Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Reassuringly expensive?

Public schools endlessly praise, commend and extol those middle-class parents who scrimp and save in order to educate their children away from the dreaded state sector. It isn't exactly Monty Pythons 'Four Yorkshiremen', but a survey by mtm consulting in 2007 found that four-fifths of public school parents spent up to 40% of their income on school fees.

A survey by Halifax Financial Services in 2006 reported that average school fees now amount to more than a third of average earnings. They claimed the average annual cost of sending a child to private school was £10,368 compared with £7,275 in 2001. As a result, “the average worker in a number of occupations, including pharmacists, engineers and journalists, can no longer afford to educate their offspring,” according to Martin Ellis, Halifax Financial Services' chief economist.

However, when it comes to the crème-de-la-crème, the elite public schools, we are talking about eye-watering fees that only the seriously rich can afford – day fees of £9,000 and boarding costs of £25,000. Eton don't list their pupils according to rank, nobility first, but there are the charges for 'extras' and a certain snobbery that can disadvantage the less wealthy i.e., holidays, clothing, private yachts, etc.

There are of course bursaries, discounts and scholarships to ameliorate or ease the burden of fees. In some of the older, established, traditional public schools endowments are used to reduce or subsidise the total school fee. Research for the 'New Statesmen' by Dan Rosenheck in 2003 revealed that-

'Eton, tuition fees constitute just two-thirds of total revenue: investment and property income add £9,744 per pupil per year. At Winchester, the gap between fees and spending is £3,337 per pupil. In other words, these schools subsidise the education of their pupils. They are charities, as their legal status suggests, but the charity goes to those who need it least. The beneficiaries are the very wealthy, who can afford to pay £21,000 per year but not the £30,000 an Eton education actually costs; and the fabulously wealthy, who could afford such education but receive it at cut-price rates.'

In 2009 the Charity Commission investigated five public schools and reported on a wide variation in bursaries and scholarships-

Highfield Priory didn't provide any bursaries or scholarships.

Manchester Grammar School assisted 14% of pupils with bursaries and 8% received 100% assistance.

Manor House assisted 21% of pupils with bursaries and hardship awards with a further 8% on scholarships (up to 40% of fees), only 1% of students received a 100% bursary.

Pangbourne assisted 24% of pupils and a further 20% were on scholarships (up to 50% of fees), less than 1% of students received a 100% bursary.

St Anselm's assisted less than 1% of pupils with bursaries and only 3% received scholarships.

Some of the less-well endowed schools complained that as they didn't have money invested by ancient foundations and that if they provided more bursaries or scholarships they would have to raise fees for other parents. As the 'Good Schools Guide' noted on their web site,

'It takes determination and hard work on your part, and exceptional abilities on the part of your child, to have a good chance of securing a high-value bursary. Most scholarships are, these days, of little value - a few per cent off the fees for the sake of an accolade.'

Most of the elite public schools accept pupils at the age of thirteen through the Common Entrance Exam and successful pupils will generally have spent years in a prep school sitting mock tests and revising old papers.

The fact is that the proverbial 'struggling middle-class parent' is very unlikely to gain entrance for their child to the true elite – Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, Repton, Rugby, Sherborne, Tonbridge, Uppingham, Wellington, Westminster and Winchester. Although there has been a move away from boarding this doesn't apply to the these schools, so fees will start at around £20,000. Even then there is still a certain one-upmanship, when George Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club his nickname was 'oik' because he'd attended St Paul's and not Eton or Harrow.

All of these elite schools are members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which includes around 250 of the most exclusive public schools. Membership is granted by invitation only and is highly prized. Exclusion from the HMC is virtually the kiss of death for any aspiring public school. The quality of schools outside the HMC is variable, there are plenty of maverick headteachers who establish their own schools with children whose parents want to escape the state sector at any cost.

Are high fees a deterrent for parents? During the 1870s the County Education schools movement attempted to organise fee-paying schools for the middle classes at cut rate prices, they weren't successful. Chris Woodhead is attempting a similar feat with his Cognita Schools, charging between £6,000 and £9,000. Most public school heads regard this move with suspicion or even hostility, in their view cheaper public schools will 'dilute' quality, lose them their cachet and exclusiveness.

There is an interesting history to public school fees. Traditionally the aristocracy used tutors to educate their children at home. By the end of the eighteenth century this changed and they began to send children to schools like Eton and Harrow. They weren't particularly concerned at the quality of education they just wanted to get rid of them for a few years. The professions and the military didn't use competitive exams so it was possible to buy commissions or use influence. The conditions in public schools were horrendous, Dickens ruthlessly exposed them in 'Nicholas Nickleby' with his portrayal of Dotheboys Hall.

As there was no alternative offered by the state, the rising industrial class began to pressure the government for change, this accelerated after the 1832 Reform Act when the new industrial towns won representation in the House of Commons. The Brougham Commission in 1818 started to investigate the public schools and pressure from papers like 'The Times' resulted in the 1864 Clarendon Commission on the nine 'great' public schools. When they went to Eton they found that over the last twenty years the Provost and Fellows had pocketed £127,000 in fines on renewal of leases. Christopher Hollis in his book on Eton described them as 'greedy, idle and nepotistical'.

The Public Schools Act 1868 swept away the Fellows and established independent governing bodies with clearer accountability, they also created the process of competitive exams for entry which ensured that the public schools were dominated by the upper classes.

