The Old Boys: the Decline and Rise of the Public School
Yale University Press, 352pp, £25
In the preface to this book, David Turner observes that if Britain’s public schools (which some of us, for the sake of strict accuracy, prefer to call “fee-charging schools”) haven’t improved since the days of Flashman and Tom Brown, “Britain is in trouble”. Quite right. Public-school alumni account for 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, 60 per cent of senior people in the financial services, 55 per cent of top civil servants, 54 per cent of leading journalists (editors, columnists and broadcast presenters) and chief executives of FTSE-100 companies, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 51 per cent of top medics, half the House of Lords, and more than a third of the cabinet. Even among the most successful actors, popular musicians, cricketers and Olympic athletes (though not footballers), they are over-represented. Only among local government CEOs does their representation roughly match the proportion of the child population (between 7 and 8 per cent) that public schools educate. It is probably not a coincidence that little power is entrusted to local government and that those who run it are routinely denigrated.
No other country has anything like Britain’s (largely England’s) public schools. In other European countries and the United States, the private sector is bigger, but mostly comprises schools chosen by parents for religious reasons rather than to secure academic, social and career advantage for their children. The US worries more about its elite private universities (Harvard, Yale, and so on) than about its elite non-sectarian private schools, which are mostly confined to the north-eastern coastal states. What is unique about the English public schools – and their associates at Oxford and Cambridge – is that they are so closely bound into a network that controls power, money, land and social status.
Their historical role was to provide, as Turner puts it, “vocational training in the most important job of all: ruling Britain”. That training included both leadership, taught by leaving senior prefects largely free to run the schools, and obedience, taught through “fagging”, whereby younger boys performed menial tasks for older ones. Close study of classical civilisation and literature yielded rich insights into the exercise of power. But most important of all was the knowledge that in the corridors of power – in the Houses of Parliament, Whitehall offices, the Inns of Court, merchant banks, the
army, our embassies abroad, colonial capitals, anywhere that mattered – they would find familiar faces, familiar accents, familiar opinions, familiar ways of saying and doing things. Public-school boys saw, at the apex of society, what are now called “role models”: examples of people like themselves who had risen to prominent positions. They felt at ease in the officers’ mess, the bank boardroom, the barristers’ chambers.
These advantages went mostly to those already privileged by birth, but one reason for the resilience of the British ruling class was that it absorbed “new money”, treating the upwardly mobile, after initial reservations, as their own. The public schools played a central role in that, offering an intensive course in cultural assimilation to the children of what we might call internal immigrants (and a few real immigrants) and conferring what the Harrow headmaster Cyril
Norwood, writing in 1929, called a “social badge” that gave “easy rights of entry to circles which people . . . do very much desire to enter”. In the same period, J F Roxburgh, the founding head of Stowe – a reformer who deliberately eschewed fagging and other arcane rituals – was telling visitors that he carried a silver-handled fly-swatter because “even the flies at Stowe are snobs”.
For about 30 years after the Second World War, it seemed possible that, with help from Labour governments, the public schools would melt away. As the empire wound down, the British establishment unravelled, attracting mockery rather than deference. The public schools’ focus on the classics, their hostility to teaching science, their obsession with team sports and “character training” no longer seemed relevant to a country experiencing what Harold Wilson called “the white heat of this [technological] revolution”. Much of their teaching had scarcely improved from the 19th century, when Darwin observed of Shrewsbury that “nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind” and the head of Loretto, setting out priorities, placed the development of “intelligence” and “information” behind “character” and “physique”. In the 1960s, the A-level failure rate at Westminster was between 19 and 28 per cent, depending on the subject, proportions that were twice the national average or more. Richard Cairns, now head of Brighton College, who left boarding school in 1984, tells Turner that his “teachers were late, they often seemed to teach the wrong things, and results didn’t really matter”. In the late 1970s, the proportion of children at fee-charging schools fell as low as 4.5 per cent.
Then the public schools reinvented themselves and embraced meritocracy. Intellectual attainment, once regarded with suspicion, became paramount. Huge sums, raised partly from increased fees and partly from alumni appeals, were spent on science laboratories and arts centres. Weak teachers and cold baths, compulsory games and military training, fagging and corporal punishment were phased out. Entry requirements became more academically rigorous and the admission of girls, initially at sixth-form level, raised the bar still higher. The schools rebranded themselves as “independent”, hoping to banish memories of the less salubrious aspects of “public school” history. This new category conveniently encompassed any school not under state control, including some that charged quite modest fees and others that catered for special needs, allowing public schools to claim they represented “diversity” rather than “elitism” and to dilute the more damning figures about pupils’ social backgrounds. (Turner’s own definition of “public schools”, though lengthy, is necessarily imprecise: as the master of Wellington College wrote in 1932, only “a bold man” would attempt the task.)
By the last quarter of the 20th century, it was becoming almost impossible to embark on a professional or managerial career without educational credentials. Public-school alumni needed an academic badge to go with the social one. Just as they had once been hothouses of “character training”, the schools became academic hothouses, delivering credentials on an industrial scale. As Turner reports, now, if a teacher is late for a lesson, pupils instantly text their parents who then overwhelm the school switchboard with complaints.
The schools thus ensured that their alumni still took a disproportionate – indeed, a scarcely diminished – share of positions in the ruling elite. For more than a century, educational reformers thought meritocracy would lead to a fairer distribution of life chances. If entry to the universities, professions and managerial occupations were determined by grades in public exams rather than by family connections or school attended, they thought, those from humble backgrounds would flourish. They were wrong. Children from affluent homes, it turned out, were best placed to acquire educational credentials because their parents supplied the necessary vocabulary, habits of study and “cultural capital”. If their parents could also afford schools that offered small classes, lavish facilities, teaching exclusively geared to academic success, and the company of children from similarly privileged backgrounds, they had a high chance of securing the very best credentials: starred A-levels and Oxbridge degrees. Hereditary privilege, far from being overthrown, acquired meritocratic legitimacy. The public schools still take nearly half of the places at Oxford and Cambridge; college admissions tutors shrug their shoulders and insist they must admit the “academically qualified”.
