The English Public School: An Apologia

Universities should not impose quotas on privately educated students. It is a crude tool which may exclude those from humble backgrounds

Even those who wish to express their dislike for public schools are well aware that they have played and continue to play an important role in national life. After all, the number of times that the newspapers tell us that David Cameron and Boris Johnson attended Eton or that George Osborne attended St Paul’s is beyond counting. Racial prejudice is rightly condemned, along with gender discrimination and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. But dismissing someone as a product of a public school — that is perfectly acceptable. The reverse side of this coin is the way one journalist after another proudly confesses to a grammar school education, even though several of these grammar schools, notably in Manchester, have often been classed along with the public schools as members of the Headmasters’ Conference. It makes sense, then, to ask what a public school is. A breezy and at the same time sensible guide to this problem has been provided by a new book published by Yale University Press entitled The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School (£25), in which David Turner shows how the public schools continue to make a much more positive contribution to British society than many would care to admit.

First, then, the definition. In 1861 the Clarendon Commission identified nine old schools that were thought to qualify, including Charterhouse, Rugby, St Paul’s and the very wealthy foundation of Merchant Taylors’. The public schools, as the term betrays, came into being as schools that in some way served the nation, as the three great collegiate schools at Winchester, Eton and Westminster have done for many centuries.  David Turner lays much emphasis on the role played by the first school to have been imbued from the start with the humanist principles of the Northern Renaissance, St Paul’s, founded by John Colet in around 1509. It was national because it served the elite of the national capital (if parents could not pay the cost of wax candles to be taken to school every day, their children would not be welcome — no cheap, smelly, vulgar tallow here!); and at various points in its history it was favoured by the high-born as well as by the professional classes, without ever having large numbers of boarders.

Their patronage by professional parents is, as Turner shows, the most interesting thing about these schools, even about Eton and Harrow: far from cultivating an exclusive poshness, there has always been space for those whose less grand parents sought advancement for their children. They have been a ladder for social ascent even when the quality of education they have offered has left something to be desired. Admittedly, they have been expensive, and are becoming more so as the facilities they offer are transformed into those of five-star hotels. There have never been enough scholarships, and to win one of those it helps to have been educated first at a very good prep school, which itself will be costly, so breaking into the system has never been easy. This problem has become more acute as middle-class parents find themselves without the means to pay the fees demanded, and the schools themselves have become increasingly reliant on foreign students, from China, Russia and elsewhere.

That, of course, takes one to the moral dilemma. Why should the excellent education on offer at Westminster and Winchester be so hard for people of modest or even middling means to obtain? We might be willing to pay for education, as we might also be willing to pay for private healthcare, but there remains at the back of our brains a moral scruple that itches a little. To some extent, this issue was addressed when a large number of schools inhabited a middle ground between grammar schools and public schools, in the Direct Grant system of scholarships that Labour swept away in the 1970s. These schools, it is true, were hobbled by the heavy representation among their governors of local government representatives; in this way their independence was compromised. When the Direct Grant ceased, Labour expected these schools to turn comprehensive or to shrivel, but many of them became completely independent and flourished as never before. Then there was the Assisted Places scheme set up by the Conservatives to provide scholarships at an even larger range of schools, including some of the ancient ones; the very first act of Blair’s new government was to sweep that system away as well.

The argument was about buying privilege, about the ease with which those who emerged from these schools could make their way in the City, in the professions or indeed in political life. It paid rather little attention to the main task of these schools, which was to educate. In the 19th century, the ideal of educating the whole person came more and more into focus; and the Clarendon Commission worried about the usefulness of the teaching that was offered in the nine schools it examined: plenty of Greek and Latin, but where were modern languages? Even mathematics was often treated with disdain. I can vouch for the fact that the cases David Turner cites in his book of science-less education around 1900 still occurred in the second half of the 20th century. I was asked at the age of 13, “Do you wish to do Greek, or do you wish to do science?” I very much wanted to do Greek, so I left school without any qualification in science (other than plenty of mathematics). 

