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The Old Boys

The Decline and Rise of the Public School


David Turner


London: Yale University Press, 2016

Paperback. xiv+335. ISBN 978-0300219388. £10.99


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London



The provision of education is always a controversial topic and its most provocative expression in Great Britain is the existence of ‘public schools’. These are, of course, private, fee-paying institutions, unlike the genuinely public school system in the USA. David Turner, former education correspondent for the Financial Times and an ex-public school pupil, has risen to the daunting challenge of tracing the history of these institutions and assessing their role in twenty-first century Britain. At present, more than half of the nation’s top medical doctors, judges, leading civil servants, prominent lawyers, senior members of the armed forces, diplomats, editors and correspondents for leading newspapers and television programmes, and chief executives of FTSE-100 companies, not to mention Conservative members of parliament, went to public schools. Similarly, most successful actors, popular musicians, cricketers and many other sportsmen (but not footballers) had a private education, despite public schools educating less than 8 per cent of the total cohort of schoolchildren.

David Turner defines a British public school as

a school independent of state control which has primarily educated members of the elite, with the purpose of providing, to some of the pupils at least, an academic education aimed at preparing them for university study. Nowadays these schools all charge high fees: in the past some did not, but admission to these schools, through patronage, tilted heavily towards the elite [xii]

He defines that elite, whose members pay annual fees averaging £29,000 for boarders and £13,000 for day pupils, in a broad sense to incorporate ‘the upper middle as well as the upper classes, and the well off as well as the genuinely rich’ [xii]

Turner has read numerous histories of public schools and memoirs written by their alumni/ae. He has visited many institutions and has interviewed head masters and head mistresses, other members of teaching staff, and public school pupils, past and present. His approach is essentially historical and he draws heavily on anecdotes throughout his book. Statistics make their appearance in later chapters, dealing with the twentieth century. The first public school was Winchester College, founded by William of Wykeham in 1382 to educate poor boys (known as ‘scholars’), however provision was also made to accommodate the sons of the rich and powerful via an escape clause in the statutes. This proclaimed: 'We allow, however, sons of noble and influential persons, special friends of the said College, up to the number of ten, to be instructed and informed in grammar within the same College, without burden upon the aforesaid College' [7].

In other words, fees had to be paid for their tuition and maintenance. Great emphasis was placed on instruction in Latin grammar, and brutal measures were often used in an attempt to maintain order among the schoolboys. As the decades passed, educating those whose families could afford to pay became ever more prominent. By the end of the sixteenth century, five other schools qualified as ‘public schools’: Eton, St. Paul’s, Shrewsbury, Merchant Taylors’ and Westminster.

The number of public schools increased with the passage of time but their curricula remained grounded in the Classics. After three years at Westminster School (1749-1752), historian Edward Gibbon recalled: ‘I left school with a stock of education which might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which any schoolboy would have been ashamed’ [43]. Despite its shortcomings, Turner declares that by this time ‘a public school education had become almost the standard education for the ruling class’ [53]. Latin and Greek continued to dominate, ‘to the exclusion of science, English, modern history and modern languages, and many of the basics of maths, though geometry enjoyed some favour’ [71]. As late as the 1830s, at least three-quarters of the average public school timetable in England was devoted to the Classics. Thus, William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) left Eton ‘proficient in Greek and Latin, competent in French, barely adequate in mathematics, and largely ignorant of the sciences’ [83]. Conditions were rather better in Scotland where more emphasis was given to science and maths that inspired future industrialists, entrepreneurs and traders. Yet in the second half of the nineteenth century, the headmaster of Loretto (near Edinburgh) ranked his objectives in educating public school boys as: ‘first character, second physique, third intelligence, fourth manners, fifth information’ [91]. As in earlier times, riots, mutinies and violence among pupils continued to prevail in some institutions. Masters employed corporal punishment as they attempted to maintain order, but ‘a man who flogged with his left hand instead of his right to minimise the severity, still flogged all the same’ [69].

During the nineteenth century growing emphasis was placed on organised sport and games to curtail schoolboy violence and to instil a sense of loyalty and order, becoming ‘one of the virtues of a public school education’ [102]. Nonetheless, tensions continued to breed inappropriate behaviour. Turner declares:

The rigid sense of hierarchy created blind obedience; the survival of the ‘fag’ system fostered opportunities for a good deal of cruelty and humiliation in boarding schools; for a young boy, previously innocent about sex, often suddenly translated to a world of savagery, sexual cruelty might have seemed merely one among many forms of persecution that had to be endured with forbearance [147].

