Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools run Britain
By Robert Verkaik (One World, 2018) £16.99
Review by Paul Hunt
Where did you go to school? According to Robert Verkaik, your answer to that question determines your chances of getting on in life. Putting it another way, current pupils at Eton or Winchester have a much higher chance of becoming a government minister, a high court judge, a top sportsman (other than in football) or winning an Oscar than current pupils at the St. Leonards Academy or William Parker.
Verkaik’s book is a highly spirited attack on the current Independent sector in education which, he argues, has become an exercise in preserving class based privileges and educating an elite. As the Sutton Trust has demonstrated, the Independent sector which educates 7% of pupils (but rather more at sixth form level) accounts for 74% of senior judges, 50% of the House of Lords and 33% of MPs, to name but three bastions of the establishment.
The first part of the book is a sketch of the history of England’s Independent Schools and shows how the charitable origins of many of them have become subverted, despite the retention of charitable status. The second part attempts to demonstrate their allegedly bad effects on wider society and Verkaik makes various suggestions about how to bring about their demise, starting with the removal of charitable status.
I must declare an interest. After teaching at Bexhill High School for six years, I taught at four Independent Schools and am currently a governor
at Haileybury, one of the schools against which Verkaik takes aim. Verkaik fails to distinguish between Independent Schools such as Eastbourne College which, as educational charities, are increasingly aware of the need to demonstrate ‘public benefit’, largely in terms of scholarships for pupils
from modest backgrounds, and ‘private’ schools such as Buckswood, which is a limited company. The unwary reader would also gain the impression that all Independent Schools are like Eton and Winchester,
or at least, imitations of them. This is simply not true and there is a wonderful variety of schools in the Independent sector. I was also astonished to read a description (some of it factually incorrect) of my old school: a state grammar school, during the period when I was there.
I hadn’t previously been aware that I belonged to the privileged elite.
The elephant in the classroom ignored by Verkaik is the State sector. Most parents in the Independent sector are new to it and are prepared to pay for their child’s education because of what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as the failings of their local State schools. Greater investment in the State sector and freeing teachers from the bureaucratic restrictions not faced by their Independent sector colleagues, would be the most effective way of dissuading parents from paying for education.
Verkaik writes with passion and barely concealed anger (much of it justified), but damages his case by resorting to caricature of the average Independent School pupil and parent. He presents a case to answer for the Independent sector, but also, unwittingly, for the State.
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