Historically fees have increased at a faster rate than incomes, public schools tend to charge what they can get away with. In the past decade fees have risen by 50%. In 2006 the Office of Fair Trading fined 50 public schools for operating a virtual cartel on fees. Between March 2001 and June 2003 the bursar of Sevenoaks School circulated information on proposed fee increases. The OFT found that,

'Through their participation in the Sevenoaks Survey, the Participant schools exchanged on a regular and systematic basis highly confidential information regarding each other's pricing intentions for the coming academic year that was not made available to parents of pupils at Participant schools or published more generally. This arrangement constitutes an obvious restriction of competition whereby the Participant schools knowingly substituted practical co-operation for the risks of competition amounting to an agreement and/or concerted practice having as its object the prevention, restriction or distortion of competition. Further, it was implicit in the way that the Sevenoaks Survey operated, and the fact that it was intended that the information exchanged should be reasonably reliable, that there was at least a 'gentleman's agreement' amongst the Participant schools that the fee increase figures submitted to the Survey would accurately reflect actual future fee levels.'

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) condemned the OFT’s investigation as “a scandalous waste of public money” and argued that it amounted to an attack on the whole of the charitable sector! Jonathan Shephard, its general secretary, said: “The OFT needs a result for the sake of its credibility. The OFT has failed to understand that charities have no motive for raising more money than is needed for charitable activities.” Yes, for breath taking arrogance and obfuscation you really couldn't beat that statement.

Of course for some parents high fees are just so much loose change; bankers with their millionaire bonuses, Russian kleptocrats, Mexican drug barons and the Nigerian military are all happy to send their children to English public schools. The best education money can buy.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Oxford wants more posh pupils?

Oxford University has acquired an unenviable reputation for being horrendously white and upper-class. There's the impression that if you don't have a double-barrelled name, can prove lineage going back several generations to aristocratic land-owning families and have your own personal stable of polo ponies, well, don't bother to apply and in any case it needs to be written on calf vellum and personally delivered by a faithful retainer.

In a bid to counter this image they have organised 'outreach' events to encourage applicants from 'non-traditional backgrounds'. On the Oxford web site on the 'widening access' page they proudly state, 'New data is enabling us to refocus our widening access programmes for students from state schools and colleges with low rates of applications to the university'.

I've got this picture of crusty old dons forsaking the pleasures of sipping sherry in the Senior Common Room and instead supping instant coffee from chipped cups in draughty comprehensive staff rooms.

Somehow it didn't quite work out like that... 'The Independent' managed to chisel out the facts using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). More than a fifth of the 'outreach' events were at public schools, this might be stating the bleeding obvious, but somehow the university was oblivious to the fact that this sector, that educates 7% of pupils, scooped up 46% of places at Oxford. Westminster (Clegg's alma mater) alone managed to acquire 2% of undergraduate admissions.

Among the schools that benefited were (fees in brackets) -

  • Marlborough College (£29,310) 12 events

  • St Paul's (£25,773) 11 events

  • Rugby (£28,000) 10 events

  • Eton (£29,862) 9 events

  • Cheltenham Ladies' College (£27,735) 8 events

  • Gasworks Comprehensive (£0) 0 events

If that wasn't damning enough, this week, Labour MP David Lammy extracted more statistics, once again using the Freedom of Information Act. He noted that, 'They provided patchy data [and] challenged valid requests'. Given that the state invests £440 million a year what did they have to hide?

Twenty one Oxford and Cambridge colleges made no offers to black candidates for courses, one Oxford college (Merton) hadn't admitted a single black student in five years. Only one black Britain of Caribbean descent was accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford last year. Of the 1,500 academic and lab staff at Cambridge none are black.

In 1895 Thomas Hardy wrote 'Jude the Obscure' about a humble stonemason who dreams of studying at Oxford. Last year Oxford's social profile was 89% upper and middle class and Cambridge slumming it at 87.6% (the national average for UK universities is 64.5%). In the last seven years no one from Knowsley, Sandwell or Merthyr Tydfil has made it to Cambridge. Dream on.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Universities – state pupils perform better

Pupils from comprehensives schools gain higher university degrees than pupils from public or grammar schools. That's according to research by the National Foundation for Educational Research. They compared 8,000 pupils with similar 'A'-level results over the course of five years.

Comprehensive pupils with grades BBB gained equal degree passes to public or grammar school pupils with 2 As and a B. Where both study groups had similar 'A'-level results the comprehensive pupils gained a higher degree. The effect was found across all degree classes awarded in 2009.

Some public schools have larger sixth forms and are able to employ more specialist teachers, they also benefit from having smaller classes. They might also be able to offer a wider range of 'A'-level choices. There are long established links between the most expensive public schools and Oxford and Cambridge.

Interesting to see how the public school educated Cabinet is systematically abolishing those organisations that did attempt to assist pupils from poorer backgrounds gaining a University place – the culling of Aim Higher. Also the Educational Maintenance Allowance is being abolished in 2011. Finally there is the question of higher tuition fees which will deter students from poorer families. We'll be back to Brideshead Revisited where only students with names like Sebastian, Anthony or Charles could afford to attend university.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Sport For All?

One of the most mean-spirited cuts by the coalition government is the plan to abolish the School Sports Partnership (SSP). The scheme costs £162 million a year and helped to ensure that the children in the 22,500 state primary and secondary schools (attended by 93% of the population) received high quality PE teaching. Secondary schools also organised excellent events for partner primary schools. Yes, there are some centrally funded schemes that are useless, a waste of money, this wasn't one of them, emphatically not. There's an excellent campaign on Facebook to save SSP.

