Tuesday, 13 September 2011


I had a bit of a grumble recently about independent fee-paying schools in England and Wales being able to define themselves as "charities" and bag a nice little subsidy from the sort of ordinary tax payers who will never be rich enough to have a hope sending their own kids to a private school. It's interesting to get a bit of historical perspective here and remember that our "public" schools started off as perfectly respectable charities in the sense that any reasonable person would understand. They were, after all, first established to provide a free education for children of the poor.

Nick Davies, the investigative reporter responsible for helping to overturn the News International rock and expose the grubs and maggots crawling around underneath, told the inglorious story of how our public schools stopped helping the needy and turned into an exclusive network for of the privileged offspring of the rich and influential. It's an old article, but it bears repeating:

All of these schools were founded for the free education of the poor – that is why they were originally called ‘public’ schools. When Henry VI founded Eton in 1442, for example, he instructed that “No one having a yearly income of more than five marks shall be eligible”. In 1382, the founder of Winchester, William of Wykeham, declared that the school was to be made up of 70 “poor and needy” pupils, although as a concession to those whose patronage he sought, he agreed also to take ten “sons of noble and influential persons”. Rugby, Harrow, Westminster, they were all founded as free schools for the poor. And yet, all of them eventually were hijacked by the wealthy, who paid fees to attend. The headmasters were happy to take their money and were quite clever in helping the hijack.

Thomas Arnold preserved Rugby for the rich by closing its free lower school so that, unless the children of the poor could afford to pay someone else to teach them, they could not learn enough to get into the main school. The schools insisted that new pupils should be able to speak Latin, with the same result. At Harrow, the head man took the register at noon when the poorer pupils, who were day boys, were all at home for lunch and, just to make sure of their absence, he forbade them from riding horses to speed up their journey home. Westminster wriggled out of its legal obligation to the poor by arguing that Queen Elizabeth I had never confirmed its statutes. Winchester justified its behaviour to the 1818 Brougham Commission by explaining that, in truth, its current pupils really were poor – it was only their parents who were rich.

With the Public Schools Act of 1868, these ancient schools completed the theft by capturing any remaining endowments which were still dedicated to poor pupils. A year later, following the lead of the Schools Inquiry Commission, the Endowed Schools Act organised a far grander larceny, seizing from towns all over the country a fortune in endowments which had been left for the benefit of the local poor but which were now used to pay for a network of new fee-paying private schools for the middle class. 

 You almost have to admire their sheer brass neck. It is a truly breathtaking perversion of the idea of charity. It's as if Shelter, the housing charity, decided to give up on trying to help people who are homeless or living in squalor and re-launched itself as an organisation to subsidise the purchase of holiday homes in Cornwall or Tuscany by people who already own mansions in fashionable areas of London. And still claimed to be a charity. And successfully persuaded the Charity Commission to nod it through and say 'well done, keep up the good work'. And lobbied so successfully for their idiosyncratic definition of "charity" that anyone who objected to the injustice was routinely accused of "the politics of envy" or "social engineering".

Our society, and in particular our education system, seems to be at the mercy of a feral overclass, utterly free from shame and remorse and cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism. This is worse than unfair - it's anti-social behaviour on an epic scale.

I'll leave the last word to former Conservative education minister, George Walden, as quited by Nick Davies; 'The screening out of the sons and daughters of the affluent and influential from the rest of society… and the consequent indifference of their parents to what goes on in state schools is more than a traditional quirk in the English system. It severs our educational culture at the neck. … No country has evolved a high standard of public education while the top seven per cent of its citizens have nothing to do with it'.