Thursday, 24 December 2020

The Guinea Pig (1948) clip - on BFI Blu-ray from 20 July 2020 | BFI // Britain’s Boarding School Problem // Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik review – how public schools ruin Britain

After ‘Tom Brown’s School days’ and ‘Goodbye Mr. Chips’ and before ‘IF’, ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘The Riot Club’ … 'THE GUINEA PIG' (1948)


It is a rather hard to believe in this day and age that THE GUINEA PIG caused a bit of a sensation upon its initial theatrical release… for the simple reason that the shocking word 'Arse' was used! My my, how some things have changed - but if this Richard Attenborough-led vehicle from 1948 is anything to go by then one thing hasn’t changed much at all is the English Public School system…


This drama-comedy concerns Jack, a fourteen-year old working class boy (played by 25-year old Dickie Attenborough) and son of Walthamstow tobacco shop owner Mr. Read (Bernard Miles). Following the so-called Fleming Report, young Read is offered a scholarship to Saintbury, an exclusive public school (think Eton or Harrow), thus turning him into the ‘guinea pig’ of the film’s title. The Fleming Report, ah yes: After their war efforts it would appear that the British working class may have felt they deserved just a little bit more as they were (and still are) mainly nothing more than underpaid and poorly educated slaves to the ruling classes (the only way the status quo can be maintained). Perhaps some upper class foundations felt 'the workers' should be given some sort of a chance... and if we are to believe this film (originally a play by Sherborne-educated Warren Chetham-Strode) then Jack Read, lucky little fellow, is given such a chance by being picked to be taken out of his rank working class environment and transported to a world utterly alien to him.


Will Jack with his 'bad' accent and his uncouth manners be able to fit in with a load of posh fellows from privileged backgrounds? After being seen off at the railway station by his humble and hard-working parents - sporting his splendid new school uniform - it becomes pretty obvious in the packed railway carriage that young Jack Read has a lot to learn for none of the other boys have even heard of ‘Walfamstow’ (as most working class locals would mispronounce it).


On his first day, Jack is befriended in the local village by the sympathetic and progressive Junior Master Mr. Nigel Lorraine (Robert Flemyng). Unfortunately the Senior Master, Mr. Lloyd Hartley (Cecil Trouncer), a rigid 'old school' snob, takes an instant dislike to Jack. Really, if this kind of thing is encouraged people might start getting above themselves - a chap should know his place in the world or anarchy may ensue. As expected, young Jack has a pretty tough time during the first term, leading to a number of (unintentional?) laughs. The 'arse' kicking incident is part of a new boy’s initiation ceremony: they are supposed to bow down before the statue of the school's benefactor - no less a personage than one of Britain's most odious monarch's, Henry ‘the wife killer’ - VIII. The senior school prats then kick the newcomers up the arse – sorry, posterior. Fortunately little Jack is put into the care of an older boy called Fitch (John Forrest, who just a few years later landed the part of the ultimate school bully Harry Flashman). Fitch is a decent fellow who does what he can to lend a helping hand. Though of course Jack has also an enemy in David Tracey (Oscar Quitak) who, just like Mr. Hartley, resents him for being a ‘working class oaf’. At good old Lorraine's suggestion the chaps fight it out in the boxing ring and become pals. At the end of the first term Jack wants to chuck it all in as he feels he simply doesn’t belong to this world but Mr. Lorraine has a word and the young fella agrees to persevere.

The second term (and the film’s second half) is less amusing and entertaining: already Jack is speaking with an improved accent and wants to become a School Master. This means Cambridge and a lot of money unless he is clever enough to win another scholarship and well, the Senior Master has no fondness for him. However that awfully nice Mr. Lorraine – romantically involved with Mr. Hartley’s daughter Lynne (Sheila Sim – Attenborough’s real life wife) can pull a few strings….


This was Attenborough’s second film for the Boulting Brothers (he played psychotic gangster Pinkie Brown in BRIGHTON ROCK the year before) and he makes for a creditable schoolboy despite his age. It is all rather pat and probably well meaning and it would be nice to see a latter day variation. Bernard Miles, who plays Jack’s father Mr. Read, co-wrote the screenplay with Warren Chetham-Strode. Curiously Jack's ordeal at the fictitious Public School 'Saintbury' (in reality Sherborne where the writer Chetham-Strode was actually educated) pails into utter insignificance in comparison to young Tom Brown's at Rugby (in ‘Tom Brown’s School Days) over a hundred years before. Is this an institution that should continue? Does it spell progress and social enlightenment? Will it persevere? Of course it will. One only needs to look at the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his ilk.


The Guinea Pig Review

Posted by Gary Couzens


Jack Read (Richard Attenborough), son of a London tobacconist, wins a scholarship to Saintbury, a public boarding school, as part of an experiment in mixing boys of different social classes. He’s greeted with particular snobbery by the other boys, and struggles to fit in.


Made in 1948, The Guinea Pig is a comedy-drama based on Warren Chetham Strode’s 1946 play of the same title. Although both play and film are slight period pieces – Jack’s first term at Saintbury is in the autumn of 1942 – they were certainly topical, inspired by the 1944 Fleming Report into education. This called for a greater integration between public schools (for which, read private and fee-paying, so largely the preserve of the wealthy) and the general education system. The report suggested that up to twenty-five per cent of places at public (secondary) schools should go to children from the state system, from working-class backgrounds, to broaden their outlook and opportunities. That’s the situation young Jack Read finds himself in.


 The Guinea Pig (released as The Outsider in the United States) is a film of two halves. The first part centres on Jack and his struggles to fit in at the public boarding school he finds himself in. He’s regarded as a “street oik” by his much posher classmates and expected to act as a “fag” to one of the senior boys. But it’s clear that, once he settles in as best he could, his education has benefited him and there’s talk of his going to Cambridge as the years pass. However, around halfway through the film, the emphasis shifts and Read moves more into the background. The film then becomes a dramatisation of the conflict between the traditionalist housemaster Hartley (Cecil Trouncer) and the younger more outward-looking housemaster Lorraine (Robert Flemyng), who at the start of the film had just come back from the war, having lost a leg from being shot at El Alamein. This is complicated by the romance between Lorraine and Hartley’s daughter Lynne (Sheila Sim). There’s a sense by the end of the film that time, and society, just emerging from a devastating world war, have moved on.


The Boulting Brothers, John and Roy, were identical twins who worked as a filmmaking team and had broken into the film industry before the War. The most usual arrangement was that John produced and Roy directed – which is the case with The Guinea Pig – but sometimes this was reversed and sometimes they co-directed. The script credit goes to Chetham Strode and Bernard Miles, the latter doing double duty as he also plays Jack’s father in the film, “in association with” Roy Boulting. What this meant in practice was that both Chetham Strode, who didn’t want too many changes to his play, and Miles worked separately and Boulting produced the final script from both their work. The film is a little censorship milestone, as it was able to retain the line “kick up the arse” which had been in the play. This is often reckoned to be the first use of that mildly rude word in British cinema, though John Oliver in his booklet essay with this release, does identify an earlier “arse” (in the 1933 film Britannia of Billingsgate, for those who like to know these things).


 Richard Attenborough gives a sensitive performance as Jack, though he’s clearly too old to be the teenager he’s meant to be. He was actually twenty-four and already married, to his co-star Sheila Sim. The rest of the cast is strong, and you can see some future well-known names playing schoolboys, Anthony Newley and Timothy (billed as Tim) Bateson among them. Although this is nominally a comedy, DP Gilbert Taylor doesn’t shoot the film like you might expect a comedy to be shot, even in black and white: there are some quite shadowy night scenes and the film is quite grainy in places.


The Guinea Pig opened with a gala premiere on 21 October 1948, its main London venue being the Carlton cinema (now the Empire) on Haymarket. It was generally well received though seems to have bypassed awards consideration. The film is along similar lines to many of the ones the Boultings produced, popular entertainment with some food for thought. As its topics have moved on more than seventy years later, it inevitably shows its age, but as craft and entertainment still holds up.


 The Disc

The Guinea Pig is a dual-format release from the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray (Region B) was provided for review. The transfer begins with the film’s original U certificate, though it is now a PG. A Letter from Wales is a U. The remaining extras are documentaries or actualities which are exempt from certification though they contain nothing likely to be troubling.


The film was shot in 35mm black and white in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) and that’s the way it is presented on this disc. The transfer is derived from a 2K scan of two nitrate duplicating positive elements. As mentioned above, the film is quite grainy in places, but that’s a feature not a bug, and not having seen the film before, projected or otherwise, I can’t dispute the way it’s meant to look and the grain and contrast do seem natural if the latter is a little marked. In high definition, what looks like some brief stock footage of a cricket match does stand out somewhat.


The sound is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and it’s clear and well-balanced. There are English subtitles available for the feature (not the extras) and I didn’t spot any errors in them.


