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Class act

The public school system has been under fire since the turn of the 20th century, so how has it managed to survive - let alone thrive? Michael Shaw investigates

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The public school system has been under fire since the turn of the 20th century, so how has it managed to survive - let alone thrive? Michael Shaw investigates

Teachers at some of Britain's grandest public schools may have spluttered out their tea in the staffroom on seeing a headline on June 2, 1923. On the front page of The Times Educational Supplement were three words: "Private schools prohibited".

But public schools were not actually under any new threat. The headline referred to a law on the other side of the Atlantic, introduced in a single US state, Oregon, the year before. Still, it got the newspaper wondering: could it happen in Britain?

The last 100 years saw several occasions when educationalists believed that private schools in the UK would be abolished. Free secondary education was made available to all and the entire school system was, more than once, radically restructured in an effort to make it more egalitarian. Nearly every decade, private schools would complain that they were under threat.

But over the century, these same schools grew more powerful and popular. As The TES noted in its millennium edition, private education in 1900 had been dominated by just 64 boys' schools, educating about 20,000 pupils, and a smaller number of girls' schools. In the UK in 2011, the private sector has about 2,600 schools, educating 628,000 children. This is not just down to a rise in population: early issues of the newspaper reported that 2 per cent of children were privately educated, compared with 7 per cent today.

So how did private schools escape abolition, and not merely survive but thrive? Such a rosy future was certainly not predicted in the first issue of this paper in 1910. It published a letter by an anonymous public schoolmaster headlined "Why public schools fail". Apparently, it was because their pupils were cosseted and their teachers a "dwarfed and puny breed", the letter writer explained, "while money is often squandered like water on ostentatious buildings and splendid playing fields".

"In the face of these facts, what are the authorities of our public schools doing?" the writer asked. "Assuredly, almost nothing. Meanwhile, we drift aimlessly along, and the public schools, which are one of the nation's best assets, are certainly not being administered as the public interest demands, but rather as dictated only too frequently by sordid and financial needs."

For the sake of balance, the newspaper ran a counter-argument the following week, entitled "Why public schools succeed". While being overwhelmingly positive, it did note that the schools faced new challenges, such as the "increasing acceptance of democratic ideas", which meant pupils were no longer guaranteed jobs because of old school ties. "Careers are now open to talent," the letter went, "and there would be no point in having opened them if the governing classes held every fort against every competitor."

It agreed that public schools had to keep reforming "if they are to keep that place in the chapters yet unwritten", and concluded that "public schools are succeeding only if they are guided by the probable necessities of the England that is to be."

In 1917, the penultimate year of the First World War, private schools felt under attack. London's education committee had proposed registering and inspecting pupils in the city, while there were further calls to integrate them into the state system.

The TES felt registering teachers was a better idea as "this would not interfere with perfectly free private schools but would secure a certain standard of teaching". (In fact, it would take decades to bring in a national registration system for teachers and private schools were exempted.) "The State, in these days of reconstruction, must make use of the private schools without destroying them", the article went on, arguing that private schools should remain because "dualism" - having two competing approaches - had historically been beneficial to education in Britain.

This argument delighted the headteacher members of The Private Schools Association, one of whom wrote that the paper's stance "must have been gall and wormwood to those who would like to see the private school ruthlessly crushed out of existence", adding, "Since 1895, every device that could be adopted to undermine private schools has been tried, but the inherent love of fair play which characterises our nation has hitherto saved them."

Five years later, The TES was fascinated by Oregon's decision on compulsory state education. The US had seen an upsurge in private school attendance, but some warily regarded this phenomenon as un-American. "There is more than a suspicion now abroad," the paper wrote, "that the wealthier classes (in the US) are anxious to have a somewhat superior kind of education for their young people, that the common schools are not quite good enough for them. It is not that the instruction in these schools is regarded by the wealthy as in any way defective. It is not, indeed, a matter of education at all in the ordinary meaning of the term but of social prestige."

