England’s oldest public school, Winchester, was founded in 1382 to educate 70 “poor scholars” in theology, canon and civil law and the arts. Eton, its younger sister, was established in 1440. According to the great classicist and historian of public schools Rex Warner, it was “modelled almost entirely on Winchester”. St Paul’s was established in 1509 to educate children of all backgrounds, “with no other charge than the sum of fourpence to be paid at admission”. Rugby was established in 1567 as a grammar school for the local poor. In similar vein, Harrow was founded in 1572 for the free education of the children of the neighbourhood.
It is then perhaps no surprise that, centuries on, there was considerable political disquiet at the way in which these foundations for poor scholars had come to provide so many benefits for the rich.
There was a sustained campaign to get the charity commissioners to regulate these schools because, in the eyes of one activist, “considerable unauthorised deviations have been made … from the original plans of the founders”.
That campaign ran from 1816 to 1818. And the activist was Henry Brougham, later Baron Brougham and Vaux, lord chancellor of Great Britain. His proposals for reform included having parliament administer the endowments of the great public schools for the greater public good. But a Tory majority in the House, concerned to defend property rights in the wake of revolutionary upheaval, thwarted the proposal.
At the time Brougham was leading his campaign, MPs sat in the Commons for rotten boroughs with corrupted electors, slavery was still legal in the British empire, women had no vote and no legislation existed to prevent children under the age of nine from working in factories.
Two hundred years later all those abuses and injustices are righted. But still the great public schools overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich.
In a masterly essay in the New Statesman  two weeks ago, David and George Kynaston demonstrated, beyond challenge, that the wonderfully liberating education offered by our great public schools is overwhelmingly the preserve of the wealthy.
I write as an enthusiastic admirer of the education these schools provide. Their cultivation of intellectual curiosity, insistence on academic rigour and provision of character-building extracurricular activities help students to succeed in every field.
But while the education these schools provide is rationed overwhelmingly to the rich, our nation remains poorer. From the England cricket team to the comment pages of the Guardian, the Baftas to the BBC, the privately educated – and wealthy – dominate. Access to the best universities and the most powerful seats around boardroom tables, influence in our media and office in our politics are allocated disproportionately to the privately educated children of already wealthy parents.
We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back.
When a few public schools can scoop up more places at our top universities than the entire population of boys and girls eligible for free school meals, we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgivable scale.
Does anyone really believe the stranglehold of wealthier children on these university places, and the opportunities they bring, reflects the spread of talent in our country? Of course it doesn’t. We are still very far from living in the meritocratic society I believe is a moral imperative. As matters rest, children from poorer homes are being denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves, and to contribute to our national renaissance. So matters cannot be allowed to rest.
But if our contemporary mute, inglorious Miltons are to be given a voice then we must all learn from the history of previous attempts to make opportunity more equal in Britain.
The answer is not to abolish, punish or undermine excellent educational institutions, but to spread their benefits without diluting their character. There is nothing any progressive should object to in a programme designed to democratise access to the best.
As R H Tawney argued, it is a positive social good for there to be schools wholly independent of the state in character, curriculum and governance, “on the ground that their existence is favourable to initiative, experiment and the diversity of educational type”. And indeed, the existence of public schools, while it may have perpetuated privilege, has also protected educational standards. Because these schools have preserved curricula and opted for exams, insulated from meddling politicians intent on driving down standards to create the illusion of progress.
The academies and free schools programme – started by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis – has given state schools the independence over character, curricula and governance long enjoyed by public schools. With one important exception. They are democratic. Inclusive. Comprehensive.
And they are also contributing to an improvement in standards in state education. Sponsored academies are improving faster than other comparable schools, even as all state schools are showing sustained improvement. And the longer they have been open, the better the results.
The academies and free schools programme has, as Andrew Adonis noted , allowed 16 formerly fee-paying schools to enter the state system since 2010. They maintain their operational independence and high academic standards while becoming genuine community schools.
The academies and free schools programme also allows the great public schools to create models of themselves in the state sector – as Eton has done with a new state boarding school, and Eton, Brighton College and Westminster have all done with new sixth-form provision.
The United Church Schools Trust, originally a group of wholly fee-paying schools, now runs a chain of state schools, and livery companies such as the Mercers’, which used to operate only public schools like St Paul’s, now run superb state schools.
The Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling.
Of course, there is more – much more – to do. That is why last week I outlined plans to help state schools poach great teachers from private schools, use the rigorous exams and curricula hitherto restricted to the private sector and move to a longer day, in line with public school practice, to make it easier to offer superb extracurricular activities.
I want our state schools to be able to compete on equal terms with private schools, so that a visitor to either would find them indistinguishable.
Of course, this ambition is a threat to some in the private sector. There are, unfortunately, some heads in the fee-paying sector who still hope to preserve their schools as islands of privilege and try to curry favour with educators in the state sector by sneering at the academies programme as an exercise in creating exam factories, and by criticising attempts to inject more rigour into state education as the rule of Gradgrind.
But this curious, attempted alliance between the ultra-reactionaries of the private sector and their imagined friends in state education is a chimera. Not least because a growing number of leaders in state education – especially those leading the most outstanding schools – know the academies programme gives them the opportunity to prove their superiority over the reactionaries within the private sector.
And they also know the academies and free schools programme gives them the chance to work hand in hand with the very best private schools. And the momentum for collaboration is growing. Tony Little ’s leadership in proclaiming the moral imperative of schools such as Eton doing more to help poorer students; Richard Cairns’s leadership in getting Brighton College to work on terms of equality and partnership with great heads in the state sector like Joan Deslandes, and Andrew Adonis’s leadership in helping schools like Liverpool College and King’s, Tynemouth into the state sector, all point the way forward.
There may be an irony in an Old Etonian prime minister potentially presiding over the end of the exclusivity of the public school system and making English education truly democratic. But then it was an Old Haileyburian prime minister who established the National Health Service and the modern welfare state.
The history of our public schools, as the account of their foundation proves, is a story rich in surprises. Let us hope the next chapter is a happy ending.
Michael Gove is the Secretary of State for Education