Unless the Labour party starts to show some mettle, we will be stuck with a system which cripples state education, preserves the class structure and permits a few thousand frightening, retentive people to rule over us.
If only the government would justify the paranoia of the ruling classes. They believe, as they have always believed, that they are under unprecedented attack. All last week the rightwing papers rustled with the lamentations of the privileged, wailing about a new class war. If only.
The whinge-fest was prompted by the publication of the Charity Commission’s new guidance about public benefits(1). If institutions want to retain their status as charities, they should demonstrate that they do good(2). The benefits they create should outweigh the harm they might do, the poor should not be shut out, and "charities should not be seen as ‘exclusive clubs’ that only a few can join". It hardly sounds radical: after all, what sort of charity is it that doesn’t meet these conditions? Well, it’s a distressed gentlefolks’ association called the private school, and it costs us £100m a year in tax exemptions(3).
Though they cannot meet even the crudest definition of charities, the commission - doubtless terrified of the force they can muster - grants private schools a series of escape clauses. Their charitable status will be preserved if they provide some subsidised places to poorer pupils or share some of their facilities with other schools, even if they charge for them(4). Thus, according to Melanie Phillips, Simon Heffer and a Telegraph leader, the commission has launched a "class war"(5,6,7), motivated (according to Heffer) by "government-orchestrated spite" or (a headteacher writing in the Telegraph) "the rhetoric of envy"(8). As seven of the Charity Commission’s nine board members were privately educated(9), this seems unlikely.
The private schools and their alumni have been fighting a class war for centuries. "Public schools" are so-called because this is what they once were. Eton was founded in 1442 exclusively for the children of paupers: no one whose father had an income of more than five marks could study there. Harrow, Winchester, Rugby and Westminster were also established as free schools for the poor(10). But they and their endowments were seized by the nobility, often by devious means, and the paupers were booted out. Today, private schools continue to capture public resources, by buying up the best teachers (trained at public expense) from the state sector(11). Under the Tories they received a further government subsidy, called the assisted places scheme.
No one who read Nick Davies’s investigation a few years ago into the state of our schools could doubt that the harm done by private education outweighs the benefits(12). Drawing on academic research, he found that the schools which fail are the ones whose pupils are overwhelmingly poor. "If the bright middle-class children are being siphoned off into private schools and a minority of state schools … then children in the rest of the system will fail to achieve comparable standards. The system fails because it is segregated, because it leaves the struggling children to struggle alone."(13) The Charity Commission’s loophole - private schools can keep their taxes if they subsidise places for the bright children of the poor - exacerbates the harm they inflict on the rest of the system.
But the damage goes far beyond this skimming. British private schools create a class culture of a kind unknown in the rest of Europe. The extreme case is the boarding prep schools, which separate children from their parents at the age of eight in order to shape them into members of a detached elite. In his book The Making of Them the psychotherapist Nick Duffell shows how these artificial orphans survive the loss of their families by dissociating themselves from their feelings of love(14).Survival involves "an extreme hardening of normal human softness, a severe cutting off from emotions and sensitivity."(15) Unable to attach themselves to people (intimate relationships with other children are discouraged by a morbid fear of homosexuality), they are encouraged instead to invest their natural loyalties in the institution.
This made them extremely effective colonial servants: if their commander ordered it, they could organise a massacre without a moment’s hesitation (witness the detachment of the officers who oversaw the suppression of the Mau Mau, quoted in Caroline Elkins’s book, Britain’s Gulag(16)). It also meant that the lower orders at home could be put down without the least concern for the results. For many years, Britain has been governed by damaged people.
I went through this system myself, and I know I will spend the rest of my life fighting its effects. But one of the useful skills it has given me is an ability to recognise it in others. I can spot another early boarder at 200 metres: you can see and smell the damage dripping from them like sweat. The Conservative cabinets were stuffed with them: even in John Major’s "classless" government, 16 of the 20 male members of the 1993 cabinet had been to public school; 12 of them had boarded(17). Privately-educated people dominate politics, the civil service, the judiciary, the armed forces, the City, the media, the arts, academia, the most prestigious professions, even, as we have seen, the Charity Commission. They recognise each other, fear the unshaped people of the state system, and, often without being aware that they are doing it, pass on their privileges to people like themselves.
The system is protected by silence. Because private schools have been so effective in moulding a child’s character, an attack on the school becomes an attack on all those who have passed through it. Its most abject victims become its fiercest defenders. How many times have I heard emotionally-stunted people proclaim "it never did me any harm"? In the Telegraph last year, Michael Henderson boasted of the delightful eccentricity of his boarding school. "Bad work got you an ‘order mark’. One foolish fellow, Brown by name, was given a double order mark for taking too much custard at lunch. How can you not warm to a teacher who awards such punishment? … Petty snobbery abounded," he continued, "but only wets are put off by a bit of snobbery. So long as you pulled your socks up, and didn’t let the side down, you wouldn’t be for the high jump. Which is as it should be."(18) A ruling class in a persistent state of repression is a very dangerous thing.
The problem of what to do about private schools and the class-bound system they create has been neatly solved by the Guardian columnist Peter Wilby(19,20). He proposes that places at the best universities should be awarded to the top pupils in each of the UK’s sixth forms, regardless of absolute results. Middle-class parents would have a powerful incentive to send their children to schools with poor results, then to try to ensure that those schools acquired good resources and effective teachers. They would have no interest in sending their children to private schools.
But who is prepared to fight the necessary class war? Not the government, or not yet at any rate. Not the Charity Commission. Unless the Labour party starts to show some mettle, we will be stuck with a system which cripples state education, preserves the class structure and permits a few thousand frightening, retentive people to rule over us. And this will continue to be deemed a public benefit.