Those extras are divided into two groups, both with Play All options. The first is “Old School”, films on the subject of education. These begin with two from Mitchell and Kenyon: Audley Range School, Blackburn (1:23) and York Road Board School, Leeds (2:46), from 1905 and 1901 respectively, both silent with music scores, and both putting their respective establishments on display for the camera and the local audiences Mitchell and Kenyon showed their films to soon afterwards. Your Children’s Play (20:04) is a Central Office of Information short from 1951, detailing the importance of play in your child’s development. A Letter from Wales (14:37) is a short drama from the Children’s Film Foundation in 1953 in which young Rhys writes to his Australian penpal about his childhood exploits and his local school. Comprehensive School (11:07) is again from the COI, from 1962, detailing the new system of comprehensive education about to be introduced, a film intended more for overseas viewers than home ones. Finally, That’s GCSE (20:40), from 1987 and the only item on this disc in colour, is an introduction to the new General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations, which replaced the old O Level and CSE. Presented by Esther Rantzen, it’s in the style of, and features many of the personnel of, the popular programme That’s Life! It gave me flashbacks of a programme I used to watch.


The second batch is “The Make-Do-and-Menders”, giving some background to the wartime and immediate post-War setting of The Guinea Pig, with rationing still in force. The first two items featured on the BFI’s DVD release Ration Books and Rabbit Pies from 2016 but here appear in high definition. These are When the Pie was Opened (8:10) and Bob in the Pound (2:18). The former, made in 1941, is a short film made for the Ministry of Food, about making meals with the limited foodstuffs available. But as New Zealand-born Len Lye was the director, the result is an inventively surreal flight of fancy. Bob in the Pound, from 1943, probably needs the explanation to younger viewers that “bob” was slang for the pre-decimal shilling, and this short animated piece is meant to encourage you to invest in wartime saving bonds. Bob the animated coin talks with popular entertainer Tommy Handley and ends with “After you, Tommy.” No, after you, Bob.” “No, I’m after Hitler!” The next item is In Which We Live Being the Life Story of a Suit Told by Itself (12:45), from 1944, is pretty much self-explanatory, in which the suit tells us its journey from first manufacture to becoming worn out and cannibalised into a pair of shorts and a skirt. Make-do-and-Mend (1:22), from 1945, tells you how to make your clothing coupons go further.


The final item on the disc is a self-navigating stills gallery (12:13).


The BFI’s booklet runs to twenty-four pages and begins with an essay by John Oliver (spoiler warning) which is called “Bridging the Divide: Class and Consensus in The Guinea Pig”, which sums up its approach. It’s followed by a profile of the Boultings by Corinna Reicher, full film credits, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.


Joanna Scutts/September 14, 2018

Britain’s Boarding School Problem

How the country’s elite institutions have shaped colonialism, Brexit, and today’s global super-rich


When socially privileged children are separated from their families at a tender age, some develop what psychotherapists have called “Boarding School Syndrome”: “a defensive and protective encapsulation of the self,” in which they learn to hide emotion, fake maturity, and assert dominance over anyone weaker. They develop loyalty to their institutional tribe and suspicion of outsiders; they become bullies devoted to winning above all. If these traits sound familiar, it may be because the men who sent Britain careening into the catastrophe of Brexit—David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage—are all products of elite boarding schools, notorious symbols of social and economic inequality. These institutions—Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster and their ilk—may be quintessentially English, but, as they have become the ultimate educational status symbol for the global super-rich, their influence today extends across the world.


Robert Verkaik’s new book Posh Boys is a detailed and damning history of the institutions that at once run and ruin Britain. The most venerable of the confusingly-named “public” schools were established in late medieval England to educate poor but talented boys in religion and classics. They continued to teach that curriculum long after their charitable purpose had faded, and by their golden age in the nineteenth century, the public schools’ main purpose was to groom upper-class boys to become the administrators of the British Empire. They instilled an “unshakeable confidence” and sense of superiority in their pupils, as members of the best class of the best nation in the world. In return, they demanded unswerving loyalty and a willing submission to a rigid hierarchy.


Bullying was not just endemic, it was structural, with younger boys acting as servants for older ones, carrying out menial tasks and enduring whatever punishments their teen overlords could dream up, in the knowledge that eventually they would get to mete it out themselves. They went on to demand similar submissiveness and loyalty from the native populations they were sent out to rule, having been taught to regard them as unruly children in need of discipline.


A taste for violence and an obsession with hierarchy also work quite well to prepare boys for the military, and to this day the vast majority of teenagers enrolled as cadets in Britain attend private schools. Verkaik points out, however, that the military ideology bred in the public schools is mostly vainglorious myth. The British won battles across the Empire in the 19th century because they had vastly superior weapons, not better tactics or leaders—and the legend that the Battle of Waterloo was won “on the playing fields of Eton” is “fatally undermined” by the detail that school had no playing fields at the time.


Critics of the public schools have argued instead that their obsession with militarism—absorbed bone-deep by generations of prime ministers and generals—has in fact more often than not goaded the country into war and prolonged the bloodshed, most ruinously during World War I. The British army, led by a Harrow graduate, simply reproduced civilian class hierarchies, installing public schoolboys as officers with command over hundreds of working-class men whose life experiences were as foreign to them as those of the African villagers their forefathers subjugated. A disproportionate number of these aristocratic boys, including the prime minister’s son, died in the fighting for the nihilistic, vaguely classical ethos that death in battle would be the most noble end to their lives.



Public schools continue to place a strong emphasis on violent sports—at many schools rugby, which was invented and much mythologized at the northern English school of the same name, is preferred, while Eton lays claim to the notorious “wall” game, a violent mass scramble that killed a boy in 1825. Historically, masters encouraged games and military drills, as a way of exhausting the body and beating out any dangerous tendencies like gentleness, kindness, and affection. But given their cultures of loyalty and secrecy, it’s hardly surprising that sexual abuse has been rampant in the public schools for centuries. In a pattern that mirrors similar cover-ups in religious communities, Verkaik writes, “children were either disbelieved or silenced” and “the teacher quietly moved on.” The stories of victims are currently engulfing many of the country’s most elite schools in scandal, with a pair of comprehensive independent inquiries underway that will make their findings known in 2020.


Would even the most damning revelations puncture the lingering mythology of the public schools? For generations, these schools have guaranteed exclusivity and loyalty through elaborate codes and rituals (which saturate English literature from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to Enid Blyton novels and Harry Potter,). Old Etonians are famed for identifying each other with the question, “Did you go to school?” as though there is only one school worthy of the name. Those strictly-controlled networks can sustain a graduate throughout his or her life, but in the short term, a parent’s investment pays off in improved chances of entrance to Oxford and Cambridge, or another top-tier university. Eton was established in 1440 as a feeder school to my own alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge—which prided itself, when I was there, on taking more state-school pupils than any other college, but still held places for choral scholars, often from Eton and other public schools (since not many comprehensives train their students in world-class choirs.)


Fee-paying schools educate 7 percent of British schoolchildren, but in 2016, 34 percent of Cambridge acceptances and 25 percent of Oxford places went to privately educated applicants—actually much lower numbers than in previous years, as both universities have tried to tackle their elitist image. Yet in Britain the professions—from politics to the military, law, journalism, and banking—all remain dominated by private school graduates. Access, a hand up the ladder, is what the schools sell. And it can have immeasurable value—ask Kate Middleton’s wealthy middle-class parents, who sent their daughter to the exclusive co-ed boarding school Marlborough College as a stepping stone to St. Andrew’s University, where she met and started to date a member of the royal family.


One weakness of Verkaik’s analysis is that it doesn’t really consider how the most traditional all-male schools like Eton differ from all-girls schools and co-ed schools. There is no doubt that girls in private schools, whether single sex or co-ed, benefit in similar ways from the improved chances of university access and the post-school network, but it’s still harder for professional women to accumulate wealth and power on a scale to match the entrenched advantages of their male counterparts (girls’ schools struggle a great deal more to attract alumnae donations, for example.)


Exclusivity and access have justified enormous hikes in private school fees in recent years, leading some to fear that fees are rising in a “bubble.” In 1990, annual boarding-school fees were less than £7,000 per year, they now hover around £40,000. At Eton, extras like uniforms, trips, supplies, and miscellaneous “donations” can run another £10,000 on top. It’s in the interest of all schools to keep pace. In 2001, two boys at Winchester College hacked their school’s private email system and exposed a price-fixing scheme aimed at ensuring that fees rose well above inflation across the sector. One email even began with the phrase, “Confidential, please, so we aren’t accused of being a cartel.”


