How public schoolboys run the anti-establishment

We already know that public school alumni dominate the system. But what about the movements that challenge it?

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The figures about how the alumni of public schools dominate Britain’s commanding heights – the judiciary, the civil service, Tory cabinets, the medical profession, national newspapers, the BBC, banking, private equity – have become all too familiar. So let’s skip them. Consider instead how opposition to this system of what Robert Verkaik calls “preferment and privilege” also comes from former public school pupils.

The vote for Brexit, it is said, represents the revolt of the common people against the elite. Yet run through the educational backgrounds of those who led, financed or worked for the Leave campaign and the names of elite schools crop up again and again: Dulwich College (Nigel Farage), Eton (Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the Oakes brothers, who founded Cambridge Analytica), Charterhouse (Douglas Carswell), Marlborough (Daniel Hannan), Durham School (Dominic Cummings), Stonyhurst (Bill Cash) and Harrow (Crispin Odey, a major donor). If anything, the Remain campaign probably had more public school alumni but Verkaik’s point is that the whole story of Brexit, for and against, “can be told without reference to anyone educated in the state sector”. GK Chesterton’s “people of England” who “never have spoken yet” watched, in Vince Cable’s words, “two groups of silly public schoolboys reliving their dormitory pillow fights” and were invited to choose sides.

There is nothing new in public school alumni putting themselves at the head of attempts to undermine or reform the British state. Former public schoolboys provided the Soviet Union with its most important British spies, the Labour Party with five of its 13 leaders, including its two longest-serving prime ministers, and Labour’s parliamentary left with two of its most notable figures in Stafford Cripps and Tony Benn. Even the co-founders of the Corbynite ginger group Momentum, Jon Lansman and James Schneider, went to Highgate and Winchester respectively. None of that is particularly surprising. The point of public schools was to prepare boys for leadership roles. That was why they allowed prefects to run boarding houses more or less as they pleased and why they put so much emphasis on team sports Their old boys lead on the left as well as the right because that’s what they’re supposed to be good at – not, until quite recently, academic work – and it’s what the less privileged have come to expect of them. If a British revolution ever happens, it will have been conceived on the playing fields of Eton.

Almost for sure, though, it will go off at half-cock. Verkaik recalls the disasters that befell the British army, largely led by former public schoolboys, in two world wars and contrasts them with the better performance of the royal and merchant navies, in which many more officers were educated at state schools. He could also, drawing on the work of the military and economic historian Correlli Barnett, have analysed the public schools’ responsibility for the amateurism, scientific ignorance and incompetence that have plagued British government and industry for the past 150 years. Instead, he speculates rather unconvincingly on the psychological effects of spending one’s formative years amid bullying and sexual abuse at boarding school. He quotes a psychotherapist’s argument that “prematurely separated from home and family, from love and touch”, boys “must speedily reinvent themselves as self-reliant pseudo-adults”, thus creating an “entitlement complex”. Whether this explains characters as diverse as Rees-Mogg, David Cameron, and Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief Seumas Milne, readers must decide for themselves.

What is certainly true is that, until the recent past, the great public boarding schools were very peculiar places. Martin Stephen, a former head of Manchester Grammar School and St Paul’s, recalls that, when he was a pupil at Uppingham in the 1960s, the pockets in boys’ trousers were sewn up to stop them playing with their genitals. Stephen is entertaining on such eccentricities and admits that, for the majority of their existence, “public schools did very little to advance learning”. But they are now, he insists, “the best schools in the world” and all that is needed to mitigate the injustices that Verkaik describes is to “share what they do for the greater good”. Public school heads would have you believe they are endeavouring to do exactly that through means-tested bursaries but Verkaik comprehensively demolishes their claims. In 2017, according to figures from the the Independent Schools Council, only 1 per cent of their pupils paid no fees at all and a high proportion of fee reductions go to school “family”: children of alumni, children of the school’s own teachers or siblings of older pupils, for example.

If Anthony Seldon, a former head of Brighton and Wellington colleges, is to be believed, none of this need worry us in the future. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will offer “an Eton-quality teacher for all” so that “gross social unfairness” will be swept away. “Passive” learning at “a mono-speed pace determined by the teacher” will be over. Children will be placed not in classrooms but in “learning studios” with furniture arranged “to align with the principles of student agency, flexibility and choice” and the teacher’s desk, if there is one, “pushed to the margins”. Most schools still prepare children for the 20th century, not the 21st, Seldon laments. “Wake up… Smell the silicon,” he instructs.

This new educational world sounds very like the more forward-looking state schools of the 1960s with their open-plan classrooms and child-centred “discovery” learning. It became conventional wisdom, particularly among public school heads and Tory politicians, that this was all sloppy nonsense and the spread of such “trendy” ideas explained the state schools’ failure to get their pupils into top universities. Michael Gove’s five years as education secretary, in which he restored the primacy of academic subjects and heavy factual content in syllabuses, sealed the defeat of “progressive” teaching styles.

Now, it seems, the future lies with what Seldon calls “smart schools”. And who will be the first to invest in re-designed buildings and cutting-edge technology? Not, I think, our state schools, their budgets shrunk by austerity, their teachers’ spirit cowed by government-imposed tests, exams and league tables. Prepare for the public schools to leap ahead again, ensuring their pupils continue to monopolise positions of power while mocking and denigrating the schools that educate 93 per cent of the nation’s children. 

Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain
Robert Verkaik
Oneworld, 380pp, £12.99

The English Public School: A Personal and Irreverent History
Martin Stephen
Metro, 296pp, £16.99

The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise Humanity?
Anthony Seldon with Oladimeji Abidoye
Uni of Buckingham Press, 340pp, £14.99

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Conservatives in crisis