The TES seemed excited by moves in the US, but pushed instead for the German ideal of Einheitsschule, a more unified form of education. "The problem of the private school in England is different from that in America," the paper wrote. "With us, it has done excellent work." But it still felt optimistic that Britain could make its education system more egalitarian. "Under our more complicated educational conditions, there is not much chance of a similar law (to Oregon's) being passed for a long time yet; but the idea of Einheitsschule will not be lost sight of, and may be attained in a less crude but more effective way than the Oregonians have adopted."

The establishment of the Board of Education in 1900 and the formation of a national system of state education had introduced tougher competition for private schools and led to the closure of weaker ones. A TES article in 1926 crowed that over the previous two decades "the incompetent private school, bred from a spurious gentility, has almost ceased from the land", alluding to Nicholas Nickleby's brutish head with "Squeers is no more".

However, the paper was concerned that the trend against private schools might go too far. "What about the competent?" one article asked. "As the Board and the local authorities take more and more secondary schools under their capacious wings, the position of the independent schools gets more and more difficult." It concluded "there is a useful place for the independent school, as there is for the private bank" and that "like the private bank, it must be efficient or it will disappear".

Arguably the closest private schools came to abolition was in the 1940s. In A Century of Education, published in 2001, Gary McCulloch, formerly professor of education at Sheffield University, notes that schools at the time had been "undermined by broader social and cultural changes" and many had suffered financial problems. "In the reforming euphoria of the Second World War, many critics insisted that the public schools should be abolished entirely, or at least be brought within the state system of education," he wrote.

The issue was dodged by the Education Act of 1944, which outraged the National Association of Schoolmasters, describing the lack of action as "a retrograde step". "The time is opportune for all private schools to be eliminated," it stated. "It is futile to attempt to relate our educational system to democracy while the great public schools, with their satellite preparatory schools, the admission to which is by birth and privilege, are to be permitted to retain their privileges."

The TES had written positively about the bill, saying it offered "education to all: acceptance or non-acceptance is a matter for individual choice". This line irritated KA Baird of Hertford, who wrote in to say: "Do you mean that the miner or docker will be free not to accept the national system for his son because he prefers Eton? There must be hundreds of parents who, like me, send their sons to private schools although they believe that educational opportunities should be equal. We would like nothing better than to be compelled to send our children to State schools. As soon as `the best people' have to send their own children there, classes of 50 and insanitary buildings would disappear like magic."

As it turned out, the issue of fees had been kept out of the Act because it was already the subject of a separate inquiry, requested by public schools in 1942. It published its findings in 1944, but this just led to an increase in the number of direct grant schools, which were self- governing but still dependent on a government grant. Another inquiry two decades later was equally ineffective.

As the education system swung towards the Einheitsschule ideal from 1965 onwards, private schools became more selective, focusing on academic achievement. Future Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis and journalist Stephen Pollard wrote in A Class Act that it was the reforms of the 1960s that led to "the conversion of the public schools into fully fledged meritocratic academies".

Calls for an end to private schools peaked again in the early 1980s, when a motion at the Labour party conference for their abolition was backed by seven million votes to 7,000. Labour's 1983 election policy document on private education, explaining how it would scrap it, was so strongly backed by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that it requested it be published as a joint statement.

Christopher Price, a Labour MP and chairman of the Commons education select committee, gleefully told teachers at the NUT conference that year that some public schools would soon be turned into "approved schools for young delinquents".

Private schools went on the defensive, setting up 155 action groups across Britain to extol the virtues of private education. The TES reported that, according to the Independent Schools Information Service's newsletter, "the groups are not party political nor do they wish to `antagonise' state schools. Instead they are `anxious to inform public opinion about the richness of choice available to parents and to emphasise that the education of children is the prerogative of parents and not of the state'."

Labour's plan did not turn out to be a vote-winner. The most popular party with teachers in 1983, according to a TES poll, was the Conservatives, as it had been in 1979. Indeed, the proportion of secondary teachers supporting Labour fell from 40 to 27 per cent between the elections. The same poll by The TES found that private education was regarded by teachers only as the fourth most significant education issue, beaten by pre-school provision, vocational education and exam reforms.

A TES column summed up the mood: "The politics of independent education are a desperate distraction for Labour; at the best, destroying the independent schools can help the maintained sector relatively little and only over a long time-scale.