Such behavior is all the more galling because public schools in the United Kingdom enjoy tax-exempt charitable status. Several governments, Tory and Labour, have attempted to reform the relationship between the schools and the state—either by taxing school fees, cutting off some state funding, or forcing the schools to behave more like charities, perhaps by educating some poor children for free. But in general, any discounts on fees tend to benefit middle-class, professional parents, who are the bottom-feeders of the ecosystem at a school like Eton. Genuinely poor children remain, for the most part, a purely theoretical species. In order to become need-blind in their admissions, the schools would need endowments similar to those held by the leading private American universities, and a fundraising infrastructure to match—something that might be in the reach of Eton and Harrow, with their oligarchs in the rolodex, but certainly does not look feasible for less prestigious schools.


The cozy relationship of public schools to the global super-rich has become increasingly apparent in recent years. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of wealthy Russian pupils at elite UK boarding schools more than tripled, and a group of Eton students made headlines when they were granted a private audience with Vladimir Putin. During the Cold War, the KGB notoriously recruited several public-school-educated British boys as spies and double agents, but Russia’s relationship with the status-symbol boarding schools today is far more open, visible, and lucrative, both to the schools themselves and the highly paid consultants who ease the admissions process.


UK private schools and colleges are attracting more and more of their fee income from wealthy overseas parents, but they are not compelled to report or investigate suspicious transactions, raising concerns that they could be targets of corruption or organized crime—in 2014 a prestigious Somerset boarding school was caught up in a global money-laundering investigation when it was discovered that a pupil’s fees had been paid via an illicit shell company. But Transparency International, the anti-corruption organization, has warned that it is not just money—the schools also have the power to whitewash the shadiest family reputation.


Despite the risks, the value of the school brand in a global marketplace is too high to pass up, and several English schools have established campuses in China, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Qatar, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, educating some 30,000 children of the rich and influential, in “an important expression of Britain’s own soft power.” At the same time, some foreign buyers have been disappointed by the quality of the product so expensively purchased. One German banker, who sent his children to Westminster school, cautioned his countrymen against sending their children to these bastions of excess and entitlement, where the education was no better than what children gained for free in Germany. Like France and many Scandinavian countries, Germany has barely any culture of private schooling beyond religious institutions. Why would you pay for something that ought to be your right as a citizen?


For Britain’s privately educated leaders, politics is a ladder to be climbed, and policy-making a game.


That question leads to murkier, deeper waters: What is an education for? How can we know it’s good? There is plenty of historical evidence that public schools did not offer the best education: Their commitment to the classics and deliberate, disdainful neglect of the sciences during the nineteenth century meant that most of the figures whose innovations drove the Industrial Revolution were educated outside the system. More recently, the moral code that elevated “muscular Christianity” and its ethos of leadership seems to have dissolved, leaving pure muscle behind. Verkaik observes of the 46 boys in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s 1984 Eton house, only one could claim to have gone onto a career in public service: He became a schoolteacher, although eventually “returned to the private fold.” The others became politicians, bankers, journalists, entrepreneurs—professions where success rests on something that public schoolboys learn to excel at: public speaking, debate, the subtle art of blagging. These boys dominate British politics across parties: Labour leaders Tony Blair and current leftist hero Jeremy Corbyn both have public-school pedigrees.


For Britain’s privately educated leaders, politics is a ladder to be climbed, and policy-making a game. Never has this been clearer than in David Cameron’s colossal gamble on Brexit in the summer of 2016, when a referendum dominated by bad-faith messaging, data breaches, and campaign-finance violations triggered the UK’s limping exit from the European Union. It was not a cause for which the majority of citizens was seriously advocating. The only real victors so far have been those (often privately educated) financiers who made millions by betting on a massive drop in the value of the pound.


The ethos of the modern British private school is not the same now as it was in the days that molded the country’s current leaders. The turn against bullying and the emphasis on a well-rounded, pupil-centered education have penetrated even their forbidding ivy-covered walls. Still, Verkaik’s book is not a call for the reform of the schools, but for their abolition. Tweaking their tax status, or limiting the numbers of top-tier university places their pupils can earn, will not absolve the schools of the real damage they do to communities by encouraging their most privileged members to opt out.


Verkaik argues that “pushy” middle-class parents are needed to pull up the standards of struggling state schools, and that the presence of their “articulate, confident, able” children will help their less privileged peers. But this is a painfully one-sided view. As the American journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has frequently pointed out in her work on school segregation—racial and socioeconomic—in the United States, the white, middle-class kids have just as much to gain from learning alongside children who are different from them. Difference challenges us, and so does community: It requires that we put ego aside and commit to values that transcend our individual tastes, wants, and needs. It may be uncomfortable, but difference is not harmful. The alternative is segregation, isolation, and a cripplingly narrow vision of success.