The abolition of the School Sports Partnership flies in the face of all the rhetoric about 'widening participation', the obesity scare and winning medals for the London Olympics 2012. On the other hand maybe it isn't such a surprise when you consider the background of the people responsible for the cuts – education secretary Michael Gove (Robert Gordon's), culture secretary Jeremy Hunt (Charterhouse), sports minister Hugh Robertson (King's, Canterbury) and prime minister, David Cameron (Eton).

A survey by the Independent Schools' Council in 2006 found that 50% of private schools had their own swimming pool; 37% their own astro-turf pitch and 31% were equipped with squash courts.

A report for the British Olympic Association revealed that 37% of the medallists at the Beijing Olympics were privately educated. Of the rowers and sailors 50% were educated at public schools and this also applied to every medal winner in the equestrian events.

So how did public schools acquire these tremendous facilities? In some cases it's due to our old friend state subsidies. In 1995 the National Lottery granted money for a £4.6 million sports complex for Eton, this was in addition to the two swimming pools, 30 cricket squares and 24 football, rugby and hockey pitches. In their bid for funding the bursar claimed (anyone caught laughing will be given a sound thrashing by the prefects) they were 'deprived' because they didn't have a world class running track. In return for use during the day they promised to open the track to the great unwashed during evening hours.

In 2002 'The Guardian' revealed that St Aubyn's school in Essex received £500,000 from the lottery fund for a new sports hall and Bradfield College near Reading also got £500,000, this time for a tennis centre. In both cases they had to demonstrate how local members of the community would benefit. Rather difficult in Bradfield's case because the school is miles away from Reading in a secluded setting and is not on any regular bus route.

Sport is full of fictional characters like Alf Tupper, 'The Tough of the Track', who succeed against the odds. In real life there are examples like Steve Redgrave who was educated at a state school. However, with the excellent sports facilities that public schools enjoy it isn't a complete surprise that they dominate sports like sailing, horse riding, cricket and rowing. Maybe we should also think about all the other children that could have succeeded if they had had the opportunity. Sport for all?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Ambassadors' Public School Perks

I'm struggling for an analogy, so this isn't exact and maybe rather indelicate, but think of the state as offering an engorged teat and public schools are greedily sucking away at it. Hardly is the ink dry on my piece about public school fees subsidies for the military top brass and then another whopping great subsidy appears on the horizon.

In 2009/10 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) paid out £13.3 million for diplomats' children to be educated in the UK and £11.5 million for schools overseas. The maximum subsidy is a rather generous £25,000 per annum.

The last thorough investigation of the scheme was undertaken by 'The Observer' in 2005. They revealed that 181 public schools benefited from the scheme. There were 16 students at Eton, 29 pupils at King's, Canterbury, 20 pupils at Bryanston and six at Fettes. Top of the league was Sevenoaks in Kent which received funding for 33 students at a cost of £200,000.

£5.5 million – or one third of the entire boarding school allowance went to diplomats working or living in Britain after they had returned from foreign postings. This money helped to educate 236 children at public schools.

At the time Phil Willis education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said, 'I find it hard to understand why Foreign Office staff serving in European countries with good quality schools need state funding to send their children to expensive public schools in Britain.'

You might also question the value of the diplomatic service, their expensive embassies and staff perks. A large proportion of the staff aren't actually involved in diplomacy, they are spies and not very effective ones either. Most of the important changes in the world – the fall of the Shah of Iran, the end of communism and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait – they did rather slip through the fingers of British Intelligence. Probably because they spent all their time at cocktail parties and had precious little knowledge of the country they were living in.

As for 'promoting commerce' one of the largest deals was BAE's sale of military jets to Saudi Arabia. This was only made possible through extensive bribes to the Saudi royal family. Let's just say that the British Embassy in Riyadh didn't exactly check all the paper work.

The human rights agenda? Where there is media interest or pressure from public opinion the British Embassy will make a few diplomatic noises and register disapproval. Where that isn't the case it's thought to be 'bad form' to say anything that would upset a local dictator. In 2004 Craig Murray was sacked as British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, he'd had the temerity to complain about the treatment of two dissidents who had been boiled to death.

The public perception of British Embassies is that they are there to assist tourists who lose their passports or get into other difficulties. In times of crisis? On December 18 2009 five Eurostar trains broke down in the Channel Tunnel, leaving passengers in appalling conditions. The Eurostar management went into hiding. It's interesting to read the comments of people trapped in the tunnel -

'What I found particularly reprehensible was that, when I rang the British Embassy in Paris on Monday morning for any information, even if just whether the Calais ferries were working, I was curtly told that it was nothing to do with them. So much for embassies being a beacon of safety and not just expensive venues for parties.'

Many British diplomats are paid more than £100,000 a year and live in rent-free accommodation. They can claim allowances of £40,000 to maintain an 'appropriate' standard of living. The boarding school allowance is paid net of tax, so for a diplomat sending two children to a top public school it would be worth an extra £70,000.

An overseas diplomatic post? It's a fairly easy life, it's part of that career cycle – public school, Oxbridge, Foreign Office. Over 80% of ambassadors are public school educated, they achieve their positions partly on the basis of ability but also through the informal social networks they establish at public school.

The cost of training teachers, charity status, pension subsidies and money for the children of generals and ambassadors. Anyone spot any patterns?

Monday, 15 November 2010

Public School Perks For The Military's Top Brass

You've really got to hand it to the ruling class, whenever their perks or privileges are threatened they will fight to their last breath to defend them.

Despite massive cuts to the armed forces (17,000 personnel leaving) the top brass mounted a fierce rearguard action to stop their allowances for public school education being axed. Apparently they 'pulled out all the stops' to protect the payments, which can be worth up to £17,000 per child, per year. For 2009/2010 the annual cost was £103.5 million.

