It remains one of the most influential scenes in all English literature. His heart thumping, his mind a whirl of excitement, the new boy walks into his school for the first time. If he is Tom Brown, he gazes in rapture at the “great school field or close, with its noble elms, in which several games at football were going on”. If he is Harry Potter, his eyes widen in wonder at the Great Hall, such a “strange and splendid place” with its ghosts and candles. There may be trials ahead: bullies and beaks, sporting battles and moral challenges. But never do we doubt that our hero is in the right place. “The boy has the makings of a man in him, I am sure of that,” thinks plucky Harry Wharton’s uncle, in the first of the Billy Bunter stories. “Greyfriars is just the place.”
But is it? Not according to the academic Francis Green, professor at University College London’s Institute of Education, and the historian David Kynaston, whose richly anecdotal social histories of postwar Britain have earned well-deserved acclaim. Britain’s private schools, they argue, have become an “unignorable problem”, their effects “malign and divisive”. As they see it, Britain has become profoundly unequal, thanks in large part to the “educational apartheid” that divides the 6% who attend prep and public schools from the 94% who go to their local state schools. They don’t doubt that private schools are an excellent investment: almost all studies show that you get better results, go to a better university and earn more money. Good for you. But bad, they argue, for the country.
The preponderance of private schoolboys among our politicians is well known: not only did Jeremy Corbyn’s closest aides, Seumas Milne and James Schneider, both go to Winchester, but the self-styled people’s champion went to a preparatory school in Shropshire. In other areas the figures are even more striking. In the past 25 years, 60% of Britain’s Oscar winners were privately educated. Since the Brit awards were inaugurated in 1977, one in five winners went to private school; so did a third of the British medallists at the Rio Olympics. In 2014 an Ofsted report even claimed that one in three of all England’s sporting internationals had been to private school.
Like many jointly written books, Engines of Privilege often reads like a committee report, though there are moments when Kynaston’s flair for anecdotes shines through. In a fascinating early chapter, which draws on his excellent histories, he shows how the public schools weathered the storms of the 1940s and 1950s, when even many Conservatives assumed they would eventually become absorbed into the state system.
What saved them was partly their perceived irrelevance. “I’m not frightfully interested in the public schools,” drawled Labour’s Anthony Crosland, who preferred to smash the state grammar schools instead. But they were also saved by the belief that, as the philosopher Mary Warnock remarked, it would be “grossly illiberal” to tell parents they could not spend their own money on educating their children. “A democracy,” wrote Crosland, “cannot forbid people to found schools and charge for going to them.”
Green and Kynaston consider various alternatives to outright abolition, which they agree is too drastic. One is the removal of private schools’ charitable status, a popular approach on the left. But this, they argue, would be too complicated to achieve in practice and would not deliver enough of a “reform pay-off”. Instead, their solution is twofold.
First, they suggest changing the university admissions system to use “contextual indicators”. If privately educated teenagers no longer hoovered up places at the best universities, they argue, aspirational parents would choose state schools. They even suggest adjusting the entrance criteria, depending on the size of the fees the applicant’s parents paid.
Second, they argue that the state should take control of private-school admissions, with a Fair Access Scheme of places for means-tested pupils from more modest backgrounds. Some places, they suggest, could be reserved for children in care or from especially poor backgrounds. And over time, the numbers of rich children would gradually wither away.
Of course, we all have personal baggage when it comes to this most emotive of subjects. As a former scholarship boy at Malvern, where I am now a governor, I cannot pretend to be unbiased. Where education is concerned, nobody ever is. Even so, the authors’ solutions strike me as bonkers. Anybody familiar with the university admissions system knows what an overloaded, bureaucratic shambles it already is. The idea of such a risibly ramshackle system successfully adopting a “nuanced” system of criteria to weed out chinless chancers is simply fantastical. As for a state-run Fair Access Scheme, the thought of a Whitehall board deciding who is underprivileged enough to gain a place at Harrow seems to me the stuff of parody.
The deeper question, though, is whether there really is an urgent problem at all. The authors invite us to agree that there is, and certainly no sane person would pretend that the current system represents utopian perfection. But private schools strike me as a rather too predictable target. Are they genuinely the reason Britain has become less equal? Almost all major Western countries, after all, have seen a rise in income inequality since the 1970s, which most historians attribute to the decline of manufacturing, the rise of finance and services and the emergence of a hi-tech knowledge economy, developments that have tended to favour the rich and well connected. I enjoy taking pot shots at Old Etonian prime ministers as much as anybody. But if public-school politicians really have only a “limited and partial” empathy with the rest of the human race, as Green and Kynaston argue, then how do you explain Clement Attlee (Haileybury)? Or, to be a bit less parochial, Franklin D Roosevelt?
And as this last example suggests, is Britain really so exceptional? The rest of the planet only makes fleeting appearances in Green and Kynaston’s book — a brief mention on the third page, and then the obligatory homage to super-egalitarian Finland at the end. But contrary to what the authors suggest, all major Western countries have their engines of privilege. A glance at the alumni of American boarding schools such as the Phillips Academies and St Paul’s will dispel any illusions about the land of equality. What about the Republic of Ireland, where all but five of the 25 most academically successful secondary schools in the country are fee-paying private schools? How many black children from the Paris high-rises go to the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, alma mater of Jacques Chirac, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron? Even Germany’s fiercely meritocratic school system, with its brutally competitive exams and self-consciously elitist Gymnasiums, has been condemned by the United Nations for perpetuating “social inequalities”.
Of course, nobody would design our current system from scratch, but you can say that about almost anything. The real problem is not that Britain’s schools are uniquely unequal. It is that, for our own cultural and historical reasons, we just cannot stop talking about them. In that respect, Tom Brown and Harry Potter have a lot to answer for.
Going to public school has become an increasingly good financial bet, according to Green and Kynaston. Statistics show that those born in 1958 who went to a private school were earning 7% more than those from state schools by their early thirties. Fast forward to those born in 1970 and the gap had risen to 21% by their early thirties, and 35% for men and 21% for women by their early forties.