In 1872, the Girls’ Public Day School Company was launched, offering a good education for young women. By 1900, it had thirty schools and seven thousand pupils who studied English grammar and literature, French, German and elementary science; Classics and economics were offered to advanced pupils. Public schools for boys were in a better state than in earlier times, but were still weak in science; bullying by older boys and by masters continued.

A major innovation in British schooling was introduced by the 1902 Education Act which encouraged (but did not compel) local authorities to provide secondary education, notably through grammar schools. This new system catered for middle-class and lower-middle class children but scarcely dented the appeal of public schools for children of the fee-paying elite. Pupils in state-funded secondary schools totalled 200,000 on the eve of World War I, and twice that number by 1937. Boys’ public schools continued much as before, with the Classics and sporting prowess figuring high on the agenda. However, this sector of the education system suffered from parental inability to pay ever-mounting fees during the economic depression of the 1930s; enrolments fell but fees had to rise to cover costs if public schools were to remain open.

The 1944 Education Act made it compulsory for local education authorities to offer free secondary education to all, in grammar schools for ‘academic’ children and in secondary modern and secondary technical schools for others. State schools placed ever stronger emphasis on educational achievement, with university (or teacher-training college) entrance becoming the target for a minority of these pupils. Introduction of the ‘advanced level’ school-leaving examination in 1951 reinforced this approach, but ‘many public schools took a relaxed attitude towards the A-level during its first decade or so – relaxed to the point of complacency’ [195]. Aware of the gradual rise of a meritocracy, fee-paying parents demanded higher educational standards in public schools, and universities required high achievement at A-level to secure entry at a time when places were in short supply prior to the age of mass higher education. Supremacy of the Classics was over in public schools, which invested in science laboratories, drama suites and other specialised facilities, while also requiring higher standards among their teaching staff. Girls’ schools in the independent sector underwent especially notable improvements in teaching and learning at this time. Despite all these changes, the public schools experienced powerful competition from grammar schools, with the number of pupils in independent schools falling from 510,000 in 1955 to 403,000 in 1978, and some lesser institutions experiencing such hard times that they were forced to close.

With academic standards in public schools rising, David Turner recognised the start of ‘a golden age’ ca. 1980 in the independent sector. A government-funded ‘assisted places scheme’ operated between 1981 and 1997, providing subsidies that allowed children from non-elite families to attend public schools. International schools being set up overseas provided a new challenge and reduced the flow of children of diplomats and senior businessmen back to public schools in Britain. Downward fluctuations in wellbeing made ever-rising fees an impossibility for some previously ‘elite’ families. Publication of academic league tables laid bare the educational attainments of public schools and made comparisons with the best state schools, whose pupils sometimes far outshone those in the independent sector. The financial crash of 2008, ‘when the earnings of the wealthy stalled, their bonuses disappeared, and their house and share prices dropped like stones’, challenged the viability of less prestigious public schools. New strategies had to be devised, including recruitment of foreign pupils (notably in China, Hong Kong, Russia and Germany) whose wealthy parents wished them to have the benefits of an ‘elite’ British education, and creation of overseas satellite schools in China, South Korea, Singapore, and Thailand. Over a third of public school boarders are foreign pupils with parents domiciled abroad. Indeed, some independent schools are now catering for a global elite in the education market.

Without doubt, children educated in fee-paying schools experience good staff/pupil ratios and often have access to impressive learning and playing facilities, including sports grounds (many of which in the state sector have been sold to raise funds). As the first paragraph of this review showed, the products of public schools occupy a disproportionately elevated position in British society. In his benevolent text, which is long on history and short on analysis, Turner asserts:

Public schools in their present form do more good than harm. On the debit side, they increase social (though not racial) segregation but not to the point where this interferes with the effective running of the country; they also widen inequality of opportunity. On the credit side, their existence increases the total amount of knowledge and hence opportunity in Britain... Their greatest virtue of all, however, is that they provide a necessary diversity of approach to how to educate children [280-281].

He concludes: ‘As a class, these boys (sic) from the upper and upper-middle classes have learnt to embrace and master the modern world. The public schools deserve much of the credit for this achievement’ [286].

Some readers may regret that the controversial issue of charitable status, whereby public schools experience beneficial tax advantages, was not afforded more attention. Not all will agree with David Turner’s affectionate appraisal and may well expect to have seen a more critical analysis of an educational system that forms part of a network of influence controlling power, finance, property and social status in Britain today.



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