R.H. Tawney called it ‘the hereditary curse upon English education’, Anthony Crosland ‘the strongest remaining bastion of class privilege’, Neil Kinnock ‘the very cement in the wall that divides British society’. No other country has anything quite like the British public school system, just as no other country has anything like the House of Lords or the House of Windsor. Elsewhere, people opt out of the state system—often in greater numbers than they do in Britain—in search of a particular type or philosophy of education, such as a Catholic school. Here, the dominant reason for going private is quite different: the pursuit, for one’s children, of academic, social and career advantage. In effect, the public schools are the training grounds for the ruling classes: the top echelons of the civil service, the law, politics, the City. That there are exceptions—Britain has not had a privately-educated Prime Minister since Sir Alec Douglas Home—is neither here nor there.

Writing in 1990, Jeremy Paxman recorded:

Over forty years after the legislation that opened secondary education to all, the public schools account for seven out of nine of the army’s top generals, two-thirds of the external directors of the Bank of England, thirty-three of the thirty-nine top English judges, all the ambassadors in the fifteen most important overseas missions, seventy-eight of the Queen’s eighty-four lord lieutenants and the majority of the bishops in the Church of England. Even the bold, thrusting entrepreneurs who have become such folk heroes have failed to cast aside old money: of the two hundred richest people in Britain, thirty-five were educated at a single school, Eton. Reports of the death of the class system have been greatly exaggerated.’footnote1

Paxman acknowledged that some things had changed. For example, after the 1945 General Election, a quarter of Tory mps came from Eton; after the 1987 election, the proportion was down to 11 per cent. In 1960, of the 28 most senior civil servants, 18 had been educated privately; by 1990, the equivalent figure was 14 out of 36. On the other hand, two-thirds of the qcs appointed in the 1980s had been to public schools suggesting, wrote Paxman, that ‘the male, public school judiciary will be with us for years to come.’

This is not to argue that family and old school tie are still enough to get people into top jobs. It is rather that changes in the requirements for ruling-class entry are moving hand-in-hand with changes in the public schools. Once it was deemed that little understanding of science or economics or foreign languages or modern history was required to rule Britain and her Empire. A knowledge of the classical civilizations and classical languages was thought more or less sufficient. Indeed, the whole ethos of the public schools was, if anything, anti-intellectual, even anti-educational. They aimed to develop character and to instil discipline. Team spirit was more highly valued than individualist ambition, effortless ease more than diligent attention to books and lessons.