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12 March 2024

The price of private education

For as long as boarding school survivors govern Britain, they will inflict their own pain on the nation.

By Richard Beard

Charles Spencer has a memoir out, and famously, when given a pulpit, Charles Spencer tells it like it is. His new book, A Very Private School, is about his experience in the 1970s at the boarding school Maidwell Hall, which prepared him for a subsequent five years at Eton. So how was prep school for Earl Spencer? Not great. The advance publicity promised Spencer’s take on a “culture of cruelty” and the “hopelessness and abandonment” he felt as a small boy at a provincial English boarding school. It turns out to be worse than that, with Spencer’s altitude in the class system failing to protect him from sexual abuse.

The school itself issued a statement saying that “almost every facet of school life has evolved significantly since the 1970s”. Changing values, the 1989 Children Act and computer technology have forced an end to the traditional boarding school offer of neglect in isolated country houses for money. This is the kind of schooling I remember in my own book, Sad Little Men, and Spencer’s memoir will join a surge of recent publications about private education in Britain, less dehumanising than it once was but still an enduring instrument of social division. However private these schools would prefer to be, the scrutiny is timely and necessary.

Francis Green and David Kynaston, in Engines of Privilege (2019), take the academic approach. Professors in economics and history respectively, they lay out the statistical facts of Britain’s educational divide with graphs and charts. The facts are shocking. On opportunity, earnings, status and influence, the privately educated benefit from “a formidable armoury of competitive advantage on an uneven playing field”. Making full use of figures from the Sutton Trust, which monitors social mobility, the authors discover that in the UK social mobility isn’t really a thing. Private school alumni dominate senior positions in the law, the military, politics, the civil service, medicine, journalism, business and books about private schools. What other sectors are there? A privately educated woman is 100 per cent more likely to marry a future king of England.

Once upon a time, these benefits were celebrated. Even today the wave of interest in private schooling raises all boats, and there are spirited apologists for Britain’s two-tier educational system. In Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School (2015), David Turner  entertainingly recounts Britain’s colourful not-so-recent past – the fagging and beer rations and eyes lost in fights – and points out that public schoolboys have been accused of being out of touch since at least the Boer War. He then uses the same Sutton Trust statistics as Engines of Privilege to reach a different conclusion. The disproportionate share of top jobs for the old boys shows “the breadth of public school talent”.

The rest of the country, using nothing more than their powers of observation, can assess this judgement for themselves. I started boarding school in 1975, the same year as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, but our youthful diet of Latin and empire exceptionalism was equally imposed on Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rishi Sunak and countless others who every day share with us the breadth of their talent. One of the attractions of books about private schools is the explanation they offer, when it comes to the good and the great, of otherwise baffling actions and attitudes. Entitlement and arrogance and a casual lack of empathy can be traced back to a period of incubation behind high school walls, and the grim details once revealed are frankly worth knowing.

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For the racism, see Musa Okwonga’s One of Them (2021), as well as the recently reissued A Black Boy at Eton (original title, A N***** at Eton) by Dillibe Onyeama . “It’s hard not to be horrified by what he endures,” says the novelist Bernardine Evaristo  about Onyeama’s memoir, “or to be outraged on his behalf.” For the sexual abuse, see Stiff Upper Lip (2017) by Alex Renton. These books are a warning against indulging private schools with too much privacy, though beyond a horrified curiosity about the bed-wetting and the beatings, a clue to the wider appeal of recent public school books can be found in the subtitles: “How English Public Schools Ruin Britain”; “Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class”; “Britain’s Private School Problem”. That Britain is ruined and has problems is a given, as is the existence of a ruling class determined by an exclusive and expensive education. The books mostly propose that these constants in national life – the ruin and the ruling class – may not be unconnected. 

Nearly a century ago writers had similar misgivings: “It is all too obvious that our talk of defending democracy is nonsense while it is a mere accident of birth that decides whether a gifted child shall or shall not get the education it deserves.” This hit of pure 1930s George Orwell is quoted in Robert Verkaik’s Posh Boys (2018), an engaged journalistic overview of how education helps the moneyed few gain and guard their privileges, including  leadership. On glossy websites, private schools invariably celebrate leadership as both a skill they can teach and a value, as is “service”, though the two concepts appear to be interchangeable. An Old Etonian who works in “public service” is probably prime minister, and generally private schoolchildren expect to serve by taking on the burden of the better-paying jobs. Everyone else can look forward to the privilege of being led and served at the same time.

