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A Class Apart-heid

Eton College School as seen from the river and fields, Berkshire. Line engraving by J. Smith, 1801, after E. Dayes.
Eton College School as seen from the river and fields, Berkshire. Line engraving by J. Smith, 1801, after E. Dayes.

England's peculiar private education system, arranged around the model of the "public school", has been selling privilege and power to the highest bidder for hundreds of years. But this was not how the public schools started out.

The first, Winchester College, was founded 600 years ago in the reign of Richard II, one year after the Peasants Revolt, and was intended as a Medieval institution of social mobility, lifting up the lowly to the government of England. These schools were soon hijacked by the aristocracy and wealthy industrialists of Georgian and Victorian Britain. The schools which followed helped build the biggest Empire the world has ever known and educated some of our most famous leaders, from Gladstone to Churchill.

But the post-war decline of British influence and a move to a more meritocratic state has not seen a diminishing influence of the public school. Far from it. The public school business is booming like it has never boomed before. Latest figures show that more people than ever are benefiting from our apartheid education system. 625,000 pupils and a further 32,000 students in countries as diverse as China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Singapore and Qatar are being educated outside the state sector in select and branded British private schools.

The Independent Schools Council, the body which represents the vast majority of private schools in the UK, says that there are now more children being educated in its schools than at any time since records began.

It means that roughly five million people living in the United Kingdom have been to a private school. Contrast this figure with the 2,708 pupils who were attending the nine leading public schools when concerns were first raised about elitist education by the social reformers of late Victorian period.

Today all our great institutions of state – government, judiciary and military – are run by an elite who have attended private schools. More than two-thirds of ministers serving in Rishi Sunak's Cabinet attended a private school. In 1945 the proportion was just a quarter.

The figures speak for themselves. Only 7 per cent of the population attend a private school. Yet private school pupils represent 74 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior officers in the armed forces, 55 per cent of permanent secretaries in Whitehall, 53 per cent of senior diplomats, 50 per cent of members of the House of Lords and a third of Russell Group university vice chancellors.

Other influential sections of society are similarly affected. Nearly half (44 per cent) of the captains of industry and businessmen and women on the Sunday Times Rich List attended public school. Following closely behind are 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 36 per cent of cabinet ministers, 33 per cent of MPs and 22 per cent of shadow cabinet ministers. Eton College educated more MPs (20) than any other school.

Britain no longer has an empire but the public schools continue to offer a privileged schooling that sustains inequality on a global scale.

They are far removed from the communities they were intended to serve. The founding charters of Winchester and Eton both stipulated that the schools would draw seventy 'poor and indigent' students from the local community. Today Eton has a school roll of 1300, of whom just over 80 get a totally free education and hardly any come from the Eton and Windsor locality. Across the sector fewer than 6,000 children of the 625,000 who are schooled privately pay no fees. For the rest the fees are affordable only to the super-rich. An Eton education costs £40,000 a year or £200,000 for the full course.

Millions of people will go to their graves never knowing there are charities called Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse whose sole purpose is to improve the life chances of rich and privileged children. Worse still the Government subsidises these schools to the tune of £200,000 a year.

The widening gap between a morass of indebted state schools and the elite private schools means that a child today has less chance of breaking through the class and career barrier than their grandparents born in the 1950s.

Schools that once produced leaders to rule an Empire are out of step with a more modest Britain in the 21st Century. Today, instead of sending gunboats to China or waging world wars on the continent, the public school elites have found other causes to champion. The agitators for Brexit (from Jimmy Goldsmith to Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson) come from a tightly-drawn class of public schools. While Jeremy Corbyn's radical Labour project has been masterminded by two pupils from Winchester College. And even Corbyn himself owes much to the years he spent at his expensive Shropshire prep school.

For too long the public schools have been able to dictate the terms of our democracy. Reform is in the air. Andrew Marr, reviewing my book Posh Boys in the Sunday Times, says that the days of such a demonstrably unfair education system are numbered. He wrote in 2018 that within ten years he expects the schools to lose their charitable status and have restrictions placed on the number of privately educated pupils taking posts in key British institutions. Even Michael Gove questioned how prestigious independent schools could justify taking lucrative taxpayer-funded subsidies when they cater to the ‘global super-rich’.

What is required is radical change - the reclamation of the public schools for a national education system independent of privilege and wealth.

The time has come to return these schools to the communities to which they once belonged. Opponents of change decry such proposals as the politics of envy and question how the state can afford to educate an additional half a million pupils. But what is wrong with wanting the same thing as the philanthropic founders of the original public schools?

And there need be no extra cost to the public purse. The school buildings already exist, propped up by endowments worth hundreds of millions of pounds. Think what a magnificent adornment Eton, Harrow and Winchester would make to the state sector.

But more than that, it will be the presence (and resources) of the private schools' pushy parents who will help raise the standards of all our schools and so improve the life chances of all the pupils regardless of their background. It would mean the study of ancient disciplines such as the Classics and Rhetoric would be once again restored to our community schools.

Robert Verkaik is the author of Posh Boys and co-founder of the Private Education Policy Forum.

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