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A very private people

Only in Britain are independent schools synonymous with privilege. Peter Wilby finds out how it happened

Public or Private Education? Lessons from History

Edited by Richard Aldrich

Woburn Press pound;18.95 pbk

I am grateful to this book for providing me with the following quotation from Ronald Gurner, a one-time master at Marlborough school, writing in 1930: "It is difficult, if you are a country solicitor or doctor of any standing, to contemplate with equanimity the possibility of your son sitting side by side with the son of your junior clerk or chauffeur - better send him to St Cuthbert's on the south coast. The fees are high, and you are not certain as to exactly what is the standard of education... but there are no board-school boys there, and in the things that matter your boy will be safe."

Board schools had technically ceased to exist some three decades earlier, but we shall let that pass. This long-forgotten schoolmaster spoke honestly as to what was, until very recently, the main reason for going private.

This is what makes the English private school sector different: its social exclusivity. It also explains why the sector is relatively small. Even now, despite the supposed shortcomings of the maintained sector, private schools take barely 8 per cent of the country's children; the Etons, Harrows and Marlboroughs have not tried to expand significantly, or to franchise their brands, because to admit more children would be to dilute their sales appeal.

In the United States, by contrast, as William J Reese's contribution to this book explains, 10 per cent of children attend private schools and, in the South, as many as 30 per cent of schools are private. Most of these are religious: Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Pentecostal, Amish, Assembly of God and anything else you care to name. Like France, the US has been rigidly secular in its approach to schooling, determined to keep God out of the classroom. Unlike in England, parents who wanted a spiritual dimension to their children's education had to look outside the state system.

Until very recently, there was no suggestion that American private schools enjoyed social or even academic superiority. Nor, because housing in the US is more racially segregated than in Britain, was there a temptation for white parents to embrace the private sector to avoid ethnic minorities.

White flight to the suburbs usually did the job.

Though it does not always spell out these issues clearly - and it is in the nature of a collection involving 10 authors that the focus is blurred - this book valuably reminds us that private does not always mean privilege and social superiority. Until the 1870 Education Act, as Dennis Dean's contribution recalls, England had many flourishing working-class private schools; and some historians have seen the advent of taxpayer-funded education as an attempt to suppress such schools lest they become centres of subversion and revolutionary fervour. Education vouchers - which, in England, would surely become another perk allowing the well-off to get subsidies for school fees - were first advocated by US radicals as a way of getting poor black children out of schools that ignored their talents.

But countries design their school systems according to what their rulers think are their most urgent national needs. In the US, the priority was to bind together, in common citizenship, a nation of immigrants. In France, it was to keep alive the republican tradition. In England, it was to sustain a ruling class for an empire that spanned the globe. That was why British governments never challenged the privileges of the public schools and created, within the maintained sector, imitations of them in the form of grammar schools. It was also, as the contributions of both Mich le Cohen and Susan Williams suggest, why public schools and universities were so proudly and tiresomely masculine, causing Virginia Woolf to wonder if women really wanted to enter such a world and eventually join processions where they would "dress in military uniform, with gold lace on our breasts, swords at our sides, and something like the old family coal-scuttle on our heads".

As late as the 1950s, as Gary McCulloch's excellent contribution recalls, private companies contributed more than pound;3 million (then a huge sum) to equip new science laboratories exclusively in the elite fee-charging schools for boys. An equivalent scheme for the state sector, funded by taxpayers, followed belatedly and on a far more modest scale. As Eric James, then the high master of Manchester grammar school, advised the Ministry of Education (apparently without demur from civil servants), there was no point building up science in "dim schools with dim staffs".

This was the beginning of the great switch in the ethos of the English public schools. Their crude social elitism was translated into crude academic elitism, or rather credentialism, at the very moment when (in my view rightly) the maintained sector, through the introduction of comprehensives, was abandoning it. The transformation was vital, not only in keeping public school pupils competitive in a society that increasingly demanded credentials rather than breeding from job applicants, but also in legitimising the survival of the schools themselves. Now their pupils are doubly privileged, not only in coming from affluent, socially advantaged homes but also in being academically bright. As the political philosopher Adam Swift lucidly explained last year in How Not to be a Hypocrite (Routledge), their absence from maintained schools depresses the achievements of the vast majority of children.

Governments, particularly of the left, should be killing off these schools, which have few parallels in the industrialised world. They should at least withdraw the tax breaks the schools enjoy through their charitable status.

But New Labour particularly fears to offend the middle class and its press propagandists. Governments hide behind the European Convention on Human Rights which was designed mainly to protect religious or ethnic minorities.

There can be no human right to pay for education or to be academically selected for it.

This book makes no judgment on the merits of private against public education. Its contributors interpret their remit broadly (sometimes too broadly) and range over everything from sex education to the growth of globalised universities. But in so doing they highlight what is unique and wrong about the English private school sector. It is not that it is private but that it is unacceptably and damagingly elitist.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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