Can anything be done about this? Two solutions are commonly mooted, neither very credible. The first is to raise standards at state schools so that their pupils can “compete”. Some state schools, even a few with high numbers from poor homes, succeed in pushing their pupils to achieve high A-level grades and even Oxbridge places. But no state comprehensive can focus as intensively on entry to the elite universities as public schools do for children selected on entry for their academic prowess. The answer to that, some suggest, is to revive grammar schools and open at least one in every town so that the state sector has its own academic powerhouses. Grammar school entrants, however, were (and, where the schools survive, are) drawn overwhelmingly from the middle-classes. Reviving them would simply add to social segregation, and most likely depress the performance of those who were not selected. Even if grammar schools did return, public school libraries, laboratories, workshops, arts centres and so on are now so far superior to those in the state sector – far more so than when most grammar schools were abolished in the 1960s and 1970s – as to make bridging the gap inconceivable.
The second proposal is to persuade the public schools to widen their intake and/or share “expertise” with the state sector. The ideal is “needs-blind entry”, whereby the schools would select the most meritorious applicants and then charge fees according to what their parents could afford. A few schools say they are building up endowment funds that will allow them to attain this goal. For the time being, the best the sector as a whole can do is to spend under 10 per cent of fee revenue on bursaries that waive some or all fees for a small number of pupils. A fifth of Etonians now get assistance and about 4 per cent pay nothing. But Turner, a former Financial Times journalist, shrewdly observes that “much bursary provision is actually a form of discounting in a competitive market”, used mainly by weaker schools to attract middle-class parents who can afford the fees only at a pinch.
For most public schools, broadening their entry goes against the grain. Under New Labour, the Charity Commission tried to make the schools’ charitable status, which delivers significant tax perks, dependent on showing “public benefit” through bursaries or sharing some facilities and teaching with local state schools. Instead of welcoming this opportunity to broaden their mission (pleading legal compulsion if paying customers asked why their hard-earned money should benefit other people’s children), the schools had the new rules overturned by the courts. It cut no ice that, according to widespread belief, the schools were originally founded to educate the poor. As Turner shows, this was largely a myth. Most schools had no such founding mission and, in any case, “poor and needy” was interpreted liberally, often being extended to include children of well-born families that had fallen on difficult times; recruitment was rarely from any lower in the social order than the artisan class. The first 35 scholars of Charterhouse, founded in 1611, included the sons of a clergyman, a surgeon and a lawyer. A governors’ order that the surgeon’s son should be sent home if his father proved worth more than £400 a year (£85,000 in 2012 prices) shows how flexibly the requirement for students to be “poor people” was interpreted. The “assisted places scheme”, introduced under Margaret Thatcher to allow more bright children from indigent families to “benefit” from public schools, had similar results.
What makes public schools successful, as their leaders well know, is their exclusivity. Far from broadening their entry, the top schools, competing in an “arms race” of capital spending on frills such as luxurious boarding accommodation, have increased their fees – now, Turner estimates, at their highest in real terms since the 14th century – beyond the reach even of many British doctors and lawyers. The consequence is that more than a third of public-school boarders today are foreign pupils whose parents live overseas. Some schools are moving towards serving a global, not just a British, elite.
In the NS last year, David and George Kynaston proposed that every private school should “sponsor” a state academy. A few schools, including Eton, have already taken this route but most governing bodies are not interested. Nor do all state schools welcome the idea. It is hard to see exactly what they would gain beyond the occasional physics or Latin lesson and an afternoon on a decent cricket pitch. And many teachers, on both sides of the divide, argue that the public schools’ expertise in teaching a privileged elite is simply not transferable to comprehensives that educate the other 93 per cent.
Until recently the public schools took no interest even in franchising their brands – opening satellite schools in more modest premises to offer their supposedly superior education at lower cost. Where they have embraced franchising, they have done so overseas (launching in, for instance, China, Singapore and South Korea). Again, their priority in the British market is to protect their biggest selling point: their exclusivity.
There is a third solution, perhaps the most promising. That is to persuade or force elite universities to step up their efforts to recruit students from state schools, particularly those in disadvantaged areas; to accept lower A-level grades from such students (justified by evidence that when students from the two sectors have equivalent grades, those from state schools emerge with better degrees); and even to introduce quotas. But the public schools’ lobbying power is strong and even left-wing university lecturers, no doubt mindful of the greater demands that less privileged students would make on their teaching skills, are uneasy about positive discrimination.
If Eton’s grounds and buildings were nationalised and its pupils required by law to attend state comprehensives, Eton would relocate on the Rhine or the Ganges. Likewise, if Etonians were turned away from Oxford and Cambridge, they would turn to Harvard or Yale, as some are already doing.
Turner tells an engrossing and well-researched story of how these schools rose from their beginnings in the 14th century, declined (twice) and rose (twice) again. He is broadly sympathetic to the public schools but acknowledges that they “certainly widen inequality of opportunity”. To justify their existence, he falls back on a sort of trickle-down effect: they spur improvements in the state sector (although, as he says, it was often the other way round in the past) and they add to the country’s spending on education and therefore to its stock of human capital. At various times in the past century, Turner explains, there were opportunities to solve the “public-school problem”. Most were bungled, usually by a Labour government, yet even then there was only one realistic solution: a society in which far greater equality of income and wealth would make it harder, if not impossible, for parents to afford extra privileges for their children.