Formerly known as the Boarding School Allowance, the renamed Continuity of Education Allowance (some Ministry of Defence spin doctor worked over time on that) is currently claimed by 5,500 service personnel on behalf of 7,400 children.

A senior Ministry of Defence source was quoted in the 'Daily Mail', 'The plan was to make huge cuts to this allowance. But the generals put up such a fight that we and the Treasury had to back off.'

In January 2005 the 'Observer' conducted an investigation into the scheme. They found that 346 service children were educated at the Royal Alexandra and Albert School, a state secondary near Reigate in Surrey. However, the overwhelming majority were taught in public schools.

Some schools were heavily reliant on the scheme. At Chilton Cantelo in Yeovil, Somerset, 170 out of 200 places were for service personnel; the Royal Hospital School, Ipswich had 156 children, mainly from navy families and Barnard Castle in County Durham had 155 mainly army children. The cash spent on the scheme has risen from £67 million in 2000/1, to £86 million in 2003/4 and £103.5 million in 2009/10.

As for the 'other ranks' if their family is posted with them overseas their children are expected to attend one of the British military schools dotted across the globe. The Continuity Education Allowance is of course 'open to all ranks', yet the Ministry of Defence refuse to reveal the percentage of officers and 'other ranks' benefiting from the scheme. I wonder why? Still it's good to know that whilst the Poor Bloody Infantry are slogging away in Afghanistan, the children of the top brass are receiving a sound education at one of the top public schools – courtesy of the tax payer.

Repeat after me – 'We're All In It Together'.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Get Orf My Land

We're all in it together? Just as the government is condemning the 'benefits culture', with some families jobless for generations, out comes a new study on land ownership. 'Country Life' have just completed the most extensive land survey since 1872. In the nineteenth century half of the land was owned by the aristocracy, a century later and 36,000 of them still own one-third. There is a smaller core group of 1,200 that have extensive land holdings and the top ten owned over 1 million acres.

The Top Ten

  1. Richard Scott – Duke of Buccleuch: 240,000 acres

  1. John Murray – Duke of Atholl: 145,000 acres

  1. Charles Windsor – Duke of Cornwall: 133,602 acres

  1. Gerald Grosvenor – Duke of Westminster: 133,100 acres

  1. Ralph Percy – Duke of Northumberland: 130,000 acres

  1. Captain Alwyne Farquharson: 128,000 acres

  1. Ian Ogilvie Grant – Earl of Seafield: 101,000 acres

  1. Elizabeth Millicent Sutherland – Countess of Sutherland: 82,239 acres

  1. Baroness Willoughby De'Eresby: 78,200 acres

10. Michael Pearson - 4th Viscount of Cowdray: 69,500 acres

Researching the educational background of our Top Ten it is possible to identify particular trends, the usual suspects appear – Eton, Harrow and Gordonstoun, although the Duke of Northumberland did slum it a bit by attending Loretto, but then that's the Percys for you.

I don't want to be accused of bias or extrapolating results from such a small survey but I think that somehow when it comes to the children of the 36,000 aristocrats, we can safely say that without jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, that this could be a fairly straight forward piece of research that wouldn't be a route into a well-funded PhD, there isn't going to be a complicated graph involving meta-analysis or the services of teams of statisticians and we could also make a guess that this result will even apply to those blue bloods who are down to their last Rolls Royce. There will be a simple bar graph that will reflect the following-

Top Public Schools – 100%: Gas Works Comprehensive 0%

Sadly I do have to report that even an expensive education cannot always guarantee success. Charles Grosvenor (a.k.a. The Duke of Westminster) left Harrow with just one 'O' Level. However, with his determination and resolve combined with the ownership of the West End of London he did eventually make a success of his life. Well done!

You have to concede that some of the aristocracy make contributions to the arts, donate to charities and are pillars of their local communities. Then there are the drones, the 'socially useless' who depend on the 'inheritance culture' and indulge in those traditional pursuits like droit du seigneur, gambling, hunting, shooting and fishing or the more modern like snorting lines of coke through a £50 note. Yes, some of them haven't worked for ten generations or more.

You might ask the question – how did the aristocracy gain all that land? They acquired it through force of arms, in some cases dating back to the Norman invasion and then between the fifteenth century and the early nineteenth century they just stole it by enclosing the common land. As justices of the peace they penalised anyone who encroached on it by transporting them to Australia.

Finally, amongst our Top Ten it's interesting to see the Scottish landowners, the Buccleuchs, the Atholls, the Seafields and the Sutherlands. At the beginning of the nineteenth century they consolidated their wealth by expelling their tenants and populating the land with sheep – the notorious Highland Clearances. Puts a new twist on that old saying – 'Get Orf My Land!'

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Teachers' Pensions – 'Serfs Ye Are And Serfs Ye Will Remain'

Contracting out spread like a cancer through private industry during the 1980s. In many workplaces so-called 'peripheral' jobs were jettisoned by the company and farmed out to low cost providers. Services like catering, cleaning and security were all undertaken by different firms, only certain 'core' workers retained rights like pensions, sickness benefits and holiday entitlements. This was a global phenomenon, described by Naomi Klein in 'No Logo'.

In the public sector councils tendered out services to the lowest bidder, school meals were the prime example, where children were offered re-heated offal by private contractors. In education a whole range of services were privatised – the running of local education authorities, transport and school improvement. The most extreme example was Academies where some very dubious organisations or individuals were given carte blanche to run schools.