"In the short term, this simply threatens to muddy the water, removing many schools which have evident merit without obviously benefiting the schools which most children attend. In theory, the maintained schools would ultimately gain if they received an infusion of rich and concerned parents. But to garner this hypothetical boon, Labour would have to weather the libertarian storm which would, rightly, be aroused by preventing private citizens from exercising what, by most definitions, is a basic right. This has to be wrong for reasons of principle and wrong for expedient reasons also."

By the time Labour was elected again in 1997, with a leader who had attended Fettes College in Edinburgh, it had toned down its opposition to private schools. Although it abolished the Assisted Places scheme, it funded joint projects to bring independent and state schools together, and sent Labour education ministers to speak at private school conferences for the first time.

Private schools complained of a new threat in the late noughties, when the global economic crisis hit parents' wallets. But although closures made headlines, the number of private schools has actually increased by 188 over the last decade. During the same period, 1,610 state primaries and secondaries have shut.

Concerns have continued about the mounting achievement gaps in education, especially after it emerged in 2009 that twice as many boys from Eton had gained three As at A-level than boys on free school meals throughout England.

But, as this year begins, private schools seem safer than ever - and not just because the Government is led by alumni of Eton and Westminster or because the biggest national event this year is the marriage of an Etonian to a Marlburian. So were private schools ever under the real threat of abolition, or has the idea always been mere fancy? Perhaps The TES was right when it suggested in 1926 that England might never get rid of private schools because of its mindset. "The English character is averse, on the whole, to dramatic levelling and unification," it explained, "however many the problems that might be solved thereby."

What's in a name?

Public schools are what "we call our historic private schools, to the natural confusion of the foreigner," The TES explained in 1926. In the same year, it added to the confusion by writing that "there is no need to rub in the old distinction between the public schools that are really private and the private schools that are really public".

Nowadays, most schools that are members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) could be described as public schools. Some heads still insist that their schools should be described as "independent" rather than "private", if they have charitable status and are not profit-making.

The 100 years war

1910: First issue of The TES features an article headlined "Why public schools fail".

1919: HMC schools begin to offer places to state-aided former elementary school pupils.

1926: Direct grant list established, creating independent schools financially dependent on a grant from the government.

1942: Public schools request an inquiry "to consider means whereby the association between the public schools and the general educational system of the country could be developed and extended".

1944: The findings of the inquiry are published as the Fleming Report; the main recommendations are not implemented.

1965: The Newsom Report recommends that public schools are "integrated", giving at least half their places to assisted pupils from state schools. It is never implemented.

1975: The Labour government offers the 170 direct grant schools a choice of becoming comprehensives or going completely private: more than two- thirds pick the latter.

1980: The Conservative government introduces the Assisted Places Scheme to subsidise places at private schools for academically successful pupils who cannot afford them.

1983: Labour pledges to abolish private schools if elected. It isn't.

1997: The newly elected Labour government abolishes the Assisted Places Scheme, but announces funding for partnership schemes between state and independent schools.

2006: The Charities Act introduces a requirement for schools with charitable status to show a "public benefit".

2009: Two of the first five test case schools fail the Charity Commission's test because they do not offer sufficient bursaries.

July 28, 1923: Preparatory school entrance

Sir -

. it is a short-sighted policy that some of the older preparatory schools are now adopting in refusing to take boys whom they do not consider to be sons of gentlemen. Their argument lies in the fact these boys have a bad influence on their schools. I decline to accept this attitude and believe it is a matter which really affects the future weal of our country.

After some years' experience of boys in general and of preparatory boys in particular, it would seem to me that the schools which select their boys from the upper layers of society are only doing themselves harm, and still more doing their country no good, for, if money is any gauge of ability, they are rejecting the sons of able men and proving themselves snobs.

Let there be selection by all means, but let it be one based on the character and uprightness of the parents rather than on whether Johnnie's grandfather made jam or history .

The problem - coming as it does with the aftermath of war - should be solved with little difficulty by those schoolmasters who can see a little further than across their own cricket field.

WM ACWORTH, Farrs, Gerrard's Cross.

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