The Public School Revolution: Britain’s Independent Schools, 1964-1979 
by John Rae.
Faber, 188 pp., £6.50, September 1981, 0 571 11789 9
Show More
Show More

When, in 1682, the Reverend Mr Busby, headmaster of Westminster School, expelled or suspended John Dryden’s son, the poet wrote him an excellent letter. Busby had already been at Westminster for more than forty years: he was that terrifying thing, a Great Headmaster. Moreover, Dryden had himself been among his pupils and knew well enough what tricks the old autocrat could get up to. Busby had sent a message by the boy, that he ‘desired to see’ the father. Dryden hastened to assure him that his son ‘did the message’, but he did not obey the summons. His letter begins, indeed, by assuring Dr Busby that he would have come, if he could have found in himself ‘a fitting temper’, meaning, no doubt, that he was in no mood to talk to the headmaster as became an old pupil. His fury and his caution in addressing the great man jostle side by side throughout the letter. He admits or pretends that he found ‘something of kindness’ in the message, for Busby sent the boy away, so he said, in order that he ‘might not have occasion to correct him’ – a necessity more obvious, no doubt, to Busby than to the poet. He gives reasons why the boy’s alleged crime was perhaps ‘not so great’ as Busby seemed to think. Then he tells the headmaster that his first impulse was to send for the boy’s things from the college, without a moment’s delay. That he did not do so was partly out of respect for Dr Busby and partly – and this clearly is the point of the sentence – out of ‘tenderness of doeing anything offensive to my Lord Bishop of Rochester, as cheife Governour of the College’. A threat that the matter might not rest with the headmaster and that the chairman of the governors might hear of it. Dryden is concerned that his son’s chance of election to a university place will have been lost by the upset, and stoutly suggests the boy might as well go to Cambridge at once, ‘of his own election’. The letter concludes with the hope that Dryden will be ‘satisfyed with a favourable answer’ from Dr Busby’s ‘goodnesse and moderation’, so that he may continue his ‘obliged humble servant’, as, of course, every father with a boy at the school would wish to be.

A different world? Not at all, as regards the complex of essential relations between pupils, masters and parents. Manners have softened, and a 20th-century headmaster who conducted himself towards the boys as Dr Busby did would probably be sent to prison for a noticeable time, as would, certainly, one who met an insurrection in the way Dr Smith – another headmaster of Westminster – did, at the end of the 18th century. He felled the ring-leader with a club. Dr John Rae, the author of this book and the present incumbent of the post held by Busby and Smith, assuredly has no thought of reviving past brutalities, though he admits, understandably enough, to thinking that some boys involved in contemporary troubles deserved to be hit on the head. As well think of bringing in the cavalry to ride down rioters in Toxteth or Brixton. Dr Rae is the thoroughly modern exponent of a gentleness which is probably no more highly thought of, by those who are exposed to it, than was the violence of earlier times. In a passage illustrating what he considers ‘the most effective formula’ for dealing with trouble in chapel – apparently the scene of various ‘protests’ in the Sixties – he gives what must be a sketch of his own methods:

At the end of the service, the headmaster asked the visitors and the staff to leave. Alone with the school, he told them that he recognised that some of them had grievances, but that a mass protest in the presence of visitors was not the way to go about things. He avoided peevishness and sarcasm, the two qualities that would immediately alienate a schoolboy audience. He made no promises or threats. By removing the staff and speaking to the boys he had in one simple gesture abolished the oppressive sense of hierarchy. They were his boys and he was their headmaster.

How touching! Did the boys really fall for that? If so, public schools must certainly be failing to instil an adult and critical attitude in their pupils. The sentence about ‘removing the staff’ will produce a laugh from people who have seen bosses in other circumstances try the personal touch at the expense of the intermediate management. The headmaster is alone with his illusions. He speaks directly to each of his overgrown charges while the staff, who are actually at death’s grip with them, hour after hour and day after day, are supposed to represent ‘hierarchy’. Well might Dr Rae suggest that ‘public school headmasters are political animals.’ But he is less than frank in his characterisation of the species. ‘Whatever other qualities of intellect and character they possess ... they have stamina, an instinct for survival, a polite ruthlessness, a shrewd judgment of men and opportunities and a flair for identifying and, if need be, diverting the current of popular opinion.’ What is missing is the admission that most of the time these talents have been exercised against immature persons. ‘Fear of the boys is a potent factor. It could no more be admitted than a handful of British soldiers in a remote colonial outpost could admit they were afraid of the natives.’ Things are not always as bad as at the critical moments of the Sixties to which these sentences refer, but it is these tribesmen who set the tone of the schoolmaster’s operations.

Dr Rae does not mean us to attach too much importance to this aspect of the headmasters’ activities. Indeed, his book is largely concerned with their tactics in defending their schools against ‘inflation, political attack and social upheaval’ – this last making a direct impact in the form of ‘drug culture’, ‘pop culture’, though not, thank God, ‘punk culture’, for that was a working-class phenomenon. (Dr Rae is full of ‘cultures’ – this manner of speaking is no doubt part of the evidence for the modernity he is so anxious to prove and, I would say, does prove.) His account of the public schools’ response to the financial and political difficulties of 1964-79 takes us into worlds far beyond the schools themselves, but his approach is coloured by the world from which he issues forth. That he saw himself early in his career as one whose mission lay in the peripheral world of academic politics and bureaucracies is demonstrated by the fact that, while an assistant master at Harrow (his first job), he wrote to Crosland, who was then presiding over the Department of Education. He explained to the Secretary of State that he did not ‘trust headmasters to represent the views of the rank and file’. How John Rae came to speak for those views is not clear. Crosland put him on to Reg Prentice, who saw him and was rewarded by a further letter suggesting that the membership of the current Public Schools Commission should include an assistant master and that he, Rae, was the man for the job. We all have to learn and this is not the best way to approach Whitehall on such a matter. But it was an opening gambit, and Rae’s appointment a year later – in 1966 – as headmaster of Taunton School, and in 1970, when he was 39, as headmaster of Westminster, threw him into the public schools’ own little political arena. In 1977 he was chairman of the Headmasters’ Conference and, although 14 others must presumably have held the post as well as he, during the period he is discussing, Dr Rae can claim to have been at the centre of things.

Ah, but what is the centre, when it comes to politics? Not even the Headmasters’ Conference, smartened up as it was in 1963 by the appointment of a consultant on public relations, who naturally advised ‘more positive action in providing the public with a straightforward and up-to-date picture of public schools’. Not even ISIS (the Independent Schools Information Service), established in 1972, when the direct-grant schools had been destroyed and the public schools found it convenient to be known as ‘independent schools’, to make the most of the fact that they had been democratically reinforced by the considerable number of establishments which had been created out of the stubborn direct-grant schools which declined to be taken over. In fact, the necessity of entering the political field had – to judge by Dr Rae – so disoriented headmasters that they were hardly any longer the centre of anything, not even their own schools. For the preoccupation of proving the value and virtue of those establishments meant that, instead of having their minds on the schools, in the way that Dr Arnold had, they were distracted by thinking about the audience for their apologetics. It must be reckoned a come-down in the world to have to take seriously the menacing round face of Mr Hattersley, putting it bluntly to a conference of independent-school headmasters: ‘I must, above all else, leave you in no doubts about our serious intention initially to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country.’ But even Mr Hattersley, portentous though he is and no doubt wishes to be, is not quite the centre either. Is there hope in Mrs Shirley Williams? I should not have thought so, given the extreme ambiguity of her actions and opinions, in the matter of education as in some others. However, you never know when you may need a friend or who that friend may be, and Dr Rae speaks of her ‘intelligence, realism and lack of bigotry’: all such praise is, after all, comparative.

One can understand that, the secondary, grammar and direct-grant schools having already fallen before the onslaught of politicians, the public schools – the independent schools – feel that they must now look out. Dr Rae is good on the divisions within the scholastic camp which have imperilled the defence hitherto. Schools have competed with one another for customers; more recently, boys’ schools have raided the girls’ schools. If, as the convinced exponent of the Gleichschaltung of education, the Labour Party has been the enemy, the Conservative Party could hardly be said to have been helpful. One has had the impression, over the years, that they knew little and cared less about the education of the lower middle classes or of that even more important part of the social substructure, the barely definable lowest middle classes whose day passed when it ceased to be possible for parents to buy a grammar-school education for a few pounds a year. Public schools the Conservative Party had certainly heard of, and not all of the inner circle went to Eton, though the Party has sometimes behaved as if they did. Anyhow, now that grammar schools (with few exceptions) and direct-grant schools have been abolished, and the average boarding fees for public schools stand at £3500 a year, it cannot be said that there is much choice left for the ordinary parent with an interest in literacy. One of the most significant questions, for those who concern themselves with the politics of these matters, is: who now goes to public schools? On this subject Dr Rae has some interesting things to say, though he is far less informative than one could have wished. ‘By the end of the Seventies, it was rare to find an Anglican clergyman who could afford the fees of an independent school ... as a significant group of parents the clergy disappeared.’ (One must admit the fairness of the comment Dr Rae makes: ‘that the tendency for Anglican priests to experience qualms of conscience about private education dates from the time when they could no longer afford to send their children.’) But other significant groups of parents have appeared. Dr Rae mentions investment analysts, management consultants and ‘many more who described themselves on their son’s registration forms as “company director”’. One need have no special hostility to these three groups to feel that their prominence in this context is not entirely reassuring.

