Schoolboy error

The folly of public schools’ race to embrace the religion of wokeness


This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the current culture wars could be decided in the quads of the country’s increasingly woke public schools. Whereas in the past these once inherently conservative institutions aspired to produce field marshals, archbishops and bankers, they are now more committed to producing a new generation of social justice warriors.

The tired, old, oppressive Union Jack that flew above Eton College, inspiring so many heroes of the British Empire, is being, symbolically, folded away, replaced by the rainbow flag of diversity and inclusion: it flutters in the Berkshire air, flirting with the Queen’s up on the hill at Windsor. Nowadays you are almost as likely to bump into a group of public school kids at a Pride event as you are to overhear them at Henley Royal Regatta or Badminton. The arms race of old, which saw independent schools spending millions of pounds on new libraries, swimming pools, squash courts, hockey pitches and (if the teachers or pupils were lucky) a few new classrooms, is at an end.

Even the rapid overseas expansion programmes that the likes of Dulwich, Marlborough and North London Collegiate embarked on in China and elsewhere — and which fuelled the huge building projects — has stopped due to a combination of political uncertainty and the global pandemic. And it is Covid-19 which has also contributed to the first fall in numbers in the sector for a decade in Britain, with boarding schools being particularly badly hit.

But independent schools are nothing if not adaptable. They have survived everything from tax increases to the abolition of assisted places. For them, the pandemic is seen merely as a passing phase. And as for identity politics: well, for some headteachers the rise of wokeism, far from being an attack on freedom of thought, looks like a wonderful opportunity to embark on a new — and much cheaper — race against their less woke competitors.

Schools charging £40,000 a year proclaiming a commitment to inclusion is just silly

In the sort of virtue signalling that now pervades the sector’s websites, Wellington College proudly states that Black Lives Matter and the death of — it seems vulgar to note — the server of eight jail terms, George Floyd, were “key drivers” in trying to “raise awareness and take action” over privilege and disadvantage as they strive to become an “anti-racist school”. We might want to just laugh at such mush but what commercial imperative lies behind this transparent cynicism? New markets are clearly being eyed up. The rush to secure the next Laurie Penny (Brighton College) or Afua Hirsch (Wimbledon High School) will be brutal. What chance have you got against a tie, a crest and a Stonewall School Champion award?

For schools that charge over £40,000 a year (before the riding lessons and skiing trips to Chamonix), to proudly proclaim their commitment to the radical equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda, is breathtakingly silly. It is precisely because such schools are so privileged, and removed from the reality that they wish to pass judgement on, that they feel able to voyeuristically become involved in these bitterly divisive issues. They are commentators masquerading as participants.

If they were really honest, they could not support, without abolishing themselves, the current demands for greater equality. Apart from a handful of scholarships ladled out each year for the sake of public benefit, the students who attend such schools are, overwhelmingly, only allowed in if they can afford it. How truly equal, diverse and inclusive is this?

Just as you have to feel sorry for those teachers being forced to take the knee at the start-of-term inset days, you also have to wonder how happy the parents are seeing their children being lectured about the evils of privilege (and at such a crippling cost). And if the un-woke parents don’t like what they see they have very little chance of finding a school that is not desperately trying to proclaim how virtuous they are.

Inevitably, super-woke Brighton College was advertising for a Head of Diversity and Inclusion while the graffiti was still wet on the evil statues last summer. Highgate School has done the same, and also, like Wellington, proudly proclaims how it intends to be “an actively anti-racist school”. Ominously, it is starting a “listening exercise” so that they can learn, inevitably, about “lived experiences”.

One wonders what will happen to the teachers who don’t listen, confess, and subscribe to the new creed. Eton College, one of the foundations of the establishment, is planning to decolonise its curriculum. Though as yet it shan’t be divesting itself of any of its assets. The best reparations are of course intellectual ones.

Happy to take a knee not because of a commitment to equality but from simple social subservience

Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ and Girls’ schools are considering changing their names because of their founder’s links with slavery. St Paul’s Girls’ is abolishing the title of Head Girl because it is too “binary”. But it is perhaps the American School in London that has become the ne plus ultra of the new independent woke schools by announcing (in a move that reads as if Titania McGrath is their school consultant) that they are now so inclusive and committed to diversity that they are going to segregate pupils by ethnicity in after-school clubs. Justice exacts a heavy price, and not just out of taxed income.

Why are these schools doing this? Is the pressure coming from parents? Or maybe from ordinary teachers, radicalised by teaching the brutes? Or even from left wing political activists (the schools have, after all, produced many of the finest over the years)? We can discount, as all the best schools do, the opinions of the children being decisive. No, the mystery is solved elsewhere.

Woke public schools are surely the most obvious, most risible example of that “endemic passivity” of the establishment so hated by Boris Johnson. It is a particular form of habitually white, invariably middle class and generally middle aged, affected self-hatred, done because that’s what People Like Us are doing.

A herd-like behaviour that has seen so many institutions, ranging from Oxfam to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, King’s College, London, the National Trust and the Royal Academy, so swiftly embrace identitarian politics — happy to take a knee not because of a commitment to equality but from simple social subservience.

If no top person or institution is holding the line, all the socially insecure lesser fry fall into line very quickly. For those at the top of the institutions doing this sort of rubbish (and it is always senior members of staff who “drive” this), they enjoy the added psychological benefit of being able to tell themselves that their “actions” are decisive and strong.

All that the showing off woke headmasters encounter is that fatal combination of niceness, of not wishing to make a fuss, or of standing out from the crowd, that has for so long been an admirable characteristic of this country’s national self-worth. But now, faced with a new and virulent political evangelicism, has resulted in a moral paralysis into which real extremism can flow. It is an aggressive form of passivity, motivated surprisingly often out of fear — try finding a teacher to speak to for an article like this who wants to see their name being used.

Independent schools have always been opportunist, and they have been fortunate in finding that the currents of capitalism and ambition have supported them in their desire to offer a highly elite education to the richest families in society. They are simply mouthing the words of activists of whom they have no understanding, lip-syncing protest chants rather than morning hymns.

Social justice isn’t for everyone: only the best should apply

There is a tragic inability to be truly principled, to stand up for individuality or, to put it another way, to be truly independent. Instead, this country’s fee-paying schools — whose raison d’être should be an independence from centralised state uniformity — conform. In this they ape the contortions of other establishment institutions, such as the universities they can no longer guarantee their charges entry into, being bent out of shape by a desire to atone for pasts they now claim to believe are poisoned. And what could be more rewarding than earnestly dealing with a past you now find problematic? It certainly beats teaching, or worrying about league tables.

Perhaps those schools should test how enthusiastic their parents and staff really are and ask them if they are happy with this new radicalism, and commitment to political causes that, if taken to the logical end, would see each school dismantled brick by brick? Put such “school strategies” to a secret ballot and see what comes back. But this won’t happen. The endowments won’t go and the headmasters and mistresses’ pension schemes are secure. But as they sit in their studies, the more cunning ones will already be eyeing up which portraits of benefactors will have to go, and how best that will look on Instagram.

Of course our woke public schools could open up the coffers and throw wide their gilded gates, letting in all who want to come in, irrespective of income, class or colour. Yet oddly this never seems to be the answer. Social justice isn’t for everyone: only the best should apply.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover