Book review: Posh Boys

Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik is a familiar recipe for how to fix the country’s (Eton) mess, writes David James

David James

Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik is a call for the end of public schools

Posh Boys: how the English public schools ruin Britain


Author: Robert Verkaik

Publisher: Oneworld

Details: 400pp, £16.99, hardback

ISBN: 9781786073839

You don’t realise that you are a part of a conspiracy theory until somebody reveals a pattern to you in what, until then, looked like a series of incidental, random actions. Suddenly, for a moment, a life experience forms into a Rorschach test, a plausible narrative that shows intent amid the chaos, an organising intelligence that can be oddly reassuring because it explains why things are as they are. And one of the most enduring of all is the idea that a select cabal of public schools – a Bilderberg Group for toffs – is running the country.

If this is true, they’re not doing a very good job at the moment.

So here I am, a teacher who has worked in independent schools for 20 years, reading Robert Verkaik’s Posh Boys: how the English public schools ruin Britain, wondering how, unknowingly, I have helped to build this secret empire of influence. The title, which is deliberately provocative and out of character with Verkaik’s rather sober text, nevertheless says a lot about his main argument.

This is about posh boys (posh girls are rarely targeted here). This is about the ultra-privileged patriarchy, and if you could boil the whole sector down into one residual, sticky (Eton) mess, a glue that binds but also contorts our whole society, it would for Verkaik come down to that one four-letter word of abuse – Eton – and specifically, one of its most (in)famous old boys: that great dissembler, Boris Johnson.

A call for public schools to face 'euthanasia'

Verkaik brings together a huge amount of information and page after page of source material, and he interviews leading figures in the sector, ranging from Sir Anthony Seldon, former Master of Wellington College, to comedian Jim Davidson (I kid you not). He excavates the ancient histories of these schools, but also explores with admirable sensitivity the terrible acts of abuse that too many children suffered in some institutions. And yet the book is oddly uncompelling because we know how this will end: it is in a call for an end to the sector. Perhaps not the violent, sudden execution that exterminists on the Left extol. No, Verkaik wants public schools to face “a slow and peaceful euthanasia”.

He sets out a series of steps that would turn this country into a sort of Dignitas for the sector. But if we struggle, and writhe, as the drugs that strip us of our charitable status course through our corrupted systems, then a more violent, Marxist end, will have to take over: confiscate the billions these private businesses have! Limit the number of places their students can take up at university! Place quotas on the number of “top jobs” privately educated pupils can have! Inexorably, control of private means and personal choice moves to centralised, bureaucratic control.

At no point does Verkaik wonder about the pupils themselves who, comparatively affluent though they may be, are still children who need to be educated. Nor does he debate how, if it’s Eton’s fault that we are leaving the EU, it benefits public schools? This is a sector that values, more than most qualities, continuity. Does he believe that the outcome was the result of public school charm, and that the poor, dimwitted, state-school-educated masses fell for it?

Possibly, because in order to push through his argument he has to generalise: he writes that “an Eton education teaches bombast, bluster and buffoonery”. Really? Has he seen this in their classrooms? He accuses public schoolboys of “playing politics with our lives” but that is what politicians tend to do, wherever they are educated. Does he think the state sector cannot produce equally mendacious individuals? If not, it is a curiously polarised view of human nature. And indeed, many people educated in fee-paying schools have achieved great things: does the fact that Clement Attlee went to Haileybury undermine the establishment of the welfare state? Do Winston Churchill’s Harrow schooldays discredit his leadership during the Second World War?

And yet it would be wrong for independent schools to completely dismiss Verkaik’s familiar claims. Whether or not they are true, the perception has, for many, hardened into reality. That matters. Our independent schools could always do more to aid social mobility, and should be working ever more closely with state schools to form meaningful partnerships. That some do so little out of choice is indefensible. But abolishing public schools is a chimera, an easy answer to more complex issues – an answer that it seems we are increasingly finding seductive. Given our very recent history, we should look very hard at arguments that seek to solve deep divisions with blunt tools fashioned in the fire of personal prejudices.

David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School in Dorset

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David James picture

David James

David James is deputy head of an independent school in London

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