It was the sort of school where the number of boys achieving Oxbridge awards each year was a matter of great pride; but that did not cancel out an insistence on building character that has been typical of these schools at least since Dr Arnold’s time at Rugby. Education was understood in a broad sense, and was not simply measured by exam grades. Once upon a time headmasters insisted that their schools provided training in “leadership”; nowadays talk of this aspect is rather muted. Yet, as Turner’s book shows, it cannot be entirely bad if there are places that produce a disproportionate number of eminent scientists, prominent politicians, great generals, and some of the leading young actors in this country. And this is even truer if, as he maintains, these schools have opened up opportunities for the middle classes, helping people work their way further up the social ladder. That rather few of those helped in this way have come from working-class backgrounds reflects the ending of the Assisted Places scheme and similar projects. 

In late-13th-century Florence you were at a serious disadvantage, in theory at least, if you came from one of the more eminent families, the so-called magnates. A culture of inverted snobbery came into being, with all the complications one might expect: people redesignated themselves as members of the popolo (“people”), adopting surnames such as Popoleschi in case anyone missed the point. In other words, there was plenty of opportunity to maintain the pretence of being just an ordinary bloke, while nothing could be further from the truth.  Much the same happened in ancient Rome, where patricians opted for plebeian status, like the infamous careerist Clodius, who was really a Claudius but could not become Tribune of the People while he was of patrician status (his scandalous infiltration of the rites of the Vestal Virgins, dressed as a woman, is a good story, but not relevant here). This wish to be counted as of the people is once again a characteristic of champagne socialists, but it is widespread across British society; its badge is the glottal stop that replaces the letter “t” in the speech of Harriet Harman and others. 

In case all this seems a digression from the topic of public schools, consider this. The Office of Fair Access (Offa) has entered into agreements with universities to ensure that they are making a full effort to identify disadvantaged students and offering them the financial and other support they will need. The “Guidance to the Director of Fair Access” issued by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills threatens that universities that fail to meet their target without good reason will be banned from charging the full fee of £9,000 per student. The real problem comes further down the line, as universities propose their way of addressing these demands. In Cambridge, it is assumed that one can measure the proportion of relatively disadvantaged students by increasing the number of state school entrants so that it matches the proportion of students in state schools who secure three A grades at A-level. It is hard to think of a cruder, more misshapen measuring stick. The category of state schools includes the remaining grammar schools as well as leading sixth-form colleges (which may be carefully selective), and a high percentage of the children coming from these schools also come from what can fairly be called middle-class backgrounds. Some children have switched from independent schools to state schools, such as a very good sixth-form college in Cambridge, to ensure that they are listed as state school entrants. In any case, something like 31 per cent of children in independent schools receive some financial support from the school so that they can continue to be educated there.

Everyone should applaud attempts to encourage children from genuinely disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to the best universities. That, indeed, is what Offa says it aims to achieve.  Much good work is done at leading universities to attract such candidates. But admissions tutors have also sometimes imposed quotas, and have told their colleagues that they can have no more boys and girls from public schools above the assigned number, forcing them to admit academically inferior candidates who may be ill-prepared for the demands of a top university and will struggle to keep up with their peers. Meanwhile, good students have been sent away with their tail between their legs, assured that they did not meet the standards required, when the real reason for rejection was positive discrimination.  The catchphrase “well-taught” sometimes signifies: “comes from an academic public school”.

Quotas leave many of us very uneasy. Years ago I came across a book in Cambridge University Library that tried to defend Mussolini’s regime, then in power in Italy. Surely, the author argued, it was necessary to address the over-representation of Jews among university professors in Italy? No one is suggesting that this discrimination is on that scale, but I would suggest that it lies along the same spectrum.

Positive discrimination helps no one, least of all those who are catapulted into a role for which they are not really prepared. There is a marvellous passage in the Bible, not a work most people turn to nowadays for moral guidance: “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not favour the poor, nor honour the powerful” (Leviticus 19:15). That sense of balance needs to be restored.

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