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.

The profound irony of British educational history is that the state sector embraced this approach to schooling at the very moment that the private sector was hastily abandoning it. The state sector did not, to be sure, embrace any of the Empire-glorifying propaganda. Nor did it adopt the muscular heartiness of the private sector. And discipline was well down its list of desirable attributes. Nevertheless, the belief that schools should be concerned with social and moral values—rather than merely with intellect and knowledge—became as rooted in the state sector as it had once been in the private. State schools set out to educate ‘the whole child’. Their idealized child—compassionate, cooperative, willing to question established authority—was almost the exact opposite of what the public schools had wanted. What was important, however, was the acceptance in both cases that children’s moral attitudes and moral development were the prime business of schools and teachers. When primary school teachers in the 1970s were asked to put 72 aims for primary education into rank order, they placed ‘acquire moral values’ in third position—well above ‘convey meaning clearly through speech’, ‘arithmetic–4 rules’ and ‘wide vocabulary’, to quote just a few examples.footnote2 ‘What we must look for here,’ said Dr Thomas Arnold, the nineteenth-century head of Rugby, ‘is, 1st, religious and moral principles: 2ndly, gentlemanly conduct: 3rdly, intellectual ability.’ At William Tyndale, portrayed (unjustly) as the archetypal progressive primary school of the 1970s, the teachers quoted William Blake: ‘The tigers of destruction are wiser than the horses of instruction.’ To draw any parallel between the two may seem astonishing. But my point is that, reluctant though either would have been to admit it, they shared the belief that schools were not solely, or even mainly, about books and learning. ‘If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that’s all I want’, said Tom Brown’s father, when he sent his son to Rugby, and it is not so difficult to adapt those words to the sentiments of the modern ‘progressive’ teacher.

In the 1970s, however, the public school ethos was changing rapidly. Intellectual attainment, once regarded with faint suspicion, became paramount. Science, once viewed as an unsuitable occupation for young gentlemen—and even more unsuitable for young ladies—began to flourish and huge sums were invested in laboratories. As recently as 1961, only two-fifths of the leavers from private schools had any ‘A’-levels and fewer than one-fifth had three or more. By 1981, the proportions had increased to 63 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Now, 80 per cent gain three or more ‘A’-levels. The public schools, in other words, have become academic hothouses—factories pushing their pupils along the ‘A’-level conveyor belt to university. They were forced to do so because, particularly after the election of a Labour government in 1964, the ‘old school tie’ was becoming less acceptable as a route to power and preferment. At the same time, the most meritocratic institutions in the state sector—the grammar schools—were being largely abolished. And nearly all the most academically-inclined direct-grant grammar schools—which mixed the children of fee-paying parents with children paid for by the state—moved into the independent sector when Labour abolished the direct-grant system in the late 1970s.