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17 March 2021

Public schools and the public

Why Eton, Harrow, Rugby and the rest thrived.

By Peter Wilby

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, Labour leaders have promised for the past 80 years to “do something” about fee-charging private schools. The 2019 election manifesto pledged to “close the tax loopholes” they enjoy and seek advice on “integrating [them] and creating a comprehensive education system”. This was a considerably weaker commitment than the announcement in 1973 by Roy Hattersley, then shadow education secretary, of “our serious intention… eventually to abolish private education” or the proposal from Labour’s national executive in 1943 that “all children… shall be required to attend schools provided by the state”.

The public schools, as they are popularly and inaccurately called, remain as secure as ever, disturbed only by the need to justify their charitable status with its tax advantages by showing “benefit to the community”. This can involve little more than allowing the local comprehensive free use of a school’s lavish playing fields.

Both these books help to explain why the likes of Eton, Harrow and Rugby survived almost unscathed into the 21st century. David Walsh, retired deputy head of Tonbridge School, and Anthony Seldon, former head of Wellington College, consider how the public schools coped with the Second World War and recall the contributions of ex-public schoolboys (and some schoolgirls) in the hostilities. In both world wars, casualties among public school alumni were almost twice the national average. This should not be a surprise. Partly because military training had been part of their education, men from fee-charging schools were routinely chosen as officers at a time when officers still led from the front. Nevertheless, the British elite, often blamed for mass slaughter in the trenches, came badly out of the 1914-18 war.

Not so after the Second World War. In popular imagination, cultivated by an Old Harrovian prime minister, everything was owed to “the few”. The message was reinforced, as Walsh and Seldon recall, by the successful war films of the 1950s, in which public school-educated actors, speaking in cut-glass accents, portrayed public school-educated heroes. Think of The Dam Busters with Richard Todd (Shrewsbury) playing Guy Gibson (St Edward’s, Oxford) and Michael Redgrave (Clifton) playing Barnes Wallis (Christ’s Hospital), or Reach for the Sky with Kenneth More (Victoria, Jersey) playing Douglas Bader (also St Edward’s).

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Mid-market novels by Nicholas Monsarrat (Winchester) and Nevil Shute (Shrewsbury) also created the positive images of the Second World War, as did the newsreading of John Snagge (Winchester) and Richard Dimbleby (Mill Hill). The paradox of the war is that, though it ended with a reforming Labour government, the ruling class, educated in the public schools, emerged more confident than ever. It may have been forced into a temporary economic and political retreat but, at least until the 1960s, it won what would now be called the culture war.

Against that backdrop, Labour had little hope of reforming the schools. The moment had passed. Before the war and during its early years, the elite schools were struggling: between 1934 and 1938, Harrow’s admissions fell by 37 per cent and its debts rose to nearly £200,000. They begged the government for help. By 1942, Churchill was, according to one account, sympathetic to 60-70 per cent of their places going to pupils recommended for bursaries by local authorities. In 1943, Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador, who may have been hearing what he wanted to hear, recorded the education minister RA Butler saying that “almost all public schools should be abolished”. But by 1945, helped by a revival in economic activity that allowed more prosperous parents to afford fees, the schools had recovered.

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Besides, Labour never had its heart in “doing something” about the public schools. About a third of 1945-51 Labour cabinet ministers, including Clement Attlee, the prime minister, had attended them. Even Ernest Bevin, a former union leader famous for his dropped aitches, said “we must never change any of this” when he visited Eton.

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That brings us to the University of Cambridge historian Peter Mandler’s book. He sets out to revise the story of postwar British education and disposes of the myth, still peddled by right-wing politicians and commentators, that comprehensive schools were created, and grammar schools abolished, in the 1960s and 1970s by order of Labour ministers such as Anthony Crosland and Shirley Williams. Rather, the pressure for comprehensives came from ordinary parents who wanted opportunities for their children that were unavailable in secondary moderns, including the O-level exams that promised access to white-collar or “clean” jobs. Before Labour was re-elected in 1964, nearly three in four English local councils, many of them Tory-controlled, had initiated plans to end selection at age 11, already virtually dead in Scotland and Wales. 


By then, a great expansion of university education had also begun, which was not driven by an official committee under the free-market economist Lionel Robbins, as was widely believed subsequently, but by irresistible popular demand. That demand-driven expansion, interrupted briefly in the 1970s and early 1980s, continued into the 2010s so that around half of all young people now go to university. Ministers may now propose to stem the flow, directing more teenagers into vocational courses, but whether they can resist the still growing demand is another matter: in 2007, even among mothers with the lowest educational qualifications, 96 per cent aspired to university for their children.

Yet the huge postwar expansion of secondary and higher education made barely a scrap of difference to what sociologists call “relative” social mobility. Millions of young people moved into the middle classes but anyone who started at the bottom of the social ladder was still many times less likely to make it to the top than anyone born there. That, Mandler argues, didn’t matter to the mass of parents. Their children were doing better than they did, getting longer education and better jobs and living standards. They viewed higher education as a “consumption good”, one of the “decencies of life” like free health services. It was not the politicians’ desire to create a meritocracy that drove educational expansion but parents’ desire to claim what they saw as their and their children’s rights in a democracy.

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This argument may not be entirely convincing but it does explain why the public schools survived. Mandler scarcely ­mentions them, and most sociologists agree that their share of the school-age population, steadily around 7 per cent for at least half a century, is too small to make a notable difference to the big picture of social mobility. They didn’t slow the rise of mass education. Parents, provided their own ­children got better chances in life, didn’t care about the toffs who gripped the commanding heights of politics and the professions. On the contrary, they continued to vote for them.

There was no public pressure for the abolition of public schools, only pressure to keep improving state provision at all levels. With a few exceptions, postwar politicians of all parties were wise enough to respond to that pressure. Whether the present generation can be so wise remains to be seen. 

The Crisis of the Meritocracy: Britain’s Transition to Mass Education Since the Second World War
Peter Mandler
Oxford University Press, 384pp, £25

Public Schools and the Second World War: The Generation Lost
David Walsh and Anthony Seldon
Pen & Sword, 328pp, £25

This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold