Safe, Solid and Unquestionable

James Butler

Saturday’s Times carried on its front page a protracted complaint by the headmaster of Stowe School that Oxbridge was actively discriminating against the beneficiaries of private education, and that any complaint about the staggering overrepresentation of the privately educated in every avenue of British life was born of the same reasoning as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a particularly inept rendition of a favoured right-wing talking point: that any analysis which talks in terms of groups or classes is already merrily chugging along to the gulag, with precious individuality flattened under its wheels.

It is curious the headmaster felt threatened. Oxford and Cambridge may have made some steps to improve state school access, but the ‘independent’ intake is still around 35 per cent; only 7 per cent of children are privately educated (15 per cent of sixth formers). The rest of the Russell Group is similarly, if less severely, unbalanced. The pattern replicates across British society, with journalism, TV, the arts and the professions bristling with the privately educated, and a near monopoly among the higher ranks of public servants. The picture was complicated in the second half of the 20th century by the socially mobile products of grammar schools and the welfare state, but that brief interlude has long since tapered off; the slow suffocation of arts and humanities in British state schools will aid the return of those fields to homogeneity. If the British national conversation does not often remark on the dominance of the privately educated, it is because so many of the people making that conversation do not find it remarkable.

Politics can at times look like an extension of private school playing fields: a supposed populist outsider went to Dulwich College, and the most left-wing political leader in living memory is a prep school apostate. An arcane tussle broke out on the Tory benches between three scions of England’s most expensive schools during one of the Commons’ recent Brexit square dances. Somerset’s archaiser-in-chief, Jacob Rees-Mogg, accused Nick Boles of making a ‘characteristically Wykehamist point – highly intelligent but fundamentally wrong’, and went on to charge Oliver Letwin with sounding more like a Wykehamist than the fellow Old Etonian he is.

The jibe was obscure but telling. Other than advertising to the rest of us that politics is something conducted between a small caste who have been groomed for it from infancy, Rees-Mogg’s potshot turned on the assumption that there was something fundamentally unsound about Boles’s scepticism and Letwin’s attempts at procedural novelty. Behind it lurks the gentlemanly suspicion of intellectuals, and an implied preference for what Tony Crosland (Highgate School) once identified as ‘the cult of the amateur … a strong basic hostility to professionalism and expertise’ – the bone marrow of a conservatism that views intellectual innovation or excess seriousness as perversion.

Rees-Mogg rarely does anything without an eye to his popular reception. Most of us are uninitiated in the particular qualities of English public schools, so perhaps the invocation of educational background is merely intended to remind us of his establishment pedigree and cultivate his lived caricature. No significant exploration of this world exists in English fiction: Dickens, the novelist most interested in education, is generally uninterested in the most elite institutions. For most of the population, the English public school exists, if at all, only in the undergrowth of juvenile literature, unaffected by the tides and vagaries of real-world politics – the world of Tom Brown or Billy Bunter.

‘The year is 1910 – or 1940, but it is all the same,’ Orwell wrote, describing the mental world of these stories, which are a peculiarity of English national literature. (He went to Eton.) ‘There is a cosy fire in the study, and outside the wind is whistling. The ivy clusters thickly round the old grey stones. The king is on his throne and the pound is worth a pound. Over in Europe the comic foreigners are jabbering and gesticulating … Everything is safe, solid and unquestionable. Everything will be the same, for ever and ever.’

You can see how congenial this might be to Rees-Mogg’s political project, in which sentimental English nostalgia prettifies the hard-nosed Thatcherism of Somerset Capital. And we shouldn’t underestimate the potential audience of the public school narrative: the stories maintained their audience long past their Edwardian use-by date. Their latest version – denuded of their old casual bigotry, and with a sprinkle of magic on top – is the Harry Potter publishing juggernaut, centred on a fantasy of individual election from the ordinary to the magical elite, and which concludes with the hero graduating to become the head of that world’s equivalent of Special Branch.

