Eton Mess

Lord Mayor’s Show 2008, Christ’s Hospital*

Eton Mess                                         

Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Run Britain, by Robert Verkaik, One World Publications, 2018, pp 349, reviewed by Bill Hartley

Posh Boys takes a fresh look at a familiar story: the role of the public schools in Britain. Most people are aware that social mobility has scarcely shifted in decades and that the life chances of children from poorer families are severely restricted. Robert Verkaik argues convincingly that a significant impediment to change is the public or independent school, as they prefer to call themselves these days.

Posh Boys is no mere addition to the list of books advocating abolition of the public school system. For example, the author does a better job than many on the history of British education since the Middle Ages and how we got to where we are now. He shows how the ideals of those who founded and endowed these institutions have been corrupted. The most famous of them all, Eton College (est.1440), was founded by King Henry VI for the education of 70 poor boys. As a consequence the school and others like it are still able to claim charitable status. It would be interesting to know if this ever crosses the mind of a Russian Oligarch who sends his son there.

One less well known fact is how the British public school brand has been franchised with branches in China, Russia and even Kazakhstan and that the straw boaters of Harrow can be found in Bangkok. As Verkaik notes, having invented inequality of education Britain is now exporting it to the rest of the world.

Where the book really grabs the attention is in its discussion of the economics of a public school education where the fees charged have long exceeded inflation. Last year, the rather obscure Hurtwood House in Surrey became the first school to break through the £40,000 barrier. Fees now stand at a whopping £42,267 per year. Clearly, parents contemplating sending a child to such a school would need to have very deep pockets and yet because of the supposed ‘charitable’ nature of many establishments, no VAT is payable on the fees. This is a thread which runs through the book and Verkaik makes a good case for ending what he views as a subsidy from the public purse.

Although the reader will soon have a good idea where the author’s sympathies lie, this is a fair and balanced book with ample room given to the views of people from other sides of the fence, notably Joe Spence, the admirable head of Dulwich College, who is doing something about returning to the original ethos of the school when it comes to educating those of limited means. He may well be ahead of the game. There is telling reference to what might have been. Churchill was the unlikely, would be reformer of the public school system.

The alternative to a fee paying education was the grammar school and under the Direct Grant system bright children could secure an education which might otherwise have been unaffordable. A notable beneficiary was Margaret Thatcher. It was a Labour government which ended the system in the 1970s gambling that few schools would give up state funding. Most, however, chose to go fully independent. Interestingly, Labour politicians have continued to make use of the public school system for their own children, including Prime ministers Wilson, Callaghan and Blair. Conservative attempts to revive the Direct Grant system were killed off by Tony Blair’s government. Blair, incidentally, was educated at Fettes, a Scottish public school.

Having an independent school on one’s doorstep can be a boost to the local economy. In Eton town the college is a cash cow for businesses on the high street. Verkaik’s description of how this works is like an extract from one of Trollope’s Palliser novels, with the school cast as Gatherum Castle and the prosperity of local tradespeople dependent on the patronage of the Duke of Omnium’s household.

Thought that your child was safe at an independent school? Whilst a local sports club is likely to have a child safeguarding policy available on request, one source cited in the book reveals that 40% of public schools don’t have a written document. The source suggests that this this appears to be a business decision taken so as not to put off fee paying parents. Verkaik describes the public schools as a multibillion pound service industry which operates as a charity. In terms of quality of teaching, he believes that there is little to differentiate public schools from the better comprehensives except for the all-important social connections that they provide.

Posh Boys concludes with a call for the abolition of the public schools. Verkaik contends that their absorption into the state system would drive up overall standards. He makes a compelling case for equality of opportunity as against freedom of parental choice (if you can afford it). But anyone who thinks that a change of government might bring this about may well be disappointed. The educational background of leading Labour politicians is as staunchly public school as any comparable group of Conservatives.

[* Editorial note; Christ’s Hospital was attended by the editor’s father, on a bursary]

BILL HARTLEY, a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service, writes from Yorkshire     

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