Every council used to organise their own teaching supply service, gradually they have been closed leaving teachers and schools at the mercy of private agencies. Teaching supply is now dominated by companies like Reed, Capita and Select, there are also the proverbial 'one man and his dog' agencies. The quality ranges from dreadful to absolutely abysmal.

Private supply agencies are not bound by nationally negotiated pay and conditions. For a classroom teacher the top rate of pay, Upper Pay Spine 3, would be around £190 per day, most agencies will only pay a top rate of £140 per day and they will charge the school anything up to £250 per day.

Why do teachers work on supply? They may wish to only work part time, it might be due to childcare arrangements, they may be close to retirement or just disillusioned with the sheer volume of meaningless paperwork.

Some teachers decide to abandon the state system and work in public schools, that is their choice. Their wages and conditions are set by whichever school employs them, in practice most public schools pay close to the nationally agreed scales for teachers' pay. They can, for some obscure reason, stay in the state Teachers' Pension Scheme. The government subsidises this to the tune of £131 million. Supply teachers in state schools employed by private agencies are not eligible for the Teachers' Pension Scheme.

In a nutshell, the state ensures that a classics master at Eton is gently eased into the Elysian Fields of a golden retirement, courtesy of the state Teachers' Pension Scheme. By way of contrast, the state contribution to the pension of Joe or Jean Bloggs, slogging their guts out teaching the unteachables of 10G at Gas Works Comprehensive, is, in the words of that wise old philosopher Mick McCarthy, 'zero, zilch or diddly squat'.

We really shouldn't complain, we know our place, it was Richard II who sneered at the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt swaying from their gibbets, 'Serfs ye are and serfs ye will remain'.

Letter in TES

Sunday, 7 November 2010

£131 million subsidy for pensions

During the 1980s 'public' schools attempted to rebrand themselves as 'independent' schools. They wanted to move away from those old traditions of boys beating boys, fagging and rampant snobbery. They also tried to promote the idea that parents were making a choice about being 'independent' from state control.

The fact is that the state pays for the training of teachers and public schools enjoy other subsidies through charitable status. Last week the Green Party managed to winkle out information about another whopping subsidy. Teachers in public and state schools are eligible to join the Teachers' Pension Scheme. Teachers contribute 6.4% of their salary and their employer 14.1% of their salary. Because the scheme runs at a loss a private sector employer would need to contribute 20% to match the state scheme.

The Green Party calculates that the 5.9% difference for the 62,349 teachers in public schools (average salary £35,000) is equivalent to a subsidy of £131 million. I'll just repeat that £131 million.

Private sector companies have their own pension schemes which are not underwritten by the government and are dependent on the fortunes of the stock market.

I know it might be distressing in these rather straightened times, but I would humbly and respectfully suggest that teachers in public schools should be thrown out of the Teachers' Pension Scheme and become a bit more, shall we say, 'independent'. Is it fair that someone on low wages should be subsidising the pension of the 1,639 teachers at the top public schools like Eton, Harrow and St Paul's? I did try and find the appropriate Latin phrase but failed, I think it's known as 'taking the piss'.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The happiest days?

English public schools exploit the myth and legend of the never ending cricket match, the halcyon days of youth. Hearty types in cricket whites, fair play, sportsmanship, the gentlemen's code and the happiest days of their lives. The schools that build the Empire and provided most of the prime ministers – Eton top (naturally) on nineteen.

David Cameron, whilst being at pains to apologise for 'indiscretions' (smoking pot), is always ready to praise his alma mater. Even at the turn of the last century sensitive poetic types like Rupert Brooke reminisced with pleasure, 'I had been happier at Rugby than I can find words to say. As I looked back at five years, I seemed to see every hour golden and radiant, and always increasing in beauty... I could not (and cannot) hope for or even imagine such happiness elsewhere'.

For many public school boys the house master became a substitute father and they continued to consult them about finding a job or getting married. The Old Boys associations provided a social link and some of them continued through Oxford or Cambridge with same circle of old school friends. The influence of the 'old school tie' then assisted them in choice of career.

From the nineteenth century onwards there has been a clear division in the perception of public schools, for high culture they represented conformism, philistinism, an out-dated curriculum and authoritarianism. Yet within popular culture a different world was reflected – 'Boy's Own', 'The Gem', 'Magnet' and 'Goodbye Mr Chips'. As George Orwell commented, 'Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same for ever and ever'.

Public schools have their own rituals, codes and and language. In 1961 the sociologist Erving Goffman described how 'Total Societies' – prisons, mental hospitals, concentration camps, monasteries and British public schools – provided for the needs of their inhabitants within isolated communities. The authority of the institution enforcing acceptance and conformity.

Since the 1970s the numbers of boarders at public schools has declined, but most of the 'top' ones are either exclusively or mainly boarding – Eton and Harrow full board; Tonbridge 440 boarders, 330 day pupils; Oundle 840 boarders, 240 day pupils.

The effect of boarding schools? For many public school children the emotional clock stopped and remained fixed. Cyril Connolly in the 'Enemies of Promise' (1938) described this phenomenon as 'permanent adolescence' – 'the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools their glories, their disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and arrest their development... growing up seems a hurdle which most of us are unable to take.'

