Public schools are the jewel in the crown of the British education system. Across the centuries, they have educated our elite across government, law and the arts. They are as synonymous with England — golden, verdant, timeless England — as scones with cream and jam, cricket (played in whites, please) and The Queen. Their allure is partly myth, partly nostalgia, partly cold, hard commercialism. Of course, there is the romanticised ideal, cemented in our best fiction: the public schools of Jennings and Darbishire; of Billy Bunter; of devoted, beloved Mr. Chipping. Harry Potter is, though JK Rowling may not admit it, the ultimate scholarship boy made good. Our best comedians and raconteurs play on the stereotypes. Peter Cook; Stephen Fry; David Mitchell are all, in their inimitable ways, quintessentially English public school boys. Our most popular politicians similarly trade on their educational backgrounds. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are quick to play up their illustrious old school; a Latin simile, a flash of Houseroom wit, and in one bound they are free.
We love the public school image. The illustrious buildings: high-ceilinged schoolrooms and arborescent chapels. And the characters who occupy them: the young, enthusiastic English master, spilling his papers everywhere; the inebriated chaplain; busty matron; the concerned housemaster lecturing his charges on unGodly late-night beastliness.
The cliche about cliches is that they’re true. But, in this case, only partly so. Contemporary public schools are often unhealthily obsessed with modernity. My own alma mater, Abingdon, an ancient school in Oxfordshire, recently became the first boys’ school to appoint a female “head”. It met with a flurry of press, and the approval of the Guardian. Which explains why they’ve gone back to a headmaster.
There is a rigid ranking. Eton and Harrow are the top, then Westminster and Wellington. In Oxfordshire, Abingdon sits just below Radley, but above Magdalen. And everyone looks down at Cokethorpe — which is mixed-sex and insufficiently academically selective. Hierarchy, order, and ambition are essentials of the human condition; a private education teaches pupils to seize that and run with it.
My personal preference is for the dustier, more traditional, mid-ranking institutions, where greying masters teach overtired boys on a Saturday morning about philosophy and literature. And, perhaps most importantly for a life in government or business or law, how to be bored without showing it. The perception of independent schools is as reactionary. I remember asking my mathematics master, a kindly, long-suffering, fey little man, who he voted for in the 2005 election.
“Because,” he announced to our class, “the Barbarians are at the gates, gentlemen.”
A little hyperbolic then, perhaps. Demonstrably pertinent now.
Labour wants a formalised “National Education Service” — as if the sclerotic National Health Service isn’t enough inefficient, ideology-bound socialised provision to be getting on with. Of course, Labour politicians hate public schools, even though they frequently attended them, and even more frequently send their children to them. The argument is that public schools give their pupils an unfair advantage, which makes the honourable member for Islington North’s brace of Es at A-Level even more worrying.
6.5 per cent of all schoolchildren in the UK — seven per cent in England — are educated in public schools. That’s a large chunk of pupils our already overstretched public purse doesn’t need to pick up the tab for. Instead of castigating these parents, we should be thanking them — their tax can be spent on the education of the less well-off, while their own children are taken out of the system. Indeed, if certain Labour MPs had her way and independent schools were abolished, the sudden flood of pupils into our state system would almost certainly collapse it.
Public schools do a lot for their communities, providing facilities and support to nearby comprehensive schools, as well as taking bright, local pupils on scholarship. If the government were to remove charitable status — a perennial threat — many headmasters would have to consider withdrawing this support. A huge loss for local people. Average fees sit at around £17, 000 per year — a hefty whack, but not beyond many middle class families. And there’s more we could and should do to encourage their usage: a tax-break for parents who take their children out of state education would be a pragmatic policy which relieved pressure on comprehensives.
There is much the state sector could learn from private education. Structured days; proper, engaged pastoral care; and discipline. Evelyn Waugh famously jokes in Decline and Fall that any man who has been to public school would be quite at home in prison. Old Etonian Jonathan Aitken quipped similarly when he was sent down for perjury. The archaeologist Osbert Crawford compared them to prisoner of war camps. Well, perhaps; but POW camps with better cricketing facilities.
We live in a society which is obsessed with meritocracy and therefore too easily cowed by what it perceives as social status. Corbyn and McDonnell’s luddite quality trades on this: who needs a classical education when you can do a term of trade union studies at a North London poly, then ferment a workers’ revolution?
They are not just formidable educators. They are also, at their hearts, engines of leadership. Sir Peregrine Worsthorne — still, in his 90s, merrily rankling Socialists — explained this succinctly. “It seems to me that the Conservative Party should say that private schools are in the national interest…Public schools are our historic, traditional producers of a governing elite, who see it as their responsibility to go into politics and to govern.” We should not be afraid of the well-documented gentleman conservative, nor indeed the gentleman socialist (curious breed though they are). Attlee went to Haileybury; Blair to Fettes. Corbyn went to Castle House, but would err at being described as gentlemanly. There is a trend.
Public schools built Britain. They are a jewel — which we should polish enthusiastically, and let shine brightly.