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It is rare for writers to declare all their interests when putting finger to keyboard, but as we are talking private education I feel obliged to confess that I attended a middling private school in South London for the sons of the capital’s better paid white collars.
No such declaration appears in Robert Verkaik’s Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain, and Google can’t tell me where the author went to school either. Although it does not undermine what he says, the question lingers over whether this is the broadside of an angry former pupil or envious outsider.
British public schools have been a familiar target since long before the ‘chumocracy’ of Old Etonian David Cameron brought renewed attention to what is politely termed ‘independent’ education. These fee-paying institutions teach 7% of British schoolchildren, or 14% if you include those who only pop in during the sixth form, but their alumni are overrepresented in many prestigious positions.
Verkaik is however novel in attempting to credit fee-paying schools with such a range of ills. Most would note as he does that their pupils pervert meritocracy by hoarding opportunities, but his argument that the early stages of the Second World War were effectively lost on the playing fields of Eton is not so common.
I don’t entirely dismiss the likes of Terence Cuthbert Worsley, a former Wellington master who claimed the alleged leadership training provided by public schools contributed to the poor war performance. Indeed, it’s arguable the British military suffered a long-term leadership problem by refusing to award military ranks on the basis of talent, with the sons of rich men literally able to buy commissions.
However, the blame Verkaik ascribes to public schools in influencing such disasters seems excessive. Though I’m no Second World War scholar, even I can recall the general complacency hanging over Europe amid Adolf Hitler’s rise, Germany’s impressive war machine, and France surrendering at the first sign of danger. None of these factors can be solely or mostly credited to the old boys’ network.
The book jumps some decades forward to look at how public schools’ alumni guided the UK through the Brexit saga on both sides of the vote. The usual thin complaints about ‘populism’ and internet advertising emerge, with the British public described as “oblivious or unbothered about whether they are ruled by an elite in Westminster or one in Brussels”. Brexit is depicted as a dispute among posh boys which got out of hand: a comforting falsehood among remoaners who don’t understand or like the country they live in.
Less convincing still is the insinuation that an Old Etonian judge was lenient on an asset manager accused of taking client information to a new employer because the accused went to the same school. Much is also made of the gentlemen’s clubs in London “where politicians, bankers and hedge-fund managers meet to do deals and form secret alliances”, although these alleged conspirators are quite capable of conducting their business elsewhere.
The Carole Cadwalladr-esque attempts to pin such evils on public schools are doubly silly, because Verkaik is clearly right on his central point: it is rum that rich people can buy their kids better opportunities. “Public school education is the parent of nepotism which helps a narrow pool of people consolidate their hold on power and influence,” he writes.
That abolishing private schools is rife with political friction is another point he’s correct on. Yet his confidence that public schools would not just migrate if faced with abolition strikes me as misplaced. His chapter on pubic schools foreign franchises, among the most interesting in the book, shows the model can be exported abroad if it is banned at home.
There is also a lingering question over whether rich people would retain their ability to hoard opportunities for their young without the school connection. Children with more resources will always fare better in life and savvy parents with connections will always be well placed to help them.
Image based on Eton College, March 2017 by Luke McKernan