Society books

Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik review – how public schools ruin Britain

A trenchant j’accuse against the old-boy chumocracy and the ‘apartheid education system’ that perpetuates social inequality in the UK


Houman Barekat

Fri 29 Jun 2018 07.30 BST


From a 21st-century perspective, the term “public schools” is a semantic puzzle: what is “public” about a private, fee-paying school? But Winchester, Eton, St Paul’s and Westminster all started out as philanthropic institutions whose statutes expressly excluded the children of the wealthy. Moneyed interests forced their way in, and fee-paying pupils outnumbered free scholars by the 15th century; in 2017, only 1% of pupils attending independent schools paid no fees at all. In order to justify their charitable status – which confers tax advantages worth an estimated £2.5bn per year – independent schools are legally required to do a modicum of work “for the public benefit”, but a 2011 court ruling held that it is up to their own trustees, not the government, to determine whether they have met this criterion.


“The public schools were founded to educate the poor and ended up serving the interests of the rich,” Robert Verkaik writes in Posh Boys, a trenchant j’accuse against what he calls the “apartheid education system” that perpetuates social inequality in modern Britain. Research suggests the standard of teaching in the private sector is not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents “are really paying for smaller classes … and a place in the privilege network”. Public schools are steeped in an oppressive culture of hierarchy and domination – the now obsolete practice of “fagging”, whereby senior pupils used younger ones as servants, persists in attenuated form in the prefect system – but the pay-off is substantial. As Evelyn Waugh’s Grimes puts it in Decline and Fall: “One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.”


Verkaik cites the career of David Cameron as a textbook example of old boy “chumocracy” at work – Tim Farron observed that Cameron’s resignation honours list was “so full of cronies it would embarrass a medieval court” – but his critical scrutiny is not restricted to the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn, he reminds us, attended the kind of prep school where a boy could be flogged for “having your cap at a rakish angle”; Momentum media strategist James Schneider was also privately educated, as were Labour apparatchiks Seumas Milne and Jon Lansman. Verkaik contends that the preponderance of “inflated egos” with “an innate sense of entitlement and … an almost pathological willingness to risk everything” accounts for the adversarial and polarising tendencies in contemporary politics.


The middle of the last century was the last time the political establishment gave serious consideration to tackling the problem of public schools. In the interwar era, thinkers such as George Bernard Shaw and RH Tawney advocated the introduction of an integrated national system of education. Such was the clamour for change that even Winston Churchill was making noises about it in 1940, but a number of reform initiatives in the postwar years ultimately came to nothing. Tony Blair’s government rejected a proposal to do away with public schools’ tax exemptions on the grounds that the resultant loss of income would limit their altruistic capacity, thereby denying access to some less well-off children. This epitomised New Labour’s ideological trade-off, offering the sop of social mobility in exchange for the preservation of the status quo. Blair garbed his stance in the rhetoric of class, arguing that old-school socialists were elitist “intellectual types” who wanted to keep the aspirational middle classes in their place.


For all its supposed radicalism, Corbyn’s 2017 manifesto went no further than proposing to abolish the VAT exemption on school fees. The kind of radical upheaval Verkaik would like to see – “a slow and painless euthanasia” whereby the privileges of the private sector are slowly whittled away – is well beyond the mainstream political pale. He makes a persuasive case, but his prediction that “in a post-Brexit, populist world, an education policy of inaction may no longer be an option” seems like wishful thinking. The much-vaunted “populism” of Brexit was driven by powerful vested interests, without whose machinations there would never have been a referendum. There is no equivalent lobby for radical reform of the independent schools; on the contrary, the overwhelming majority of people in positions of influence are content with, and invested in, the present state of affairs.


Verkaik’s book is nonetheless a timely intervention that asks all the right questions. Its sweep is impressively broad, encompassing everything from child abuse scandals to concerns about money laundering amid the recent influx of oligarch wealth. Verkaik dismantles the myth that Britain owes its strong military tradition to the public schools: contrary to the quote that has been misattributed to Wellington, Eton didn’t own any playing fields at the time of the battle of Waterloo; the Royal Navy, which sustained Britain’s imperial might, was run by people from relatively humble backgrounds.


There is a brief but insightful cameo from the comedian David Baddiel, who explains that, for Jews and other minorities, a public school education is as much about assimilation as climbing the social ladder. Posh Boys is, for a book about public schools, decidedly comprehensive.

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