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Engines of Privilege


Francis Green and David Kynaston

Reviewed by:

Stephen Pound

Just when one brilliant book that eviscerates the hypocrisy and avarice of the so called “public schools” appears, then another follows shortly and ploughs the same furrow.

Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem by professor of education economics Francis Green and historian David Kynaston was published in 2019. Within it the authors pay credit to Robert Verkaik whose Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain appeared the year before.

Both are superbly and comprehensively researched and each provides an exhaustive guide to the vast literature that has been generated by the peculiarly English system of commercial education.

Green and Kynaston write forcibly and from the perspective of two people who were themselves privately educated.

Their historical analysis of the growth of the private school system and its possible late Victorian apogee displays deep scholarship and a vigorous mining of sources.

Their study of the contemporary debate is as comprehensive as one could hope for and delves deep into current political and journalistic commentary as well as individual testimony.

As the title rightly states, this is about privilege. Privilege purchased and exercised throughout a person’s life.

Privilege that is sought after and which has such a magnetic pull that even state-educated Labour prime ministers like MacDonald, Wilson and Callaghan swiftly repaired this oversight by dispatching their children to the private sector.

Green and Kynaston accurately describe the privilege of the Old Boy – and occasionally Old Girl network – as the “golden ticket” it is.

The authors destroy the argument that the brightest and best of a nation emerge from the commercial sector to the national advantage.

One of their most impressive pieces of scholarship identifies the impact of peer pressure on potentially high achieving students who work in the presence of those who already achieve highly.

As a London MP for many years and one who visited a considerable amount of private fee- paying schools, I was often driven to despair.

Not by the undeniable achievements of the pupils and mouth-watering facilities – but by the thought that such academic energy could immensely benefit many of the comprehensives in my constituency.

I would dream of the transformation that would take place if more of those students in the public schools shared classrooms with the less fortunate.

Surely this would benefit all of society and tear down the “Berlin Wall” of scholastic separation.

Kynaston and Green make two major assertions in the book.

Firstly; private education is a business. It is a commercial operation. 

As another former public school boy, playwright David Hare put it, “private schools have changed from places where you were flogged to places you flog”.

The book also gives a detailed analysis of the lengths the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses Conference Schools will go to in order to maximise income, trailing their skirts throughout the world wherever oligarchs gather.

The stench of hypocrisy clings to those who claim that their interest is benignly educational, when mammon – material wealth – is clearly the driving force.

Yet the power of the HMC schools is massive and has beaten off almost all attempts to shave off some of their own huge privileges.

The authors quote former Labour leader Ed Miliband as averring that this is a “third rail” issue that brings death to those who approach it. Kynaston and Green disagree.

Secondly: the assumption has been made that the majority of the population is complicit in the hypocrisy.

The idea that the distant opportunity of their gaining benefit for themselves, their heirs and successors is so intoxicating that the obvious inequality can be overlooked if there is a chance of benefitting from it.

The authors refer to the oft-quoted assertion that people just do not care about the private school system and that it is not an issue of great concern.

However, they produce empirical evidence to show that a majority of the population are growing tired of the bloated excesses of the commercial sector and the corrosive and stultifying effect that this has on society and social mobility.

Many in the public are tired of the arrogance and sense of entitlement flaunted by the children of public schools.

Surely the time is coming when the wholly phoney charitable status and VAT exemptions in which the HMS schools wallow must be withdrawn.

If there is a reluctance to dictate how a citizen may spend their money then surely the playing fields of Eton should actually be level and the historical benefices finally repealed.

However, the authors do not discuss the growth of the new super private educators like GEMS Education – now one of the biggest KS1 and 2 educational providers in the world.

It would be ironic if it was commercial competition that finally killed off the printers of the golden tickets but that may well prove to be the case.

Those of us who see our place on the barricades in the fight against the corrosion of educational apartheid should proudly wave their copy of Engines of Privilege.

This book is essential reading for all who care for and seek a fairer and more equal society.

Stephen Pound is a former Labour Party politician who was the MP for Ealing North from 1997 to 2019.



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