Berkshire, England, 26th November 1994, Public school boys are pictured playing the traditional Eton Wall Game (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The end of the old school tie

Private education is under threat from Oxbridge quotas and soaring fees, to the detriment of bright scholarship pupils

“I’d prefer the plague to the Eton rifles”, Paul Weller snarled on the Jam’s eponymous hit in 1979. Weller, whose children have all been educated privately, was then the epitome of the angry young socialist, spitting venom at those he saw as privileged. Yet the youthful Weller’s desire to kick against the pricks may now be unexpectedly fulfilled. With Oxbridge taking fewer independently educated pupils, the hegemony of the public schools might, at last, be coming to an end.

Candidates from independent schools being openly discriminated against at admissions stage

In January, Oxford announced it will this year be admitting a record number of state school pupils: 69 per cent to be precise. As only five years ago the figure was 56 per cent, this was hailed as a remarkably progressive result. The university vice-chancellor Louise Richardson, who was appointed in 2016, has set out to increase the number of BAME and working-class students. She said in 2019 that “it is immediately apparent that Oxford University reflects the deep inequalities in our society along socio-economic, regional and ethnic lines.” This, she promised, would be redressed. “The entire university community … have united behind a commitment to effect a sea change in our admissions practices.”

Oxbridge admissions (Cambridge admitted 68 per cent from state schools in 2019) are now run on a strict quota system. The “sea change” that Richardson promised has led to candidates from independent schools being openly discriminated against at admissions stage. This discrimination — which would not be extended to any other minority — is justified on the grounds of “fairness”, “inclusiveness” and “opportunity”. A spokesman for the Headmaster’s Conference — which represents leading public schools — warned: “Care is needed in starting actively to discriminate against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into. The country needs all its young people to reach their potential.”

UK Prime Ministers since 1945 and where they went to school

This was widely mocked as vested interests trying to protect themselves. Yet this social engineering is not universally welcomed. Talking to one Oxford don after the interview process last year, he — a state-educated left-winger — expressed disquiet with how the process was being administered. “A few years ago, we took the best students, regardless of whatever school they came from. Now, we’re being explicitly told that nearly three-quarters of the places must be filled by people from state schools, which means that a lot of very able candidates don’t have a chance.”

Many will have little sympathy with the inability of the privately educated to secure a place at the increasingly woke Oxbridge colleges. This will be to the advantage of strong second-tier universities such as Bristol, Durham and St Andrews that have often been regarded as the consolation prize for privately educated Oxbridge rejects.

For all of the talk about “egalitarianism” and “openness”, many leading public schools will quietly suggest to very able pupils that they will be better off obtaining a First from Edinburgh, say, than struggling through the stress and difficulty of the Oxbridge system, only to end up with an upper second. Whether this leads to uplift in achievement across the board and the creation of a British Ivy League, rather than the social and intellectual dominance of the two major universities that currently exists, remains to be seen.

The very wealthy often exude an unappealing complacency

Of course, many parents no longer use the private school system because they cannot afford it. Given the amounts that these institutions now charge (Eton today costs £42,501 per annum, and Westminster is £28,809 for day pupils), the fees are now beyond the reach of nearly everyone. When I attended Winchester a quarter of a century ago, on an assisted place, the fees were £18,000 a year; expensive, certainly, but just about affordable for two middle-class parents working full-time. My contemporaries were the sons of doctors, headmasters and solicitors. Today, with my alma mater charging £41,709 a year, the pupils are more likely to be the scions of oligarchs, hedge fund managers and rock stars.

The social mixture of the school will therefore be extremely limited. The very wealthy often exude an unappealing complacency from an early age, along with a sense of privilege that makes them contemptuous of those who do not enjoy their advantages. These bubble-dwellers can struggle to expand their social circles in later life, instead preferring to remain in the limited milieu of their own kind.

Sometimes this can rebound. During the David Cameron government, Michael Gove — an alumnus of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and the independent Robert Gordon’s College, Aberdeen — was looked down on socially for being “not quite the thing”: a bright adopted scholarship boy amidst a gaggle of Etonians and Old Paulines. His eventual demotion from Education Secretary to Justice Secretary was a snub that indicated his comparative disposability and may well have led to his decision to campaign for Brexit.

His continued presence at the highest echelons of power, while most of his former contemporaries have long since retreated to shepherd’s huts and newspaper editing, is a rebuke to those who patronised him, not least Cameron: the vexed former PM lost no opportunity to tear into him in his memoirs.