Even more worrying than the political threat to public schools is the economic threat, which this change of clientèle illustrates. But if the economic threat is severe, it is at least something that headmasters and school governors can do something about. A lot has been done. The widening of the basis for recruitment, including the admission of many beneficiaries of the Middle East oil trade and the pillaging of girls’ schools for brighter pupils, has been part of the exercise of looking for the vastly increased fees wherever they can be found. The publicity put out to show that the schools had moved with the times may also be considered from this point of view: it has been more successful with the potential customers than with politicians. Even in the early Sixties the Headmasters’ Conference was drawing up a list of the ‘popular myths that need to be scotched’. Some of them, like myths of another kind, must rank at least as half-truths. The killing of ‘myths’ and the making of ‘images’ is anyhow at best a secondary occupation: what really matters is what was done. ‘Over £60 million’ was raised in the years 1964-79, with the help of fund-raising firms. The result has been that the public schools have not only ceased to have ‘barbaric living conditions’ and to teach ‘no science’ (h. and b. of the original table of myths) but have become extremely well-equipped to teach modern subjects. Dr Rae can cry lyrically: ‘The time British public-schoolboys once spent writing Latin verses is now spent writing computer programmes.’ How splendid! How likely to appeal to the investment analyst and the management consultant! How likely to appeal to the better-paying employers, when the time comes to set out the curriculum vitae!

Dr Rae is frank about the public schools’ place in the market: ‘education was the service the schools were selling.’ Perhaps, like Mrs Thatcher, he has too exclusive a trust in the market. He is so modern that one might say he has replaced Dr Arnold, as the guiding star in the public school firmament, by Walter Bagehot. And what, one must ask oneself, is he selling? I should have to admit to being, in the end, scandalised by the absence from this book of any real mark of concern for education. It is not that I have any great faith in theorists of education, remembering John Locke, who praised a mother who whipped her daughter eight times before she subdued her, on the grounds that had she stopped at the seventh occasion, her daughter would have been ruined, and Rousseau, the source of so many troubles, who was recklessly offhand about the fate of his own children. But I cannot help thinking that some schools may be better than others, and that the criteria cannot be satisfactorily established by what the most well-off parents are willing to pay by way of fees. Not that Dr Rae does not point to the academic glories recognised in our time: ‘23 per cent of all pupils taking three or more A-levels are in independent schools.’ That is what parents will pay for, and accounts for the diminished force of a. in the table of myths, that public schools are ‘a refuge for the brainless’. But Dr Arnold was surely right when he ‘strongly deprecated any system which would encourage the notion’ of academic honours ‘being the chief end to be answered by school education’. Dr Rae seems not to have thought about ‘the chief end’ at all: hardly, it sometimes seems, about the pupil, except as a commodity. His subject is the public schools’ ‘extraordinary capacity for survival’. ‘The headmasters of the Sixties and Seventies often used the Christian foundation argument as a means of discrediting Labour plans to take over their schools.’ It is an argument he thinks poorly of – which may be right in the context, but that hardly affects its intrinsic merits, one way or the other. There is much to be said for Christian education; there is much to be said against sectarian schools, the horrors of which are so apparent in Northern Ireland: but neither issue has really surfaced in Dr Rae’s mind. He sees through the old cant; he falls for the new, neck and crop. ‘Headmasters and new boys were on the same journey searching for God in what appeared to be a godless world.’ If ‘in the Seventies the old assumptions about a Christian school were no longer valid,’ neither, apparently, were the old assumptions about the value of literacy. The study of Greek and Latin in the sixth form became a highly ‘eccentric activity’.

What the public schools have preserved, through all the social changes, is an ability to steer their pupils towards the best university places and the best jobs. This valuable characteristic is what parents are really willing to pay for. It must have played a large part in the drift of girls into boys’ schools. Anyone who has sat on a selection board can imagine the way the members would have brightened up when they saw that the next candidate to be seen was one of the first girls from Marlborough. By and large, there is, in the high places of universities – not only in Oxford and Cambridge – in the Civil Service and in industry, a strong sense of succession which is linked to well-known academic establishments and to the manners and outlook they promote: it is tempered only by a desperate desire to show a broadmindedness which would exclude such influences. This is what excites the political hostility towards public schools. It is no good arguing that liberty matters more than equality or fraternity, because it is equality that democratic politics are about, however little there may be of it in the real world. For anyone who really believes that privilege can be abolished by a political revolution – and that it does not just change hands, as more disillusioned persons think – it is difficult to see what argument is left in favour of public schools. If, on the other hand, one thinks that privileged groups, with much the same rapacious intent, form themselves in all societies, and that those of a socialist world are likely to be no more amiable, and perhaps less various, than those which can lay hands on the money now, one will not join in any witchhunt. In real life, parents with children to educate look around to see what is the best they can do for them, and the best teaching is no doubt in schools, however financed, where there are a few really good teachers. General remedies are the devil in education, and, of course, they are the only kind known to politicians. Anyone interested in the politics of education should consider what Dr Rae has to say: others should look elsewhere. I started to read this book thinking that I should at last find out what the Public School Question really is. Now I wonder whether there is one, apart from the social dreams of Roy Hattersley and Neil Kinnock. The public schools seem as set as anyone on playing their part in the decline of education, as far as their superior resources allow. Admittedly, my view of the matter may rely too much on Dr Rae, for I have never set foot inside a public school, except once to borrow a book.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences