As a public-school boy who went to Oxbridge, the privilege of my background has enabled me to find work both at the BBC and ITN, and beyond. I have tried, though, to use that privilege to interrogate human rights abuses around the world, and in part wanted to extend that to interrogating public school abuses here in the UK.
The problem I found as a journalist, though, is that my attempts to do stories or documentaries on childhood abuse in boarding schools have been frustrated. More recently, I failed to get a story commissioned on the fact that Eton has, at the moment, produced both a current and a relatively recent prime minister, the head of the Army, the head of the Church of England, a current and recent Law Lord, the Leader of the House of Commons, the editor of the Daily Mail, and our future King. Despite all these pillars of the State represented by old-boys from just one school, not one broadcast or print commissioning editor felt this was a story worth telling.
This is, I think, for two reasons. First, the media sees boarding school as a niche issue – only pertaining to an elite few, so of little interest to the many. Second, there’s the “Hugh Grant” effect. They see in the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, or more liberal politicians like Rory Stewart, evidence that public schools produce people who can be admired. So, their schooling is not viewed in an entirely hostile way – they might be ridiculed, but the institutions are not rejected. Indeed, the elites these schools produce are often seen as somehow avuncular, almost beneficial. At worse, they are even glamourized – the ‘Downtown Abbey’ framing of elites in such a gilded light is almost unique to this country.
The media is unwilling to critique the presence and impact of boarding schools, particularly because the media is, itself, so filled with the privately-educated. They rarely examine the structural inequities embodied by private schools. I believe the media should seek to investigate such institutional failures, but whenever this issue is raised, the debate all too often descends into identity politics. The left-leaning press, for instance, might end up caricaturing a public-school boy. But is this entirely fair? Boarders had no choice about their education – no one chooses at age of eight to go to boarding school. As such, the epithet ‘public school wanker’ doesn’t do anything but cause people to close ranks, and because the elites use such schools to educate their children, then personal attacks will only stiffen their resolve, not cause a debate about reform and iniquity.
What we must do instead, I believe, is to examine the fundamental inequities inherent in the system itself. Does the boarding school sector, bolstered by charitable status, include enough people from underprivileged backgrounds? Why, for instance, do 49 per cent of Sandhurst entrants come from private schools? Why has the mental trauma of boarding school on so many boys and girls never really been viewed as a national scandal? And so on, and so on.
One of the problems, however, with this call for action is that the media will not unpick institutional scandals without the evidence of hard data. And cause and effect are hard to prove. The widespread reverberations of private schooling and the inequities inherent in this system – you can’t easily find data that quantifies this issue. An absence of such data means that even the most diligent journalists will be hesitant to investigate further. The coverage of the issues of boarding-school abuse, of mental health issues of boarders, of why so many boarders are driven to be public figures – all of this becomes the stuff of anecdote, rooted in individual cases and infused with national identity politics. Deeper economic, social and political consequences of this uneven educational system are not examined.
There clearly needs to be a nuanced debate about private education in this country, one that is rooted in rigorous evidence and, as far as possible, absent from the politics, and hatred, of class and identity. This would be the ideal. But then you come up against another problem. If you try properly to interrogate the issue of private schools, it’s difficult. For state schools you can do a Freedom of Information request, for instance. Whereas with private schools, they’re operating as either charities or as companies, so they’re not immediately open to such requests. So, you can’t even have the primary data of what private schools do, who is funding them, and so on. And with this limitation, it’s even harder to scrutinize the longer-term data of these schools’ effects. We badly need a change in transparency laws around private schools.
Without such scrutiny, the hidden influence of elites in British society stays hidden. Inherent to any analysis of power is the analysis of its elites. Having gone to a boarding school from the age of eight, I was exposed to this hidden world of huge wealth from an early age, and I saw the way this wealth and power both framed and defended itself. Such insight explains why, over time, as an investigative journalist I’ve been interested in how British society is so divided, so fragmented, and one always be at odds with itself. And only through transparency can this divisiveness be addressed.
Another problem that I am acutely aware of is this: what happens to people sent away at a very young age to boarding schools. In my view, some products of this system feel compelled to do whatever it takes to succeed in public life, in order to justifying two major things.
First, they’re justifying the expense their parents paid out for their education. It can be £300,000 or more. they have to show this was worth it. This leads some ex-boarders to do any job they can get that earns them enough money – in part so they can afford to send their own children to school – even of that job is unethical or brings them personal misery.
Second, there is the issue of trauma. These are ex-boarders who have to show, in the successes of their professional life, how the trauma of separation at eight years old was, somehow, justified. If you succeed in public life, it means the trauma of being separated from your mother and father was, somehow, “worth it”. Products of boarding school therefor become, all too often, infused with a self-belief that, in order to justify the pain and separation of their childhood, they must put themselves forward and lead Britain to some form of ‘greatness’. This is not surprising – boarding schools were, essentially, rooted in a notion of British Empire, exceptionalism and genetic superiority.
So great is this second issue, that I believe we seriously need to consider whether preparatory boarding schools could be seen as even some kind of child abuse. The child does not see the educational benefits of being sent away, instead they just feel a profound sense of rejection. Of course, some people will say things have progressed. But one cannot move away from the fundamental reality, that if you are sent away aged eight, you are still very, very young and it has a lifelong emotional impact.
This problem with this, though, is that the institution that raised you is a hard one to reject. Most people educated at boarding schools may criticize their schooling in private, but will not seek to dismantle the very process that raised them. After all, they have been indoctrinated into a certain system and are blind to the worrying iniquities inherent within it. To reject it would be, in a sense, to reject part of themselves.
This makes the reform of private schools inherently difficult. Because, if the boarding, public or private school system is so woven into the fabric of Britain’s governing institutions, those who wield power will be almost unknowingly resistant to true reform.
Nonetheless, if I could recommend some areas for reform, I’d suggest the following:
An extension of the Freedom of Information Act to cover all schools, regardless if they are state or private.
A proper academic analysis, funded by government, of the direct and indirect long-term impacts of private schools, on a societal and economic level, on this country.
Greater engagement by the media on this issue, but one that does not descend into class or identity politics, and instead raises questions about fundamental inequities.
More debate as to whether sending children away at a young age might constitute neglect or abuse.
A publicly accessible sex offenders register for all schools.
Only by approaching this controversial and divisive issue with moderation, rooted in evidence, will reform succeed. Blind calls for a dismantling of the entire system will lead to blind anger in return.
The path to progress is through transparency, data and debate. Without it, reform is doomed to failure.
Iain Overton is an investigative journalist and was executive producer of both Dispatches and Panorama, and was also the founding editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. He has won Amnesty awards and a BAFTA for his work. He has written two books, Gun Baby Gun and The Price of Paradise, and now runs an armed violence research charity in London. He went to the junior and senior school at Kings School Canterbury, 1981- 1991.