Dr Sonia Exley
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It is detailed in its history, comprehensive in the aspects of British public schooling it covers and at the same time an engaging and powerful polemic.
It’s not as if I didn’t know the broad extent, in numerical terms, of quite how far the privately educated in Britain today run the show – in politics, government, business, the judiciary, the military, the media, the arts.
Still, facts and figures are also really effectively hammered home when one reads what can be considered in the first half of this book as almost a potted history of key moments in British political life with just so many familiar names followed in brackets by the names of the public schools they attended – Gladstone (Eton), Haig (Clifton), Chamberlain (Rugby), Churchill (Harrow), Attlee (Haileybury), Beveridge (Charterhouse), Orwell (Wellington and Eton), Tawney (Rugby), Crosland (Highgate), Benn (Westminster), Foot (Leighton Park), Murdoch (Geelong Grammar), Blair (Fettes), Farage (Dulwich), Cameron (Eton), Osborne (St Paul’s), Cummings (Durham), Johnson (Eton) – the list just goes on and on.
Verkaik does a very good job of illustrating damage done by a historic English public school ethos of muscular Christianity, which he argues fuelled brutal assertions of hierarchy and entitlement worldwide during the height of the British Empire and during both World Wars.
He unpacks well, too, the psychological trauma suffered by many boarding school attendees – trauma that he and others have argued stunts emotional development and in turn produces leaders at the helm of major institutions which seem to treat their roles as some kind of game (for cases in point see e.g. the tale of the Suez crisis, told in Chapter 8, and the tale of Brexit, told in Chapter 11).
The author additionally exposes in Chapter 15 some quite astonishing levels of tax relief and government subsidy that public schools in Britain today receive due to their status as charities.
What struck me here was the sheer number of different types of help that the schools receive: discounted business rates; exemption from corporation tax; VAT exemptions for parents paying fees; tax relief on most forms of investment income; gift aid on charitable donations – not to mention recruiting state-trained teachers whose pensions are also state-subsidised.
Verkaik notes that in 1995 Eton College was even awarded £4.6 million from the National Lottery fund to help it build a new sports complex (p.238).
Given the book’s overarching argument, it does at times seem quick to write off potential for a Labour Government to do something about public schools.
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is critiqued for having been privately educated himself and for having had senior allies who also received private education. One central premise of the book, however, is also that such education is damaging in large part because of what its attendees go on to do.
Labour under Corbyn has been described as being ‘mute’ on the issue of public schools (p.329) and at the time of Verkaik’s writing this was perhaps not entirely unfair.
The author does however also describe Theresa May’s arguably very mild efforts in 2016 to make independent schools sponsor state institutions as ‘opening up the path for true reform’ (p323), while dismissing Labour’s 2017 manifesto promise to end the VAT exemption for private school fees as being ‘just half a sentence’ (p121).
Labour would also later (albeit after the book was published) commit to advancing a gradual integration of public schools into its proposed National Education Service – surely this was in line with the ‘slow and peaceful euthanasia’ (p.340) for public schools that the author wants to see.
That said, another recurrent theme in the book is the way that political leaders on both right and left have for many decades now been threatening to reform public schools but then never actually doing this.
Verkaik argues that this is largely because too many in power are either themselves, or heavily involved with others who are, invested in those schools.
Given this, we might ask whether former PM May would ever really have followed through on her threat to strip some public schools of their charitable status (where schools failed to demonstrate sufficient public benefit) had she achieved a majority in the 2017 General Election.
Even the 2019 Labour manifesto promised only to ask a newly created Social Justice Commission ‘to advise’ on the issue of integrating private schools into the state sector.
Verkaik overall does seem optimistic that change is in the air, and it is certainly worthy of note that recent reforms in Scotland have meant public schools there must now pay full business rates.
Only time will tell whether England will follow suit.
Sonia Exley is an assistant professor in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on the marketisation of education systems across the world and the implications such developments may have for disadvantaged groups. She is lead editor on the Journal of Education Policy and has published in a range of social policy and education journals.