There's an interesting book by Nick Duffell, 'The Making of Them' which analyses how children survive in boarding schools. There is the humiliation and 'initiation ceremonies' for the new recruits, the aim to break the child and forge a new 'total identity'. He describes how boarding school children are wracked by guilt – why was I sent away? They construct a 'Strategic Survival Personality' or a false self as a coping mechanism. Others use cognitive dissonance where trauma or desperate unhappiness is placed at the edge of their personality or consciousness. The Conservative MP Nicholas Fairburn is quoted, 'Childhood ended when I was sent to boarding school aged five... those early years bred in me a feeling of isolation and independence that has never left me. It caused me to retreat to the desert island on oneself where one could be oneself.'

It is true that from the 1970s onwards public schools were forced to abandon some of the most objectionable practices – boys beating boys, fagging, Spartan conditions in dormitories and some converted to become co-educational, although Eton, Harrow and Rodean remained single sex.

However, the main elements of the public school system remain – the petty rules and regulations, the stifling conformism, the snobbery, the elitism and the complete social apartheid. But they don't produce rebels just individualists or nihilists.

The happiest days? If you are born and raised in a prison or a cloistered environment you will never know any different. Public schools are now a gilded cage, the best of facilities, the best of opportunities, but they still don't equip their pupils for life in the real world. Can they empathise with or understand unemployment, homelessness or poverty?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Public Benefit Test

I was intrigued to read the news that the Independent Schools' Council has won an injunction to review the Charity Commissions' public benefit test for charitable status. Some ideas for them to make the grade -

* Talk in a less condescending manner about local comprehensives

* Ensure that sixth formers keep to the speed limit when driving Jags and Porsches around the locality of the school

* Follow the Bullingdon Club example and pay for damages when their pupils trash a restaurant

* Assist the postman by ordering Fortnum and Mason hampers on a rota basis

* Allow the lower orders to look at the cricket pitch - once a year

* Ensure pupils pay a fair price to local drug dealers for cannabis

* Give chauffeurs a glass of orange squash when they come to pick up pupils before school holidays

Pip! Pip!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Play up and play the game?

The narrow public school curriculum? Thomas Arnold (Rugby 1828 – 1841) and Edward Thring (Uppingham 1853 – 1887) are credited with making changes to the stodgy diet of classics, classics and more classics.

Arnold transformed Rugby from a state of near anarchy towards order and discipline. Arnold's methods, prefects, uniforms, better pay for teachers and improved conditions in dormitories was used as a model by other public schools. The Rugby myth was heavily reliant on 'Tom Brown's School Days' and the biography of Arnold by Dean Stanley.

Arnold's main interest was inculcating 'Christian manliness' into the boys and cultivating a group of moral prigs in the sixth form. The main emphasis of Arnold's sermons was to attack fornication or 'beastliness'.

Thring turned Uppingham from a 'failing' grammar school into one of the pre-eminent public schools, he was the founder of the Headmaster's Conference in 1869. He did widen the curriculum at Uppingham beyond classics.

The general picture? The Taunton Commission (1864) was broadly supportive of the way that men of 'character' were turned out by public schools, however, they noted that boys left knowing nothing, 'ignorant of geography and of the history of his own country, unacquainted with any modern language but his own and hardly competent to write English correctly.'

In 1878 Harrow employed the following masters (teachers) Classics 21; Maths 5; Languages 2; Science 1; 'Modern side' 1.

Then there was the 'games cult'. Thring at Uppingham invested in a bathing pool, gyms, cricket grounds, football pitches and athletics tracks, all this was a useful diversion from his main fear about 'indecency'.

Leonard Woolf wrote about his time at St Paul's (1893 – 1899), 'Use of the mind, intellectual curiosity, mental originality, interest in 'work', enjoyment of books or anything connected with the arts, all such things, if detected, were violently condemned and persecuted.'

As SP Mais commented in 1916 public school boys, 'knew nothing, cared little, exhausted their keenness on games and considered anything but the most perfunctory interest in school work a gross breach of good form'.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Letter in 'The Guardian' October 9 2010

They did leave the last bit out about George Osborne's chums from St Paul's the 'Wodehousian aristocratic drones'. But, hey, it's 'The Guardian'.

Full text

As Simon Head pointed out in 'Children of the sun' a public school educated elite still dominate politics, the judiciary, journalism, the army and diplomatic corps. Fifty years ago Harold Macmillan and Sir Alec Dougla-Home looked, spoke and dressed as though they had just come off the grouse moor. Today public school boys use Estuary English or even Mockney.

With David Cameron what we are observing is a carefully orhestrated, well-designed, public relations campaign to present him as an 'ordinary bloke'. There's Davecam where Cameron does the washing up and other household chores, off duty the casual clothes with nary any tweed or a tie in sight and cycling to Parliament - slightly tarnished when the 'Daily Mirror' revealed that a chauffeur driven limousine was following on.

George Bush is the scion of one of the wealthiest and best connected families in America, yet he perfected a Texas drawl and made sure he was filmed clearing scrub and driving a pick up truck like any good ol' boy. The main test that the Republican spin-doctors used was whether people would invite a candidate to a barbeque and share a Bud - a test that Al Gore failed because he looked and spoke like a policy wonk. Due to this ability to 'connect' with the voters George Bush was chosen in preference to his older siblings who had more political experience.

The English ruling elite move seamlessly through a cloistered environment - public school, Oxbridge and the City - without any knowledge or experience of the lives of the common people. Maybe that is why George Osborne made the remark about scroungers who made a 'lifestyle choice' not to engage in gainful employment. Or possible he was referring to his school chums at St Paul's, the sort of Wodehousian, aristocratic drones who will never need to do a day's work in their lives.

Friday, 8 October 2010


Bibliography – Public schools

Chandos, J. (1984) Boys Together - English Public Schools 1800 - 1864: Hutchinson.