The solid sense of social stasis is what gave those boarding-school stories their significant interwar appeal, and it is what the most vocal defenders of private education today fear will be taken away from them. Perhaps the prospect of a Corbyn government avowedly hostile to Britain’s many sources of inequality has made Stowe’s headmaster nervous. As David Kynaston and Francis Green point out, significant numbers of British private school pupils come from the wealthiest 5 per cent of families, and the high price of entry and concomitant concentration of resources ensures Britain’s private schools remain distinctive ‘engines of privilege’. In other words – Alan Bennett’s (Leeds Modern School) – ‘private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it.’ He could have added: and they will say just about anything in order to defend it.


  • 16 May 2019 at 1:08am
    Quebec Scot says:
    Maybe 'No significant exploration of this world exists in English fiction' but let me put in a plug for Mitchell's 'Another Country', which for me - as a working-class grammar school boy at uni, mystified by the profound sense of entitlement and tribalism - clarified a few things.

  • 16 May 2019 at 6:23pm
    Graucho says:
    Most public schools are registered charities. Well charity is as charity does. They should be given the option of either a) Webcasting their lessons, so that all may benefit from their teaching and have a fair crack at Oxbridge et al or b) Being classed as proper businesses and paying CT and VAT.

  • 17 May 2019 at 3:41am
    Bolbol says:
    Sound points, thank you. I would echo the other commenter who mentioned 'Another Country' - a play I acted in once, at my private school (apparently in the previous generation it had been controversial to stage it there, but not by the early 90s). I should point out that I spent half of my education at a private school for free thanks to a scholarship, the other half in the state system, all my siblings went to state schools, and my dad is a perfect example of the post-war welfare state/grammar school mobility you talked about (London working-class parents, New Town, not only got to university but a PhD), so these things are always more complicated than public school=elite social class, which is not to deny the advantages it gave me (including getting me into Oxbridge, still free, and where unlike many of my state school pals I still got a meagre student grant).
    Another point I think it is always worth mentioning in these analyses of schooling and privilege in the UK is that there is a long tradition of overseas pupils, going back to the education of elites from colonised countries, but with a big expansion in the last 20 years or so as public schools adopt deliberate marketing strategies - especially to China. And our universities, not just Oxbridge or the Russell Group, also award increasing numbers of undergraduate places to overseas students - 19% in 2016-17.

  • 21 May 2019 at 6:15pm
    Able says:
    The continued cry for fairness in Education still amazes.The grammar schools helped working class kids get a good start but since acceptance by the school was based on the 11 plus exam this under the Labour Party was considered unfair since not everyone could pass the exam.Hence the distraction of Grammar schools and the resulting block on a lot of economic and social mobility.
    The goal of government needs to be equality of opportunity not the hackneyed phrase equality of outcome, but we may be too late.

  • 21 May 2019 at 9:14pm
    smithjohn says:
    This notion that schools offer social mobility is itself a a claim of the 'ruling ideology'. What ever mobility occurs is clearly individual - the individual through the socius as constituted. If there was social mobility as such, on the basis of education, then the social would be other than it is, which is determinedly not the aim of education.

  • 22 May 2019 at 3:40am
    Ian Britain says:
    I am truly astonished by James Butler's claim that 'no significant exploration' of the public-school world 'exists in English fiction. Since E.C. Mack's trailblazing two-volume study, of 1938, 'The Public Schools and British Opinion', there have been at least five substantial studies of the genre of public-school fiction, covering an enormous range of sub-genres and titles: E.S. Turner's 'Boys Will Be Boys', John R, Reed's 'Old School Ties', Isobel Quigley's 'The Heirs of Tom Brown', P. W Musgrave's 'From Brown to Bunter' and Jeffrey Richard's 'Happiest Days'. I am currently researching another such study, which will also cover poetry, plays, films and TV series set, or partly set, in English public schools, and which will bring the discussion of this strange national obsession up to date. Schools in general have loomed large as a subject or setting in British fiction and other genres, but public schools - perhaps BECAUSE they have catered only for a small, mainly privileged minority - have proven to be a persistent source of fascination for British writers, film-makers and their audiences.

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