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Artillery Row

The quaintness of the campaign against public schools

The abuse was terrible but its relevance to modern politics is dubious

Charles Spencer cuts an unlikely anti-establishment figure. The 9th Earl Spencer counts among his ancestors a home secretary, a chancellor and a lord lieutenant of Ireland. And that’s before you consider that as the brother of the late Princess Diana he is also uncle to the future King William.

Of course, anti-establishment figures are often best made at the heart of the establishment. And in his memoir, A Very Private School, Spencer joins a chorus of largely privately-educated men in denouncing public schools and their poisonous impact on our politics.

Spencer’s own experiences at Maidwell Hall, a prep school in Northamptonshire where he started boarding aged eight, certainly inspire sympathy. It was immediately obvious to him that other boys were being beaten, with the headmaster John Porch finding the bloodthirsty caning sessions sexually arousing. Aged 11, Spencer was also molested by a female matron.

Such accounts of physical and sexual abuse at British public schools have become more common of late, part of the trend where men are encouraged to divulge their worst life experiences. Yet the prominence of these alumni at the top of British business, justice and politics has led some to suggest that the damage goes well beyond the immediate victims.

As Spencer told The Times: “The dog-eat-dog world of these schools probably makes a lot of these leading figures in our society quite cruel about their judgment of what’s right and wrong, losing a core integrity and sensitivity. That must have an impact on decisions.”

In some respects it’s the culmination of a growing resentment of politicians born with silver spoons in their mouths. Being state educated is a positive asset for a politician, as demonstrated by a recent article about Labour’s Reeves sisters, who claim with obvious enjoyment that they have been consistently underestimated as state-school girls.

The sense that posh boys don’t deserve their success has also been bolstered by book-length arguments that we don’t deserve their failures. Drawing on similar themes of physical and sexual abuse, Alex Renton argued in Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class that the British elite’s tolerance of their own children’s abuse can be connected to similar scandals that were overlooked by the authorities. 

The unifying thesis behind many of these titles is that public schoolboys and schoolgirls are damaged goods

In some ways that’s small beer compared to Robert Vervaik’s Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain, which gamely argues that early British failures in the Second World War can be traced back to the playing fields of Eton. Less ambitiously, he also blames Brexit on public school education.

The unifying thesis behind many of these titles is that public schoolboys and schoolgirls are damaged goods unfit for high office. To quote a recent piece by Richard Beard, author of the subtly titled Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England: “For as long as boarding school survivors govern Britain, they will inflict their own pain on the nation.”

As the word ‘survivors’ suggests, such claims are increasingly grounded in the language of therapy. One shrink, Joy Schaverien, has even coined the term ‘boarding school syndrome’ as shorthand for “a set of lasting psychological problems” that come from being abandoned at boarding school, leaving children with a sense of bereavement, captivity and dissociation from their lives.

No doubt Spencer, Renton and others would agree. But the thesis fails to explain how public schools can also produce David Cameron, the kind of man who can broadcast the implosion of their careers on national television before whistling themselves away from the podium, as if on his way to the shops to find out the price of a pint of milk.

What Spencer terms a “great conspiracy” among the upper classes to traumatise their children is more likely to be what’s found in many institutions involved in childcare: some abusers who exploit their access to children, enabled by corrupt administrators who don’t want their organisation wrecked by scandal.

This is evinced by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), a wide-ranging report led by the social worker Alexis Jay. Children housed in care homes or fostered were frequently more vulnerable to child sexual abuse, with scandals in Rochdale and Nottingham demonstrating the point.

Churches have also proved common stalking grounds for predators, with Catholic, Anglican and other religious institutions guilty of safeguarding failures and taking the side of perpetrators. Even institutions responsible for criminally detaining minors were found by the IICSA to be negligent when it came to investigating complaints of sexual abuse.

Were critics of public schools being consistent, they would presumably declare victims of these institutions unfit for high office. That public schools are picked out for special criticism in this regard seems to have more to do with class resentment and a progressive preference to attack the British upper class of the 1950s, rather than the one that exists now. Spencer is hardly alone in claiming that public schools aim “to cauterise the emotions of these very young boys” for an empire on which the sun has undoubtedly set.

It is as if they are attacking the bully boy Harry Flashman of the George MacDonald Fraser novels, “a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward – and, oh yes, a toady”. Such terms of disparagement no doubt apply to certain public schoolboys in high office, but they could equally well apply to those educated in humbler circumstances. 

Consider Nadine Dorries, former pupil of Halewood Academy, a comprehensive near Liverpool. Despite coming to fame for calling Cameron and and St Paul’s alumnus George Osborne “two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others”, her humbler background appeared to be of little help in her cabinet career. Similar charges can be levelled against state-educated politicians such as Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel, and no doubt many others of similar upbringing.

If the privately-educated are more prominent as political incompetents, it’s only because they are better at manipulating our flawed system for choosing leaders. What explains the attention is a combination of class resentment and the kind of intra-elite competition that has politicians like Nigel Farage (Dulwich College) denouncing other posh boys as out of touch.

Were public schools especially ill equipped at educating children, more would be made of the other areas in which their alumni dominate, ranging from justice to cricket. While plenty of people have their complaints about these professions, few attribute performance issues to the schooling of those involved.

That public schools are engines of inequality is without doubt, and perhaps they should be abolished on those grounds, rather than strangled to death by the combination of VAT and business rates promised by Labour. But as for the pain Old Etonians are inflicting on the nation, that is entirely individuals’ own shortcomings.

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