Duffell, N. (2002) The Making of Them – The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School system. First reprint: Lone Arrow Press.

Gathorne- Hardy, J. (1979) The Public School Phenomenon 597 – 1977: Penguin Books.

Griggs, C. (1985) Private Education in Britain: The Falmer Press.

Honey,J.R de S. (1977) Tom Brown's Universe: Millington Books.

Lambert, R.L. (1968 2nd impression) The Hothouse Society: Weidenfield and Nicholson.

Mangan, J.A. (2000) Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School, Second edition: Routledge.

Parker, P. (1987) The Old Lie – The Great War and the Public School Ethos: Constable.

Rae, J. (1981) The Public School Revolution – Britain's Independent Schools 1964-1979: Faber and Faber.

Rae, J. (2009) The Old Boys' Network – A Headmaster's Diaries 1970-1986: Short Books.

Richards, J. (1988) Happiest days - The public schools in English fiction: Manchester University Press.

Simon, B. (1966) Studies in the History of Education 1780 – 1870: Lawrence and Wishart.

Wakeford, J. (1969) The Cloistered Elite – A Sociological Analysis of the English Public Boarding School: Macmillan.

Walford, G. (1986) Life in Public Schools: Methuen.

Walford, G. (2003) (ed) British Private Schools – Research on Policy and Practice: Woburn Press.

Weiner, M (2004 2nd edition) English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850 - 1980: Cambridge University Press.

Letter in the TES October 8th

The letter

The letter in full...

I was amused to read the article 'Top public schools claim state staff fail to inspire'. Yes, you have to admire the chutzpah and bare-faced cheek, then there is the total inability to engage with their own history.

Inability to inspire? Maybe we could start with two centuries of the rote learning of dead languages. Then there was the 'games cult' where pupils would spend hours and hours playing cricket. After the Boer War public schools created their Combined Cadet Forces producing the officer material that uncritically led their men to the slaughter of the First World War.

As for targets and league tables let's not forget the prep schools that relentlessly pressure young children with mock exams and revision over three or four years for the Common Entrance Exam.

As Martin Weiner explained in 'English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit' the public schools obsession with classics and games had a deleterious effect on other subjects like science,games and technology – right through to the latter part of the twentieth century.

As for extra-curricula activities when one is paying £28,000 for one's Eton education, then doubtless one can expect some excellent after school clubs.

The public school tradition? Philistinism, anti-intellectualism and the games cult.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Public Schools - the case for abolition

The scene of a revelation. Sedbergh, on the western edges of the Yorkshire Dales, relaxing, watching a game of cricket. The town is completely dominated, almost overwhelmed, by its public school, founded in 1525 by the provost of Eton. The boys strolling past with their foppish hair and expensive Italian shoes, the girls preparing to undergo metamorphosis into Sloane Rangers. The cricket pitch absolutely immaculate, like a bowling green, somehow it doesn't compare with the leisure facilities on the council estate school where I used to teach.

Walking through Sedbergh that also seems to be replicated on their council estates, walk a mile away and there’s a piece of rutted ground that must be the football pitch because there’s a set of rusty posts, bent in the middle. Arriving back at the cricket pitch the pavilion scoreboard is still ticking over nicely and some hale and hearty types are shouting encouragement. With their blazers, cricket whites and jumpers it’s almost like a scene out of ‘Brideshead Revisited’. I suppose it’s fitting that we’re watching the match from a crumbling concrete embankment fringed by nettles, two of the benches have been smashed up and there’s spiked iron railings to keep the plebs at bay.

Over the past thirty years the media spotlight, debate and discussion, has centred on 'failing schools' and the under achievement of working class boys and children from particular ethnic minorities. Acres of academic papers, copious Ofsted reports. Yet in our divided, segregated and unequal education system when and how have public schools been scrutinised, analysed or questioned?

The abolition of public schools? Isn't this so much posturing, tilting at windmills, a relic of the out-dated class war? The three largest political parties all celebrate the achievements of public schools and have invited them to run state funded academies.

Yet reel back the film of history and you will discover a different picture. In the 1983 General Election Labour campaigned for the ending of charity status and tax privileges. Their aim was to abolish private fee-paying schools over a period of ten years. In 1973 Labour shadow Education minister Roy Hattersley, not someone ever renowned for his radicalism, strode into the enemies' lair and addressed the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) he said, 'I must, above all else, leave you with no doubts about the serious intention initially to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country.'

In the 1960s public schools were widely regarded as antiquated, antediluvian, a nineteenth century anachronism. There was that gloriously, iconoclastic film 'If..', that featured all the essential elements of public school life – fagging; bullying; sadistic beatings by prefects; cold showers; the dull repetitive curriculum; the masters - mediocrity masquerading as eccentricity; heterosexual fantasy and homosexual reality; compulsory sport and the guns of the Combined Cadet Force, later turned with such malevolence on the school itself. Uniformity, regimentation and conformity, with the purpose, to break, dismember and then rebuild and mould the future ruling class.

During the 1970s some of the more far-sighted headteachers, like John Rae at Westminster, recognised the need for reform. They abolished fagging and boys beating boys, changes were made to the curriculum, better accommodation was provided and many schools became co-educational. Like any ossified, fusty, pedantic organisation public schools only made changes when their very existence was threatened. Well into the twentieth century classics were taught to the exclusion of maths, science and technology. Despite the cosmetic alterations the so-called 'public' schools remain isolated, secluded, aloof bastions of privilege that benefit the few at the expense of the majority.

