A rebellion among Rugby schoolboys proved perfect training for its ringleader in putting down a Jamaican slave-rising in later life

In a review of The Old Boys by David Turner, Eric Anderson reflects on how comprehensives created a golden age for Britain's independent schools

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

28 March 2015

9:00 AM

The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public Schools David Turner

Yale, pp.326, £25, ISBN: 9780300189926

The public schools ought to have gone out of business long ago. The Education Act of 1944, which promised ‘state-aided education of a rapidly improving quality for nothing or next to nothing’, seemed to herald, as the headmaster of Winchester cautioned, the end of fee-paying. Two decades later Roy Hattersley warned the Headmasters’ Conference to have ‘no doubts about our serious intention to reduce and eventually to abolish private education in this country’.Yet David Turner is able to conclude in this well-researched, impeccably fair and refreshingly undogmatic history, that this is their golden age. He takes the unfashionable line that they are now vital contributors to the country’s economic, political and scientific well-being.

It was not always so. In earlier centuries, public schools (as he calls them throughout) were often far from good, and always hopelessly slow in adapting to changed circumstances. Shrewsbury was down to 26 boys at one point in the 18th century and St Paul’s to 35. There were six rebellions at Winchester, and six at Eton. A rebellion at Rugby, quelled at swordpoint by the local militia, was no doubt a useful practical lesson for one of the ringleaders, Sir Willoughby Cotton, who put down a slave rising in Jamaica in later life.

In the 19th century, following the example of Dr Arnold, headmasters reduced the systematic cruelty and general idleness of their pupils by using those who would have led the riots to lead the school instead. There was a wave of new foundations — day schools in the 1820s and boarding schools like Marlborough in the 1840s — but for another century classrooms were dominated by Latin and Greek.

The great entrepreneurs and practical men of the industrial age — Faraday, Stephenson, William Smith and Brunel — were self-educated or had been taught in small dissenting academies. Useful knowledge made its way into the great schools only when the Indian civil service introduced entry by examination in 1853. Schools reluctantly set up ‘Modern Sides’ to teach French and German and mathematics for engineering. But even as late as the 1920s the headmaster of Sherborne told Alan Turing’s parents: ‘If he is to be solely a scientific specialist he is wasting his time at a public school.’

Turner combines a good eye for an anecdote with the impressive knowledge of facts and figures that you might expect of a former education correspondent of the Financial Times. Some are well known, like the high proportion of privately educated Olympic medallists and the 40 per cent tally of all the country’s ‘A’ grades in maths and modern languages. But his encyclopaedic knowledge even extends to the 7 per cent of Wykehamists born between 1910 and 1919 who married sisters or daughters of Wykehamists. Those who divorced tended to name other Wykehamists as co-respondents.

Schools which produce the best results, while also fostering aspiration, self-confidence and personal skills, will always be at the top of the educational tree. How does it happen, 70 years on from the 1944 Education Act, that it is the independent schools that are perched there? Turner identifies three own goals, scored by successive governments.

First, and worst, they abandoned the grammar schools, which admitted boys and girls irrespective of wealth or social background but not irrespective of intellect. The new ideology was that you could have excellence without selection. Try that one on Manchester United or the Berlin Philharmonic.

Then, in 1976, Direct Grant schools like Manchester Grammar School and King Edward’s Birmingham were compelled either to go comprehensive or fully independent, and they opted for independence. At a stroke there were 6.2 per cent in private education, instead of 4. 4 per cent.

Recently, the obsession with targets has forced state schools to seek out easier examinations. So media studies, general science and GCSE have trumped modern languages, separate sciences and the international GCSE which (I’m sorry, Mrs Morgan, but it’s true) are more difficult and more worthwhile.

I wonder how much longer Turner gives this golden age for independent schools. Clouds considerably larger than a man’s hand seem to me pretty threatening. Boarding schools, with fees higher in real terms than at any time in the last 600 years and 37 per cent of their places filled by foreign students, are now too expensive for many of their traditional customers and in danger of losing the Britishness that is one of their selling points. The day schools will remain in great shape, I predict. Only when common sense decrees that academies and free schools are allowed once more to select on intellectual grounds will there be real competition between state and independent schools — to the benefit of the country as a whole.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £21.50 Tel: 08430 600033. Eric Anderson was headmaster of Eton from 1980 to 1994 and provost of Eton from 2000 to 2009.

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