–What to do about Britain’s private school problem?

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–What to do about Britain’s private school problem?


In 1948 George Orwell, the old Etonian socialist visionary, wrote that his alma mater represented “a form of education that is hardly likely to last much longer”. The UK’s private schools had at the time managed to swerve out of the line of fire of the great postwar social reformers. And having survived all major interferences from the state since its foundation in 1440, Eton College and the rest of the fee-paying sector have continued to prosper pretty much undisturbed to this day. It is now an internationally attractive service industry offering a golden ticket to a valuable university degree and a rewarding career to a fraction of British youth and the offspring of high-rollers from across the globe.

Engines of Privilege is a fresh dissection of what its authors deem “Britain’s private school problem”. But in this richly detailed account of Britain’s educational castes, insistent in its calls for change, the historian David Kynaston and education economist Francis Green lapse into a contagious weariness — why are we still discussing such egregious inequities when they might have been dealt with any number of times?

Partly, as the authors admit, this is because these enclaves for the affluent, attended by the children of only about 7 per cent of UK families, are a different, luxurious planet, far removed from the state sector experience of most British families. Their very otherness has allowed the gulf between how different parts of society are educated to endure and even deepen. But the persistent gross over-representation of privately educated pupils at top universities and in the professions makes the success of these institutions far from irrelevant in their effects on the rest of the nation.

It wasn’t always this way. As both Engines of Privilege and another new book on the top tier of private schools, Gilded Youth by James Brooke-Smith, explain, the origins of England’s famous boys’ “public schools” was as charitable foundations set up to educate the poor of their locality. As they became destinations for first young aristocrats and then the moneyed middle classes, eager for grandeur by association, the pursuit of learning fell back to a distant second place — the main objective was to turn out a certain type of gentleman, fit to conquer and administer an empire.

Sadism and conformity became the norm, only to give way, patchily, to the muscular Christianity that fetishised sport and “manliness”. The obsession with character and masculine virtue took over, as Brooke-Smith explains in his entertaining and rather racy history of subversiveness at the great public schools, after a rash of rioting and pitched battles in the late 1700s.

The details are glorious and told with relish; this book dwells on the “privations and idiosyncrasies” of public schools as stimulants to rebellion through the ages. At Marlborough they burnt the headmaster’s manuscript on Sophocles. At Winchester they took the warden hostage and flew the Phrygian cap, symbol of liberty, from the school roof. The rebels at Harrow nailed a copy of the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man to the noticeboard. At Eton they took a sledgehammer to the desk of “Flogger” Keate, a particularly unpleasant headmaster, and daubed Floreat Seditio (rather than Floreat Etona, the school motto) on the walls.

Ironically, the ringleaders often went on to high office, notes Brooke-Smith. These destinations were guaranteed even once the relative anarchy of this era gave way to “the Victorian mania for surveillance and control”. After the government-inspired Clarendon Commission had, in the 1860s, examined the role of the nine “great” public schools, their position and future was secured, as was that of several hundred endowed schools, which have ever since provided the next rungs down on the ladder of reputation and expense.

Green and Kynaston lament this and many subsequent lost opportunities for reform, speculating that they failed because so many of the public schools enjoyed — as they do to this day — loyalty in useful places. The sector also proved brilliantly adaptable to evolving aspirational tastes: both their public image and the reality on the ground went from “cruel, repressive, reactionary and generally antediluvian”, with “cleverness” positively frowned on, to “modern, caring, cultured and socially liberal — while at the same time, disciplined and ambitious”.

Where Brooke-Smith confines his study to investigating the “hex” that public schools cast over individuals, society and even popular culture, Engines of Privilege concludes with lengthy policy prescriptions. We can expect the manifesto-writers at the next general election to pass magpie-like over these chapters in search of eye-catching symbolic proposals. But the authors want more — action to break down the social strata laid down over centuries of segregated schooling: “It is surely time for the waves — of discussion, of regret, of outrage — to start pounding relentlessly . . . on Britain’s deeply embedded rocks.”

Many readers do not see private schools as a problem and will quarrel with the premise. Plenty remain enthralled by what Brooke-Smith calls their “mystique,” and there is no dearth of parents who want to buy the positional advantage they confer on pupils. I was bemused by my private school but it certainly has not hurt my career.

Others admire a model that, at its best (and most expensive), offers sports and arts facilities of a professional quality alongside specialist academic teaching to university standard — this is, after all, a successful export, with over a third of all private boarding school places now taken up by non-UK students. On the left, the bias is still towards building up state schools in the hope of marginalising the independent sector. Outright abolition comes up, as the authors admit, against freedom of choice.

But ignoring the distorting effects of such a socially selective elite looks increasingly perverse. The “profound and systemic unevenness of the great British playing field” as Green and Kynaston describe it, may not enhance the nation’s post-Brexit future.

Even if the ideas for rolling the pitch in Engines of Privilege vary in their political usefulness, the appeal to act is heartfelt. As the conclusion to such exhaustive histories of these peculiar institutions and their evolutionary genius, it’s a persuasive case.

Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, by David Kynaston and Francis Green, Bloomsbury, RRP£20, 320 pages

Gilded Youth: Privilege, Rebellion and the British Public School, by James Brooke-Smith, Reaktion, RRP£18, 296 pages

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