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.


  1. Get over yourself, class warrior. Only someone who is looking deliberately the other way could blame the failings of the comprehensive system on private schools.

    By the way - all the failings of public schools which you enumerate in your last paragraph (nice thesaurus, by the way: kudos) are all routinely seen in comprehensives.

    Thanks for that, genius.

    Yours sincerely,

    A public-school-educated comprehensive teacher.

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