As a sense of national crisis deepens, it’s fair to question this traditional doublethink. The writer TC Worsley certainly thought so as far back as 1941 in his long essay “The End of the Old School Tie, published as part of Orwell’s “Searchlight” series. “If public schools are national assets because of their leadership and training qualities,” Worsley wrote, “what are we to think of those qualities when we survey the mess into which their leadership has brought us?”

Well, quite. There might be a book in that. Several, in fact, and some of them rally to the cause of Old England. In Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979, Ysenda Maxtone Graham  makes the cut-off point for her collection of jaw-dropping witness statements the arrival of the duvet. In other words, those were the days when an unflinching Englishness was supposedly cultivated in eccentric all-girl cults, with their terrible meals and hopeless pashes and a teacher asking for “Hands-up those girls with homes open to the public”.

Maxtone Graham has an eye for the silver lining. In among the adventures and agonies she argues that young girls separated from their parents replaced family bonds with unusually intense friendships. As for the lessons, the academic standards were so poor in girls’ boarding schools (1939-1979) that the result was a “lifelong thirst” for self-improvement. The compensations are seen as the rewards; the deprivation as the value. “This early training in doing things that you loathed, every single day… made these women unspoilt, tough and dependable.”

Above all, don’t complain. Maxtone Graham’s formidable interviewees cheerfully resist the self-examination their teachers clearly deplored. In their recollections these women embody the cold blood but kindly eye of the memsahib, attributing to their schooldays an unflappable cultural grounding they share with James Bond, fresh out of his boarding school in Edinburgh. That was us, that was: an indomitable colonial power raised on straight backs and scratchy blankets.

Most of the other newish books, by contrast, think it’s time someone made a complaint. The softness of the 21st century – the duvets, the introspection – has eroded the tight-lipped omertà of English restraint, as previously championed in these kinds of schools. There used to be no greater transgression than sneaking, or speaking out. Writing 200 pages of sneak, as I discovered myself, requires a readjustment to years of conditioning, and until recently the defects of the public school type were more comfortably explored in fiction. John le Carré’s secretive world of cliques and cabals was monopolised by privately educated spies who “knew very little of the country they honestly thought they were protecting”. A Murder of Quality, his one novel set explicitly in an English public school, requires George Smiley himself to read the runes. Smiley sees the teachers and boys in black gowns and realises “they were always in mourning at Carne; the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave”.

But the big boys never do quite leave, which is part of the problem, and a body of literature is forming around the psychological consequences of an expensive British education. The psychotherapist and writer Joy Schaverien convincingly sets out the early emotional damage in Boarding School Syndrome (2015). For anyone interested, the symptoms – instilled from an early age – include emotional detachment, dissociation, cynicism, exceptionalism, defensive arrogance, offensive arrogance, cliquism, compartmentalisation, guilt, grief, denial, strategic emotional misdirection and stiff-lipped stoicism. Or, translated into non-therapeutic English: “Thanks, I’m fine.”

In equally pioneering work, Nick Duffell’s The Making of Them  (2000) identifies strategies used by “boarding school survivors” to compensate for the trauma of their schooling. These self-protective instincts are generally not good news for other people. Duffell then hooks these ideas directly into UK politics in 2014’s Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion. Many of the Brits in power, he argues, would be better off in therapy. At the most damaged end of the spectrum, adults heavy with shame and armour act out their emotional deficit on others. Anyone less accomplished at hiding their feelings is weak, and if weaklings get bullied they should be grateful to the bully for straightening them out. This is essentially the theory of human nature as translated into policy suggestions at Tufton Street.

Ominously for the country, the afflictions of the powerful seep down from the top, like a mockery of the trickle-down economics so beloved of Thatcherites. Down the psychological damage drips – the insincerity and neediness and latent terror – and when boarding school boys are in charge (most of 2010-24) the country as a whole will share their pain.

