For centuries, elite British schools like Eton and Harrow, have been revered and reviled as the harbingers of privilege, prime ministers and posh accents. But could the days of the gilded classroom and schoolboys in coattails be heading for the history books?
In a sweeping attack on class inequalities and the “old boy network” for which the country is famous, the opposition Labour Party on Sunday voted through a policy to integrate private schools into state education if it wins the next general election.
Meeting at their annual conference in the southern English town of Brighton, Labour activists pledged to strip all fee-paying schools of their charitable status.
They also adopted a policy that ensures only 7 per cent of students admitted by UK universities come from private schools, a figure said to be in line with the national proportion of pupils attending them.
The approved motion also pledged to distribute public school’s endowments and assets in the state education sector.
Eton College alone has an estimated £400 million (US$500 million) in assets that, if Labour was elected, it could be asked to hand over to the state.
“This is a huge step forward in dismantling the privilege of a tiny, Eton educated elite who are running our country into the ground,” said Laura Parker, national coordinator of Labour Against Private Schools, the grass roots campaign group that brought the motion to the conference.
The issue is bound to be a controversial one in the next election, and will face opposition even from within the party.
The last time Labour made the move to challenge private education in Britain was more than 50 years ago under the leadership of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, but it was quashed because so many influential members had been privately educated.
“This is sinister and authoritarian,” tweeted Paul Embery, a trade unionist and member of the right-wing Labour pressure group Blue Labour.
“In a free society, parents must be at liberty to educate their children privately. It is not for the Big State to intervene and say: “Either you let us teach your kids or they don’t get educated at all.”
This is sinister and authoritarian. In a free society, parents must be at liberty to educate their children privately. It is not for the Big State to intervene and say: “Either you let us teach your kids or they don’t get educated at all.” https://t.co/b1Aa0nkFPd
— Paul Embery (@PaulEmbery) September 22, 2019
There are around 2,500 independent or private schools in the UK, educating more than 600,000 children.
The Labour campaign to abolish private schools has focused on Eton, alma mater of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his predecessor David Cameron but the measures would also include small independent schools.
The Independent Schools Council, which represents the independent sector, accused Labour of putting politics before the interests of children.
“The move is an attack on the rights and freedoms of parents to make choices over the education of their children,” its chief executive Julie Robinson told the BBC.
“This decision is an ideological distraction from dealing with the real problems in education.”
Although only around 7 per cent of UK schoolchildren are currently educated privately, the privately educated are disproportionately powerful in the judiciary, military, politics, the media and increasingly the arts.
According to a report by the social mobility think tank the Sutton Trust, 65 per cent of the UK’s judges, 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries and 57 per cent of the House of Lords went to private schools as well as 64 per cent of the current government’s cabinet.
“The question is why do people who went to these schools have so much more influence than the rest,” said Robert Verkaik, author of the 2018 book Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain.
Eton alone, where the basic annual fee is more than £40,000 (US$50,000), has produced 20 prime ministers. Harrow has spawned seven, including Winston Churchill.
But in Britain, opposition to elite educational institutions has been growing, partly due to the divisions caused by Brexit, seen by many as the result of the country being run by politicians that are out of touch with the people.
A popular jibe at Brexit in the UK is to call it the “Eton Mess”, after the strawberries and cream desert.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, another Old Etonian was widely mocked recently when he was photographed slouching across its green benches, in what was viewed by his critics as an outrageous show of entitlement.
Verkaik believes boarding schools in particular can actually cause harm to its pupils’ mental health. “There has been good research on boarding school syndrome,” he said.
Symptoms include “risk taking, always wanting to please and striving for levels of success only a few will achieve”.
He said Johnson, who unlike Cameron won a scholarship to Eton, “is showing he will do anything to get the top job – he’s still trying to please his tutors”.
Eton recently made headlines when it was revealed pupils were being given empathy classes to improve character including learning to say thank you.
Supporters of private education point out the hypocrisy of some of the current Labour leadership.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was privately educated, as was his communications chief Seamus Milne. Other senior Labour figures such as the shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot sent her son to the prestigious City of London School.
Labour’s move to rein in on private education will resonate in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Over recent years, top British public schools like Eton, founded almost 600 years ago to educate poor children, only becoming fee-paying in the colonial era, have become popular with Chinese elites.
Eton declined to comment on a request by South China Morning Post to say how many Chinese students were boarders.
Alexa Hua Tian, China’s only international event rider is an Old Etonian, and television series like Downton Abbey as well as the popularity of the Royal Family (both Prince Harry and Prince William went to Eton) have increased their appeal.
According to a 2017 article in The Evening Standard, around 10 per cent of boarding school students in the UK are now Chinese, bringing in an estimated £220 million in fees to the school’s coffers.
The British private school system is also an attraction for “golden visa” applicants.
Verkaik said around half of the students at the Roedean girls’ school were from overseas, the majority from China.
Last week, Harrow joined Eton in offering online A Level courses to students in China, in a bid to capitalise on the brand. It already has affiliated Harrow International schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
As radical as Labour’s new policy may seem, the inequalities caused by private education and even, as supporters of the proposal believe, their role in holding the country back by giving the top jobs not to the brightest and the best, but to the well off, has not been lost on some of the country’s top institutions.
Over recent years both Oxford and Cambridge have increased the proportion of students from state schools.
Last month, The Times newspaper reported, and applauded in an accompanying editorial, an “unofficial” cap of 30 per cent on privately educated pupils who attend Oxbridge.
It said that many Oxbridge tutors would like to see the cap drop to 7 per cent – the proportion of children educated in the private sector, in line with Labour’s proposed reforms.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
More from South China Morning Post:
- Jeremy Corbyn: Britain’s saviour or great white nope?
- Kremlin coup: Eton schoolboys score a private meeting with Vladimir Putin
- UK minister Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide for staff: address men as ‘esquire’
- Rich Hongkongers ‘snap up UK golden visas at unheard-of pace’
This article UK Labour declares class war, wants to abolish posh private schools like Eton and Harrow first appeared on South China Morning Post