When wealthy people opt out of public services – health, transport, leisure, education – there is less pressure on the state to spend money on establishing decent basic minimum standards. The logical extension of the rich retreating behind walls are America's 'gated communities'. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett explained in 'The Spirit Level' in an unequal society the outcomes for health, drug abuse, imprisonment, trust and child well-being are usually substantially worse. Walk around the rich, mainly white, suburbs in South Africa and you'll find electrified fences and every house has a Group 4 or ADT sign on the front door promising any burglars that there will be an 'Armed Response'.

Like a parasitical plant the 'independent' schools have their haustoria firmly implanted in the vascular system of the host. In truth many of them couldn't survive if they didn't leech from the state and if parents do want to opt out and 'choose' they should, at least, pay the full price. Public schools are for some bizarre, obscure, farcical reason classed as 'charities'. Parents are therefore exempt from paying VAT on school fees, so the £28,851 fee for Eton comes without that extra £5048.92 mere mortals might expect to pay for 'goods and services'.

The key tax benefits from charitable status for the public schools are – exemption from income tax, corporation tax, VAT, capital gains tax and stamp duty; for council tax 80% relief is granted and tax concessions are made on donations and legacies. They also make no contribution towards the training of the teachers at universities.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the elite public schools operated a form of 'social closure' where entry to outsiders was restricted or obstructed. The original intention of most schools had been to educate the sons of 'decayed gentlemen', Eton even limited entry to those children whose parents had an income of 'below five marks'. Over the centuries the endowments and bequests were shamelessly breached, the children of local tradesmen, shopkeepers and artisans were ruthlessly excluded. In some cases 'consolation schools' were built – Lower School of John Lyon at Harrow, the Lawrence Sheriff School at Rugby. The effect of social closure is to relentlessly diminish social mobility. Today, through the education system, networks, influence, the old school tie, unpaid internships, the brighter children of the middle and working classes are excluded from the best jobs, they are replaced by the slightly dimmer children of the ruling classes. That's why over 70% of judges, doctors, senior civil servants and top diplomats are still public school educated. It's a recipe for stagnation, stasis, sclerosis and decline.

Most public schools are situated in isolated rural areas in a deliberate attempt to create a cloistered, hermetically sealed environment away from any 'distractions'. Thousands of children are still sent away at the age of seven as boarders, part of that 'irresistible tide' that started at the end of the eighteenth century. Those children who attend as 'day scholars' will normally be transported over long distances, away from their local community. Most public schools are still dominated by archaic dress codes, obscure rituals and arcane language. From public school there is a seamless route to Oxbridge or university and then to the City, boardroom or officers' mess. What connection, knowledge or understanding is there, can there be, of the lives of 'ordinary people'? Once upon a time a class at Eton was asked to write an essay about poverty, one child wrote, 'The family were poor, the mother was poor, the father was poor, the children were poor and the butler was poor'.

One of the myths surrounding public schools is that of the teetotal, middle-class parents who scrimp and save and forgo every material comfort in order to send their children to a fee-paying public school. There are 1,260 schools grouped together in the Independent Schools' Council (ISC), they represent the 500,000 children who are privately educated (7% of pupils). In reality the middle-class paupers will only be able to buy an education that, in most cases, is, to coin a phrase, only 'bog standard'. The real divide is the elite within the elite - the 243 schools in the prestigious Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC). They charge the kind of eye-watering fees that only the seriously wealthy or the filthy rich can afford. From 3 to 18 years of age you might be forking out anything up to £300,000 for the privilege. These are the kind of schools where son follows father and grand father, a kind of exclusive, self-perpetuating, hierarchical club.

Like the Mafia the modus operandi of the public schools is to remain in the background, shunning the limelight, not wishing to draw attention to themselves and like any effective protection racket they don't need to advertise. In their case they rely on the newspapers to do the job for them, there's the headlines about 'anarchy' in the classroom and 'failing schools', all the public schools have to do is wait for the refugees to come knocking at the door.

The 'success' of public schools? What is their 'secret'? It isn't hard to fathom – spending three or four times more on pupils compared to state schools; state of the art facilities; selection via the Common Entrance Exam and smaller classes.

As for any scrutiny or questioning of public schools it is true that the Charity Commission have been on their case for the past two hundred years. In 1818 Winchester School was asked why, when the original endowment specified that the children of the poor should receive schooling, there were so many rich children there. Back came the disdainful, imperious reply, all of their pupils were poor, it was just that some of them had rich parents! Recently the Charity Commission tried to implement a 'public benefit' test on public schools. From the ferocious reaction of the Independent Schools' Council, the Daily Telegraph and Conservative MPs, you might have thought they wanted to raze them to the ground and sow the foundations with salt. In the event the Charity Commission made a humble, obsequious apology for their impertinence and decreed that as long as some token attempt was made to open sports facilities to the great unwashed, on a strictly limited basis, then that would suffice.

The case for abolition…snobbery, brutality, conformity, philistinism, cruelty, xenophobia, sexism, vulgarity, elitism, introversion, barbarity, immorality, idleness, corruption, oppression, ignorance, unoriginal, incurious, violent, cloistered, dictatorial, conventional, masculine, monolithic, pressured, objectionable, suppressive, contemptuous, expensive, dominating, divisive, conservative, hierarchical, narrow, adolescent, imperialistic, repulsive, puritanical, aggressive, ruthless, ritualistic, authoritarian, hellish, lonely, dissolute, punitive, insane, introspective, uniform, indoctrinated, remote, affected, sadistic, traumatic, self-obsessed, unemotional, abusive, inadequate, insensitive, institutionalised, humiliating, despotic, misogynous, bullying.