Arts & Books Books

Private education is unfair, but is there anything we can do about it?

Parents will always turn to St Custard's, says Harry Mount

Engines of Privilege
By Francis Green and David Kynaston
Bloomsbury, 320pp, £20/$28

Gilded Youth
By James Brooke-Smith
Reaktion, 272pp, £18/$25

Both these books are essentially repeating Alan Bennett’s lines in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, delivered in 2014: “Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it.”

I’m one of those who received it – at Westminster School – and I know it: my education was unfair. As the impeccably researched Green-Kynaston book says, in a typical year over the last decade, more pupils from Westminster School have gone to Oxbridge than have pupils qualifying for free school meals from everywhere in Britain. That’s unfairness on stilts.

Yet, however unfair it is, I thank God – and my rich parents – that I went to such a good school. And I’m not alone in my admiration of these grossly unfair, good schools. Parents who can afford them are very keen on them. Not surprisingly, the richer people are, the more likely they are to educate their children privately. In families with incomes over £300,000 ($400,000), 60 per cent of children go to private school.

And you can see why. The difference in performance is starkly laid out by Green and Kynaston. In 2016, the pupil-teacher ratio in private schools was 8.6:1; in state schools, it was 17:1. In 2000, 51 per cent of GCSEs taken by private school pupils got an A or A*, compared with a national rate of less than 16 per cent.

Green and Kynaston would like to reform the system through positive discrimination at university entrance, taxation of school fees and greater admission of state-funded pupils subsidised by the schools. Positive university discrimination in favour of state school pupils with lower grades isn’t just unfair – it’s also patronising to those pupils. Otherwise, though, the Green-Kynaston solution seems fair enough. In fact, it would be a return to the origins of public schools: Westminster was founded by Elizabeth I to teach scholars chosen for their “learning” and “poverty”.

Still, you’ll never eradicate the ancient desire of the rich British elite to educate their children in the same places. AN Wilson once joked that people educate their children privately to ensure they speak proper. There’s an element of truth in that – but most of them really do it to avoid the horror of being badly educated. There are lots of extremely good state schools, of course, and quite a lot of bad private schools. I’ve taught pupils from both sectors – and I’m astonished by how badly educated both groups can be.

The disaster, backed by Tory and Labour governments, was in getting rid of most grammar schools. As Eric Anderson, a former Eton Head Master, said, “Sixty per cent of the public schools would have gone under if the grammar schools had remained.” But even those bad private schools that would have gone under are free of the crazy dogma that blights the worst state schools. I gave a talk on architecture recently to bright 15-year-olds from some of London’s worst state schools. I was astonished to find that they didn’t know the date of the Battle of Hastings or who the Virgin Mary was. It wasn’t their fault; their teachers, I was told, were discouraged from teaching facts.

As long as that madness persists, rich parents will race in the opposite direction to St Custard’s, chequebook in hand.

The Green-Kynaston book is the best I’ve read on private schools. James Brooke-Smith’s is more of a curate’s egg, injected with clumsy academese – he is an Eng Lit don at Ottawa University with a taste for the word “semiotic”. Rather than being a general study of private education, it looks at public school rebels – including Shelley, George Orwell, Peter Gabriel and Richard Branson – and the education system they were rebelling against. Brooke-Smith himself is a kind of rebel, having been kicked out of Shrewsbury School, hating its “stifling microclimate”.

Even revolutionaries are obsessed with their education: Kim Philby insisted on wearing his school scarf in exile in Moscow. A sign of Brooke-Smith’s sloppiness is that he calls it an old Westminster scarf rather than an Old Westminster scarf – completely different things. His thesis, though, is spot-on – that the public school rebels who embrace counterculture can still rely on rich families, powerful contacts and polished manners to get them through. James Bond got kicked out of Eton – he ended up doing OK, all the same. Still, both these books slightly exaggerate the public schoolboy’s “subliminal confidence in his own capacity to succeed”. I could tell the authors about a parade of suicides, dropouts and brain-raddled dope fiends who weren’t much helped by the old school tie. The engines of privilege don’t always run smoothly.