to-day influence over the quality of my – and your – life at work and at home than a chamber-full of blathering politicians. If, by the way, the products and services they develop allow your career to thrive, you might wish to invest the fruits of success in the heavyweight fund manager Fairfax Holdings, founded and led by Prem Watsa: another alumnus of – yes, Hyderabad Public School. More modestly, you may opt to unwind after a hard day yoked to Microsoft Office, or Adobe Acrobat, Reader and Photoshop, with a bottle of Cobra beer: the company founded by Karan Bilimoria, an old boy of – you guessed. The battles of Seattle and Silicon Valley have been won on the playing fields of Begumpet. HPS boasts of its proud cricketing tradition. And Mr Nadella, like any Victorian proconsul, affirms that playing cricket taught him lessons about “working in teams and leadership” that have “stayed with me throughout my career”.

Our own disputes over private education and its power to fossilise advantage tend to go round in numbing circles. It surely surprised no one when Sir Peter Lampl’s Sutton Trust found that 12 per cent of 8,000 people prominent enough to have their birthdays listed in newspapers had attended just 10 schools. Britain’s classroom disability persists: the 7 per cent of pupils who are privately educated account for 50 to 70 per cent of senior members of many professions from the law and politics to media. When, last year, Sir John Major (Rutlish School, Merton) professed himself “truly shocked” to see so many posts in the “upper echelons” of British society still occupied by graduates of the same narrow band of institutions, he must have faked the tone of flabbergasted consternation, however genuine his outrage.













A landmark New Statesman essay by the historian-teacher duo of David Kynaston and George Kynaston emphasises that the same diagnosis, and many of the same remedies, have surfaced time and again since the Fleming committee reported in 1944. Two strands of reform find favour just now. One is the development of state-independent partnership schools (backed by that one-man policy powerhouse, and head of Wellington College, Anthony Seldon); the other an opening of private schools to an ever-rising proportion of fee-free pupils.

To anyone who benefited (as I did) from a free place within the long-defunct direct-grant system, it feels slightly poignant to be a spoke in a soon-to-be reinvented wheel. For absolutists, though, such tinkering will scarcely loosen a finger from the 7 per cent stranglehold. Besides, the crunch question remains totally taboo. In the Kynastons’ words, “Do some parents have the right to pay for an education that indirectly harms the life chances of other children by blocking their path?” From Gove to Hunt, as in Clem Attlee or Tony Crosland’s time, no mainstream UK politician has ever answered no.

Quarrels over the clout and status of the independent sector will continue to spin in sedate loading circles until a major party proposes the abolition of all fee-paying schools. None ever will. So we should at least make our dialogue of the hearing-impaired a little less insular and parochial.

Nadella, Narayen and the Hyderabad Public School “Eagles” are living proof that the public-school system implanted itself thousands of miles from the colonial heartland. If the Raj, and the rest of the empire, shut down long ago, the ethos that bred its soldiers and administrators has risen from the grave. The old school tie is wrapping the new elites of Asia and the Middle East in its franchised knot.

That Victorian model has legs, and it has wings – even in climates where ivy will never creep over redbrick neo-Gothic chapels. In Shanghai, the children of privilege may attend the local Dulwich College. Harrow opened its Bangkok branch in 1998. Repton has set up shop in Dubai. This September, an offshoot of Cranleigh will welcome pupils amid the pharaonic building sites of Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, with a 90-year start, the Hyderabad Public School First XI takes over the world-shaping boardrooms of America’s West Coast. In the circumstances, it seems slightly futile to work ourselves into a collective strop over the number of Old Harrovians acting in prime-time Sunday serials.

It turns out that the Nadella alma mater trumpets much the same character-building and extracurricular virtues as its counterparts closer to home. When I asked him about his schooldays this week, Lord Bilimoria – King Cobra turned cross-bench peer – pointed out that the establishment had started in 1923 as an academy for the sons of the local jagirdars: large landowners under the fabulously wealthy Nizams of Hyderabad. By his day it had become “a very meritocratic environment”, secular and inclusive, with a “mixed bag” of pupils. “It doesn’t matter what your background was. If you excelled, you would do very well.”

Bilimoria praises the school’s “all-round ethos”. He recalls an atmosphere that made every pupil feel important. “We would take turns to have lunch in the headmaster’s house. It was very special.” Meanwhile, Hyderabad does not even rank as the best-known elite academy in India. If you admire a sculpture by Anish Kapoor, enjoy a novel by Vikram Seth, learn about India’s past from the historian Ramachandra Guha, or just appreciate the deadpan timing of Roshan Seth in an acting role, you are saluting the products of the Doon School at Dehradun.

Of course, the vast bulk of India’s publicly funded schools might just as well exist in another galaxy. The country’s post-independence failure to offer decent primary education in many states tolls like a mournful bell through An Uncertain Glory: the meticulous survey of Indian social progress – or its absence – that the great economist and social philosopher Amartya Sen recently published. Sen and his collaborator Jean Drèze denounce “an alarming story … of sustained neglect of elementary education”, at the same time as elite high achievers “receive spectacular acclaim from abroad”. I talked last year to Sen about his severe report. He traced the long-term under-resourcing of elementary schooling back to Mahatma Gandhi himself, and his romantic cult of craft-based village life. “India is an exception,” in rising Asia, “and the exception had the sanction of the most powerful voice in India, namely that of Gandhiji”.

However, recent changes have not only sought to repair the damage; they may even have a bearing on our own private-public stand-off. Enacted in 2010, India’s ambitious Right to Education Act includes one notably bold provision. It extends the “reservations” policy – the country’s programme of affirmative action for underprivileged groups – to independent schools. All private schools will have to allocate 25 per cent of places to pupils from less-favoured communities, with costs reimbursed by the state. It’s too early to assess the effect of this bridgehead into the bastions of privilege: the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the quota only in 2012. One expert who has studied its probable effects, Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California, San Diego, writes that the controversial clause “may be one of those rare policy opportunities that can increase equity as well as efficiency, and also at a lower cost than the status quo”.

Could something similar work in the UK? Former Tory MP Matthew Parris has already proposed a comparable measure. A 25 per cent (minimum) injection of fee-free scholars into every leading independent school might begin to breach the great British divide. It would probably not appeal to Michael Gove (Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen). But should Tristram Hunt (University College School, Hampstead) dare to press such a reform into a future Labour manifesto?

While we wait, anyone bothered by entrenched inequality might study the progress of India’s Section 12. And if you encounter an old boy or girl of Hyderabad Public School as a rival during a job interview – don’t despair. Even Eagles sometimes fail to fly. Remember Windows Vista.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The central concept of Death Row Dinners is an interesting way  to make us think more about our food  

Out there: A death row diner, the other musicians taking a leaf out of U2's (i)book and rolling up my CV for a smoking hot job opportunity

Simmy Richman
A ceramic figure is the only thing remaining at the site of this destroyed home in Fredalba, California. The dry Santa Ana winds roll into Southern California from the upper Mojave Desert, setting off car alarms and starting wildfires  

Time for God to step in on climate change, Groucho Marx's answer to golf prejudice and education, the best method of birth control

Ellen E Jones
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam