Harrow schoolboys wearing formal attire arrive at Lords Cricket Ground in London for a cricket match between Eton and Harrow, 9th July 1937. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty)

Transforming the elite

Independent schools can do more to boost social mobility – but what they’re currently doing won’t work

Artillery Row

When Jeremy Corbyn resigned, private schools breathed a sigh of relief. No longer would they suffer the harassment of a party pledged to their abolition; their charitable status would be safe; the question of their ‘public benefit’ put to bed.

But can they be so sure? 

The question of private schools’ public benefit has a piquancy in this time of national crisis, when the body politic is sick with what Michael Gove calls ‘morbid symptoms’ in the realms of health, economics, politics and social solidarity.

Far from being ivory-tower elitists, private school leaders are on the whole public-spirited professionals who give a damn  

The response of private schools to these crises illustrates what they view to be most to the benefit of the public. The first point to note is that they want to respond. Far from the ivory-tower elitists many might assume them to be, private school leaders are on the whole public-spirited professionals who give a damn. They could probably have commanded higher salaries in less stressful work elsewhere. They want to help.

The problem is less to do with their hearts than with their heads: with their ideas. They are happy to take the conventional view, guided by the Charities Act, on what constitutes public benefit – namely to share their facilities and, above all, to offer bursaries to talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds. As the pandemic hit, private schools doubled down on such initiatives. Many opened up their facilities for use by key workers, whilst Eton and Reigate Grammar announced substantial extensions to their bursary schemes. 

But do such measures do anything of real substance to heal the country of its morbid symptoms? 

The sharing of facilities is all well and good but inconsequential to the country at large. As the ISC admits, “assuming all [private school facilities] were shared with state schools, they would only serve a small fraction of the 28,000 state-funded schools in the UK.”  

The enthusiasm for bursaries is even more problematic. The number of families helped by private school scholarships is miniscule. Even if, for the sake of argument, we opened up the entire private school system to means-tested bursaries so that all places were won on merit rather than on whether parents could afford the fees, we know from what happens in means-tested Ivy League admissions that places would be taken disproportionately by the well-off and – more pertinently – that it would still leave 93% of the school-age population unchanged. 

Social mobility via bursary increasingly feels like the fixation of an era that has passed. Many of the field’s leading thinkers (Selina Todd, Gregory Clark, John Goldthorpe) have concluded that schools can do little to advance social mobility in any substantive way on a national basis. In what way is it publicly beneficial to pluck the brightest and most hard-working out of their local communities and give them a place at the top table?

As we take stock at the end of an academic year like no other, with the crises of 2008, 2016, 2019 and 2020 still playing out, what could our private schools do differently next year to redefine ‘public benefit’ for a new era?

Here are three suggestions:

1) Connect private ambition to the public good

Most private school pupils do not dream of working 100-hour weeks in finance, law or consulting. That these sectors still hoover up many of our best minds is a developed country’s equivalent of a brain drain. Like most teenagers, privately-educated pupils’ moody exteriors conceal more idealistic longings – that their lives might be put to some greater purpose, have some larger meaning.

Schools should capitalise on this instinct and inspire their pupils up to commit their lives to causes beyond themselves. Make such causes few in number and avowedly national, inviting pupils to connect their lives to that of the country. For instance, a school could make the UK’s ‘Grand Challenges’ (AI & Data; Ageing Society; Clean Growth; Future of Mobility) its lodestar. Or it could make the choice of mission(s) a matter of annual debate amongst parents and pupils – “research and write up a list of 10 of the biggest problems facing our society.” Three or four missions would set the overarching tone of the school and ‘crowd in’ activity across the whole school community to a far greater extent than currently happens.

What do I mean by crowding in? Even their most fervent critics concede that often academically mediocre private school pupils show a resourcefulness and energy beyond what their IQ might suggest. Schools could channel this resourcefulness in the following ways:

  • Schools could set pupils regular mini-missions that take genuine – not superficial – ingenuity and courage. Encourage them to: lobby local councillors; research the leading thinkers on the school’s missions and get them to the school (virtually or in person); enter global prizes (like the Google Science Fair) and submit entries that advance the missions; raise money from parents and run the proceeds as an impact fund to invest in the projects that need it. If private school kids can get a private audience with Putin, they can take such missions in their stride.
  • Schools could also be more bounded in the way they do their careers planning and employability training, prioritising firms or sectors that tie with the school’s missions, giving more of a platform to these than those that have less public benefit. Organisations like Transform Society stand ready to help. Work experience and internships could be similarly directed, keeping in check the countervailing winds from parents (and their friends and colleagues) steering these kids into more typical well-worn sectors. 
  • Likewise, could they direct university choices in more purposeful ways? Could they inspire their parents to look beyond an outdated obsession with the Russell Group and its doubtful assurance of safe passage into the ever-less-secure professions? Thus could privately-educated pupils pursue more vocational Higher Education (helping to erode the demise of class-bound suspicion of such options) or even postpone further study entirely, avoiding unnecessary debt, doing useful work and learning real skills.
  • Schools could make their partnerships, both with other private schools and state schools, anchored in shared missions to build solidarity and have a greater impact than the sum of their parts. If a chosen mission were around the ageing society, say, what could combined focus and facilities do to alleviate the crisis in our care homes? Talking of care, what would a school community totally committed to local children-in-care look like? 
  • Lastly, they could embed the insights from Linda Zagzebski’s Exemplarist Virtue Theory by valorising individuals who have displayed lives deserving of emulation (‘eulogy virtues above resume virtues’) via assemblies, civics classes, names of buildings, houses, posters, school films and so on.  

 To resist that peculiar cynicism of the well-off, the tenor of these efforts would have to be Romantic rather than utilitarian, encouraging the young to put their shoulders to hard but worthwhile tasks: ‘cathedral projects’ that would allow these privileged youth to be ‘a light and not a blight’ on society. To leave school unsure of one’s exact path is of course an adolescent’s right on the long path to self-realisation… but by encouraging in them a more biographical sense of how they might commit their lives to the Good we have a chance of steering that path rather than letting it take its own course.

2) Build social solidarity

Class prejudice is our national affliction and it has beset this country for centuries. It has reached a new pitch in recent years. Insofar as private schools have contributed to this coming apart, it is through the very efforts that currently constitute their notion of ‘public benefit’. By offering the bright, the hard-working and the well-supported children scholarships in their schools, they have helped to hollow out talent from many ‘left behind’ communities across the UK. In Gove’s words, this has “erod[ed] social solidarity and deepen[ed] a gulf between elites and those whom they governed or employed. And that gulf [is] not simply one of wealth. It [is] also one of sympathy.”

In the aftermath of the pandemic, private schools could do their part to epitomise Sunak’s ‘simple idea that we depend on each other’ and counterbalance the national spectacle of mutual disgust and prejudice with sentiments of love, dignity and mutual respect. They could do this by connecting their pupils with parts of the country, or even parts of their own neighbourhood, of which they wouldn’t otherwise be aware. How?

Private schools’ secret sauce is in helping youngsters to build common cause amongst young people, especially through extracurricular pursuits. So, rather than choose far-flung international places for sports team tours, why not ensure that at least some sports tours are done to other parts of the UK to play against local teams, with thought paid to how to socialise but within games (mixed teams?) and afterwards. Football, after all, is beloved by all parts of society. Beyond sports, combined music and drama performances could achieve the same effect. 

Encouraging shared endeavour across society has plenty of precedent. The solidarity built by fighting side-by-side during the World Wars is legendary, leading as it did to the post-war settlement and creation of the welfare state. James Zwerg was one of few white Freedom Riders, a cause he came to believe in after sharing a room with an African-American student called Robert Carter. In late Victorian England, the boys and masters of Eton established a Mission in Hackney Wick, London’s most socially deprived area at the time – and staffed the mission with as many as five clergy members for the next 30 years as well as building out many other projects such as a local football team coached by Alf Ramsey! 

Durham miners meeting pupils at Eton College, 1938. The miners were visiting Eton to play a football match against a college team. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

These people were not afraid to get deeply involved in the lives of their fellow countrymen. What could committed integration with today’s most socially deprived areas result in? Harrow’s Spear Programme, in which 20-odd Harrow boys work very closely with young people who are out of work and education, is an encouraging initiative that could be rolled out further. Is it too much to expect that elite students might come to realise that those who have ‘failed’ in the meritocratic game may have done so through no fault of their own, and may come to sympathise with the 3/5th of the country who still live within 20 miles of where they were born?   

3) Stretch the cognitive elite and energise them around our national goals 

None of this is to deny that the principal work of a school goes on within the classroom. Here our private schools do a great job. It’s why they are the destination of choice for elite families the world over. Teachers are passionate and well-qualified; a broad curriculum is pursued rigorously.

Can even this work be orientated to the public benefit? Our best minds, those in our most academically competitive private schools or in the top sets of others, could be stretched to tackle harder subject material and in a more integrated curriculum. Gove rightly drew attention to the predominance of insufficiently educated Humanities and Social Science graduates at the top of the country. It is a great national shortcoming that our best Humanities graduates know almost no STEM and vice versa. This could be remedied either by the forced adoption of curricula like the IB for our most able or by encouraging the proliferation of more survey courses such as Great Books courses for those taking STEM A levels or Physics for future Presidents and the like for our Humanities graduates. All should be fluent in statistics, and be able to convey their ideas with clarity and persuasiveness. 

This country, now more than ever, is going to need such minds, all the more so if they have been encouraged to devote their intellectual resources (one of the most unfair accidents of birth) to their country and if their education has been as much about the acquisition of wisdom as good grades. And if the gains, or at least some of the gains, are made public rather than privatised in the pursuit of high status / high paid careers, it should be axiomatically in the public benefit to produce such minds.

These schools are interwoven with this country’s history. It’s time they take up the mantle and interweave themselves with its future

Can it be done?

Studying the elites that came out of independent schools in the Victorian and WWI eras is instructive. Our generation may disagree with the ends they chose – paternalism, imperialism and dying for one’s country but it is hard to disagree with how effective – how intoxicating – the education was in training its graduates to want to serve. Today, when graduates from elite schools are much more likely to pursue high status and high paid jobs with little thought to the public good, we should consider how much we’ve lost and seek to recover it. 

Rather than fear the return of the spectre of public benefit, the aim of the sector should be that when the subject is raised, it is laughed at by all but the most militant vandals – no one but a fool could see what a service they and their products are doing. These schools and their alumni are interwoven with this country’s history. It is time that they take up the mantle and interweave themselves with its future.

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