If it feels like time for a change, the private fraction of Britain’s divided school system has a long history of resisting meaningful reform. From the Clarendon Commission in 1861  to Keir Starmer’s plans to charge VAT on fees, the privately educated have predictably lobbied for the survival of their tribe. Even so, and despite the pressure the rich and powerful can bring to bear, the status of these schools is not as safe as it was. Renton’s Stiff Upper Lip and Spencer’s bruised and bruising memoir undermine their claim to moral authority, while Verkaik’s Posh Boys pins their contemporary reality within the global luxury service industry. Verkaik reveals that in 2017 Eton recruited to its security team a former assistant chief constable and head of the South East Organised Crime and Counter-Terrorism Unit. That’s some school janitor service, but useful when protecting the cubs of oligarchs.

Fearing today’s shift in mood, fee-charging schools flail their arms towards bursaries and other initiatives they claim will help to rescue the deserving poor – look at that, not at this – but when details emerge, the miracle-working is often an illusion. Parents eligible for bursaries at St Paul’s in London, for example, can apply with an annual income of up to £120,000. In any case, displacing a handful of smart and sporty urchins into the magic kingdom isn’t much of a solution, no more than it was in 1941. TC Worsley was already dismissive of similar self-serving band-aids, which “simply preserve the division while shuffling different sets of people into the different compartments”. The schools hope that with a little misdirection nothing fundamental in the UK’s unfair educational provision will have to change.

Those less incentivised to ignore national problems – the ruin of Britain, the British ruling class – attempt to envision a future that looks different from the past. Robert Verkaik advocates for these schools “a slow and peaceful euthanasia”, to be achieved by policies that cut off hidden state subsidies and further discourage parents by obstructing the curated pathways to Britain’s older universities. If that doesn’t work, there should be quotas on top jobs: instead of 70 per cent of judges being privately educated, as is the case now, the figure should be reduced to 7 per cent, to match the numbers currently benefiting from private education.

In Life Lessons: The Case for a National Education Service (2018), Melissa Benn is closer to Kynaston and Green in favouring a less radical transition. There should be a significant number of compulsory state-funded places at private schools, but with strict conditions. Given the historical reluctance of private schools to play nicely, any internal reforms will require vigilant exterior pressure, with the objective of coaxing these schools back into the wider national community. 

All these books concede that British private schools offer an experience that can be measurably excellent. Measure the art provision and the playing fields and the exam results. However, if there’s one glaring and persistent educational failing, it’s how few of these children as adults see the injustice in the 21st century of a society divided from primary school into those who pay for lessons and those who don’t.

Maybe the next generation will be more aware. The current headmaster of Eton has called himself unashamedly “woke”, and his boys are encouraged to post earnest essays from their all-male, socially exclusive boarding houses on to the official school blog: “The Etonian social nexus still somewhat restricts diversity.” Embracing an ostentatious progressivism, private schools may now employ a director of inclusion, and be accused in the inevitable Daily Telegraph backlash of adopting a “left-wing ideological orthodoxy”. Good luck with that, at £46,000 a year. Inclusive? Not even the ski-trip to Quebec is included.

The view from outside these schools feels more to the point now that an older school mentality, under threat, has begun to toy with unexpected alliances in the real world. A thwarted sense of public-school entitlement can play call and response with a distracted, disillusioned populace, evoking a nostalgic patriotism that’s more like homesickness. This feeling is strongest in anyone who has felt abandoned and unloved, without purpose in the wrong place at the wrong time. On these terms the much too rich and much too poor can find common populist cause, with moderate stragglers left mystified in the shrinking middle ground.

These recent books help explain how that can happen. Forty years ago a teacher at the private school Dulwich College casually noted that Nigel Farage was “a fascist, but that was no reason why he would not make a good prefect”. Too many of the directions this country takes have traditionally been over-influenced by the assumptions and attitudes of a small number of exclusive schools. It’s worth looking closely at what these assumptions are, and what can be done about them, chipping away word by word at those high, very private walls.  

[See also: What are private schools really selling?]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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