Yet the intellectual advantages that Gove enjoyed may be closed off to a new generation. At the Labour Party conference last year, Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner announced that independent schools would be essentially abolished if Labour came to power, through a mixture of their tax breaks being abolished and their assets and buildings being “redistributed”. John McDonnell called this essential for “a more cohesive and equal society”.

Like so much of what Labour proposed, this unpopular anti-aspiration policy contributed to their seismic defeat last December. Yet Rayner, who left school at 16, is now the Shadow First Secretary of State. It seems improbable that she, or others in the party, will accept the continued existence of public schools, given the loathing the membership bears towards them. The fight will continue.

My experience at boarding school was like being at a juvenile prison

So is independent education really worth the money, effort and social stigma? I was sent away to board at 10 and hated virtually every moment of it. It was a small, miserable prep school in Dorset, where the headmaster was a crashing snob, sporting success was the key to popularity and status within the school, and most of the teaching was incompetent. The pupils were either the scions of well-to-do local families, who were treated with great favour, or unfortunate souls who found themselves out of place from the day they started.

Bullying was rife and tacitly condoned as a means of keeping the “lesser” boys in line, and the whole experience was like being at a juvenile prison. Particularly unhappy schoolboys would run away, and these “home runs” were eagerly anticipated and celebrated. Unsurprisingly, it shut down a decade or so ago; the wonder was that it survived for more than a century. I wouldn’t have wished the experience on my worst enemy.

My time at Winchester was altogether different. It was an odd mixture of physical privation and great privilege. We slept in uncomfortable beds in noisy dormitories until the last year, but our clothes were washed and folded by a central laundry. The food was decent but the bathroom facilities were unspeakable. And so on. But intellectually, the school offered a truly liberal and classical education, thanks to an unexamined class known as “div”. Here, a succession of charismatic teachers inspired their pupils with their erudition and interests, like Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. In one sixth-form class, I learnt about Schopenhauer, the Russian Revolution and George Formby. The latter, at least, has stood me in good stead ever since. It also gave pupils an intellectual hinterland that enabled them to discuss ideas and figures well outside any national curriculum, meaning that, at the very least, they would always be entertaining dinner party guests.

Yet Wykehamists, like all public schoolboys, now run the risk of being discriminated against by Oxbridge. Of course, they have until recently been represented at those universities in great numbers, and undoubtedly their pupils will still be admitted. Despairing headlines recently noted that Magdalen College, Oxford offered one in every 12 places to pupils from Eton and Westminster. Short of a neo-Corbynista revolution, the hundred or so elite independent schools in this country will be fine whatever happens. It is the other 2,500 that might begin questioning the basis of their existence.

The intrinsic eccentricity of these institutions often wins through

Many middle-class parents, baulking at the fees, prefer instead to send their children to their best local state secondary school and pay for private tutors to fill in any gaps. What, they could reasonably ask, is the point of paying the price of a small house for Oscar or Arabella’s education if the net result is the same? And then there are the new dodges, such as sending a child to private school until GCSE and then a sixth-form college so they will be counted as a state school pupil for admissions purposes.

The sharp-elbowed middle classes, especially those without the money for private education, are ever-adaptable to changing situations, and so the social mix of Oxbridge is unlikely to alter a great deal, despite the time and money spent on outreach programmes. Some will find this unacceptable, but others will shrug and accept it as part of the game, if that is what the pursuit of education has become.

Yet a greater loss altogether is that the system could now cast aside those like me, who have won places at public schools through scholarships and bursaries (including Hasan Patel, the so-called “Corbynista Teen” of social media who is now a pupil at Eton) but who will presumably now be regarded as part of the elite. These meritocrats may suffer, unfairly, and one hopes that a way of accounting for these pupils will be found, so that their often-considerable achievements are not unfairly ignored.

Of course, the intrinsic eccentricity of these institutions often wins through. My donnish friend told me about an especially unusual candidate. “He turned up late, through the wrong door, looked a mess, and was completely all over the shop intellectually. He sang rather than spoke, to illustrate one point. And he was an Etonian, worse luck. But there was something quite remarkable about his ideas. We had to take him. He’ll either get a First or a Third, but he’ll be someone to remember.” He starts in October, and this tuneful oddball should add immensely to the gaiety of the system. Who knows, he might even end up prime minister.

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