When Michael Gove was selling his school reforms a decade ago he was asked to define success. ‘I hope that thanks to the reforms we’ve introduced the next Guardian editor but three will be a comprehensive school boy or girl.’ It was his little joke: that the loudest critics of private schools, the people who rail against the injustice of the whole system, tend to be people who went to these schools.
There is a long tradition of books by public schoolboys decrying public schools. The latest is Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England whose author, Richard Beard, went first to Pinewood, a prep school on the Wiltshire/Oxfordshire border, and then the £41,700-a-year Radley College. The gist of his argument is that former private school boys like him ended up running Britain (Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Rishi Sunak) and he wants to expose the rotten, snobbish system that produced them all.
A similar argument was made in a 2019 book, Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, which outlines the ‘striking, in some cases grotesque’ way in which such schools ‘buy educational privilege [which] also buys lifetime privilege and influence’. The authors should know: both of them (Francis Green and David Kynaston) attended such schools. This doesn’t make them hypocrites — children are generally not in charge of where they are educated. But these kinds of attacks unwittingly make a bigger point: that these schools do work.
A parent reading these accounts would be open-mouthed: can it really be so? Can enrolment in Winchester or Eton or even Harrow guarantee children a fast lane into the elite? If so, they are surely worth the money. These books are unintentional adverts for the institutions they lambaste. They are mostly well-written (as you might expect from such an expensive education) but there is a circularity of argument. The authors believe Britain’s obsession with class is damaging, yet the book sales stoke this obsession with tales of class and privilege.
Beard’s book describes boarding schools as an ‘accelerated class-laundering scheme’. He means it as an insult, but for a lot of people it wouldn’t be: it’s precisely what they are buying into. Even critics can be secretly won over. It makes sense that Polly Toynbee and Diane Abbott, who both spent quite some time drawing attention to the privilege private school confers, ended up being drawn to this option for their own children. If you really do think that there is such a big divide, which side of it would you like your family to be on?
In his book, Beard has some harsh words for his former headmaster Dennis Silk and his address to new boys (which appeared in a 1979 television documentary). Silk tells boys that Radley will give them ‘the right habits for life’ — which Beard summarises as an instruction to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip’. He makes it sound quite awful.
But the actual address Silk delivered is still on the record, and it’s rather moving. ‘Some of you are blessed with great brains,’ he told the new boys. ‘Some of you not. That doesn’t matter tuppence: what matters is how hard you’re prepared to try. You’re going to find this one of the big differences in a public school, your fortunes are in your hands. It matters to me that you should not speak to people with your hands in your pockets. It matters to me that you’re smart, well turned out… these tiny little things make something that lasts. Because you come to school for one thing really: to acquire the right habits for life.’
This isn’t about a stiff upper lip. It’s about lifetime habits that many parents want their kids to learn, but are now often derided as unfashionable. My own father left a school he loved aged 15 (as was standard in postwar Glasgow), then joined the RAF. When he was posted to Cyprus, the military paid for me to board. He shopped around. Dollar Academy, where I ended up, won him over with the same language as Silk. ‘Mr Nelson, you will be paying for the kind of education you received at your Glasgow grammar for free.’ Parents still want that now.
To attack schools for offering discipline, competition and traditional values is to partake in their own marketing. Where private schools are more vulnerable is on another question entirely: does their formula still work or have the best state schools caught up? Boris Johnson was at Eton from 1977 to 1983, George Osborne was at St Paul’s from 1985 to 1990. Their success as adults speaks to the state-private gap when they were boys. The Sutton Trust now and again trots out figures such as 65 per cent of senior judges are privately educated, but the average judge would have left school in the 1970s.
How about today? Where’s the private advantage? Until a few years ago, the Department for Education collected comparable statistics on A-levels. It showed something that really was devastating for private schools. The best 200 state schools in Britain secured better results for their pupils than the best 200 private schools. The same was true for the top 100, the top 50 and even the top ten.
This is backed up by another metric: admission to Oxford and Cambridge. When my dad left school in the 1950s, 62 per cent of their intake was private. When I left school in 1991 it was 48 per cent. Now, it’s 32 per cent. This reflects the trend in pupils taking the top A-levels: most used to go to private pupils, now it’s state. This is why most books attacking private school privilege are hugely out of date. And, for the schools, helpfully so.
A woman I know, a little older than I am, recently discovered this to her cost. She is an immigrant, who has built a remarkable success for herself and sent her son to one of the most famous schools in Britain. She bought into the much-hyped idea of its corridors being full of the sons and daughters of the global elite. She wanted him to make connections that would set him up for life. But to her horror, she discovered the other parents were just like her. There was (in her words) ‘not a single prince’. She pulled her son out within a year.
This is the real exposé waiting to be written. Britain does indeed have the best private schools in the world, but they now sell themselves on extracurricular activities, huge playing fields and life experience. Not, really, on academic advantage or superior future academic prospects. The best state schools can offer that too and without the staggering fees (or the stigma of being posh).
‘Private education is not fair,’ said Alan Bennett. ‘Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. And those who receive it know it — or should.’ They do. They write about it. And they love nothing more than to exaggerate this unfairness in a way that does their intended targets no harm at all.