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Britain’s Boarding School Problem

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

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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.

Oneworld Publications, 304 pp., $25.99

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?

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.