English public schools and the old boys’ network

English public schools–now known as bastions of privilege–started out as philanthropic schools to educate the poor. Some of them date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By “the poor,” of course, the schools and their founders meant poor boys, and the sons of the rich were specifically excluded from some. Excluding girls was such a given that I doubt anyone thought to mention it.

The term public school first appears in England in 1580 (or in the eighteenth century, depending on who you want to believe). The public part meant that they benefited the public, unlike the private school, whose profit went to the owner.

These were grammar schools. As far as I’ve been able to untangle this mess, that means they taught Latin and Greek, with a heavy emphasis on the classics. When Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare that he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was using those as the measure of a well-educated man. And although the man part isn’t a quote, it’s very much what he was talking about.

Irrelevant photo: A boat on the beach on Iona. With a person who’s wandering off the other way because my every moment is so fascinating.

According the the Encyclopedia Britannica (you’ll find the link in the next paragraph), the emphasis on the Greek and Roman classics continued well into the 20th century. “Organized games, in contrast, were a late development, and, before their introduction, disorderly conduct was intermittently considerable, particularly in the early 19th century. When the demand for men to administer the British Empire led to scores of new foundations during the 19th century, however, the schools tended to adopt the more disciplined, duty-bound, and athletic model.”

But we’ve gotten ahead of our timeline. The schools were good–or at least people thought they were good–and as a result, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “From about the 17th century the upper classes took increasing advantage of the tuition [meaning teaching, not the money parents paid for their darlings to be taught] afforded by these foundations. As pupils paying the market rate became more numerous, the schools were increasingly transformed into boarding establishments.”  

In other words, the rich muscled their way in and even before anyone had time to introduce standardized tests to prove that this was all wondrous, the sons of the rich outnumbered the sons of the poor.

Since the Britannica is impressive and high-end and its editors and contributors probably knows both Latin and Greek (ancient, of course, not modern), it manages to convince a tilted A to cozy up to the second E in the word encyclopedia, which makes it look (a) like a single letter and (b) much classier than a bare nekked E would, although it adds fuck all in the way of content. That’s very much in keeping with our topic today and we’re going to do without the A, thanks, partly because I don’t have the patience to go searching for a useless character in the depths of my word processing program and partly because I enjoy small and pointless exercises in the art of spite.

In case you’ve ever wondered (and I did), how you pronounce that combination of A and E, it’s pronounced the same way it would be if the A had not only broken up with the E but moved all its stuff out in the middle of the night and left no note and not even a forwarding address. All if does is make the person who uses it look like he or she knows something other people don’t.

Which may or may not be the reason for all that Latin and Greek.

Where were we? Charitable schools to educate people of “humble backgrounds” being taken over by the upper class because they were too good to waste on the humble: As time went on, the schools’ role became to prepare boys for Cambridge and Oxford universities–and also for public service, giving another meaning to the word public.

Ages ago, I read that they were also called public schools because that contrasted with the tradition of upper-class boys being educated at home, by a tutor, but I can’t find any confirmation of that online.

In the nineteenth century, a number of girls’ public schools were established. I haven’t found a date for the earliest ones.

Where did all this lead? As the Britannica so clunkily puts it, “The impact of the public schools in Britain was historically immense. Perhaps in no other post-Renaissance country did an ethos directly and concentratedly inculcated in so few citizens exercise such influence nationally—and internationally, given the crucial role of the public school ethos in helping Britain build its empire. The ethos in question was less an academic one than a class-conscious code of behaviour, speech, and appearance. It set the standard for conduct in the life of officialdom in Britain from the early 19th century to the mid-20th.”

I’ll try a very (very) loose translation of that since, many an eye will have bounced right over it without taking much in: The schools created a set of standards by which members of the upper class could recognize each other and judge each other–and then judge people from other classes and cultures to be less worthy of their spot on the earth, given that those others had so clearly failed to be like those glorious, conforming, upper-class English public-school graduates.

Charming.

Public schools fed their graduates into government and into the varied mechanisms that ran the British Empire. They were a small group and hugely influential, and who you knew mattered. So did who you were, meaning who your family was. 

The old boys’ network? This is where the phrase originated. The old boys were the graduates of these elite schools, and there’s something creepy–at least to my ear–about it when you really hear the word boys in the phrase. These are grown men who don’t seem to have ever quite gotten away from that stage of their lives.   

According to the BBC, by 2017, only 1% of the public schools’ students paid no tuition, which in 2015 averaged £13,194 a year. If a kid boards there, that goes up to £30,369.

The country’s average income in 2015 was in the neighborhood of £27,456. So yeah, she said with a vague gesture in the direction of British understatement, these schools are on the expensive side.  I’ll admit that averages are misleading, since they’re heavily influenced by extreme numbers, but never mind. An average is enough to give us a general idea of the contrast.

So public schools have ended up as places to educate the sons (and now also the daughters) of the rich, and they don’t need to exclude the poor because the poor, the average, and the considerably above average can’t afford them anyway. A token few are stirred through in roughly the proportion of salt to broth, but unlike salt they don’t seem to change the flavor much.

The schools are still treated as charitable institutions, which earns them millions of pounds a year in tax breaks. Or possibly billions. It depends whose statistics you like. I suspect the difference depends on what tax breaks you include in your calculations. Can we just say it’s a lot of money and consider that close enough?

For a while, the government made small, squeaky noises about taking away their tax breaks unless public schools made some gestures in the direction of helping state schools (which, just to confuse the issue, are what Americans would call public schools, since they’re paid for and used by the public, unlike English public schools, which are private; are you still with me here?). Then, oddly enough, they dropped the whole thing.

The continuing influence of public school graduates wouldn’t have had anything to do with that.

A recent review of a book on the public schools mentions research showing that the standard of teaching is “not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents ‘are really paying for smaller classes . . . and a place in the privilege network.’ ”

The book comes with the perfectly neutral title of Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain and sounds like a well-researched call for their abolition, covering everything from child abuse to money laundering (no, I don’t know any details, but I wish I did) to their role in educating the children of oligarchs.

According to the Times, the students of nine public schools are 94 times more likely to reach “the top” than anyone else. Analysis of the past 125 years of Who’s Who, which lists the most prominent politicians, lawyers, business leaders and civil servants in the UK, found that one in eight entrants in recent editions comes from one of the nine [elite public] schools. This compares with one in five in the 1892 edition.

Yes, friends, it’s another example of human progress, which as a child of the 50s I was taught to believe in. Not specifically. It was so much part of my teachers’ assumptions that no one thought to separate it out as something that needed teaching. Every day in every way, the world was becoming a better place.

Haven’t you noticed?