Posh Boys: How The English Public Schools Run Britain

By Robert Verkaik

(OneWorld, £12.99)

Review by Susan Flockhart

IN the prologue to Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik predicts that “millions of people will go to their graves never knowing there are charities called Eton, Harrow and Charterhouse whose sole purpose is to improve the lives of rich and privileged children”.

Until recently, I was among the unenlightened masses: vaguely aware that educational unfairness exists in the UK and bemused by those establishments' claim to serve the many while plainly feathering the nests of the few.

Having read Verkaik's excoriating critique of the public school system, I now realise a state-sanctioned embezzlement racket is operating under our noses, with the express purpose of safeguarding the upper classes' stranglehold of wealth and power through a system of secret codes and old school loyalties designed to keep the riff-raff in the dark.

Who knew, for instance, that “did you go to school?” was not a literal question but a kind of verbal funny handshake aimed at identifying fellow old Etonians? Only Boris Johnson, David Cameron and other alumni of that £37,730-a-year institution, who, according to Verkaik, use their old school ties to ease each others' ascent of the greasy pole. David Cameron's classmates included Prince Edward and his old school connections helped pave his route to Downing Street where he “wasted no time gathering around him a clique of old school friends” including Oliver Letwin and Boris Johnson's brother Jo. Even Cameron's ally, Michael Gove, considered the number of Eton-educated Tory advisors to be “preposterous”.

The “natural chemistry” Verkaik says exists between all public schoolboys also brought Nick Clegg (Westminster) and George Osborne (St Paul's) into the “chumocracy” as deputy PM and chancellor. And when Cameron's prime ministership ended in post-EU referendum tears, he packed his resignation honours list “so full of cronies it would embarrass a medieval court”, in the words of then LibDem leader Tim Farron.

“By charting [Cameron's] rise to power,” writes Verkaik, “it is possible to show how easy it is for a tight coterie of people to play the system.”

It's all a far cry from the idealistic origins of those anachronistically titled “public” schools. Winchester College, established in 1382 as a feeder for New College, Oxford, set out to educate 70 “poor scholars”. Eton began in 1440 along similar lines, followed by St Paul's, Westminster and Harrow – all with statutes expressly barring entry to the wealthy.

Such was the lure of guaranteed Oxford places, however, that the landowning aristocracy forced Winchester to change its charters and fee-payers soon outnumbered free students at this and other public schools. Noblesse quickly obliged itself: paying students got the best accommodation, poor students were often bullied and at Eton, dining tables were strictly segregated along class lines.

When complaints were made about the surfeit of wealthy students at a school intended for the poor, Winchester's governors insisted their students were indeed impoverished - it was only their parents who were rich.

This brass-necked resistance to criticism continues today with institutions that are effectively luxury service providers desperately defending their charitable status with reference to partial fee support for students whose parents earn up to £120,000, and “public benefits” such as the existence of rights of way across their land or the fact a few of their pupils attend village fetes.

Parents who buy into these institutions get exactly what they pay for - “a carefully constructed process which turns boys and girls into leaders of armies, political parties, multinational corporations and cricket teams”.

Verkaik doesn't pretend everything was rosy for small children packed off to institutions that, as we now know, often harboured appalling levels of bullying and abuse. But as Evelyn Waugh once wrote: “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.”

The unshakeable confidence instilled by these schools fuelled British imperialism and, in the words of historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, produced administrators who “ruled their districts like lordly prefects inventing traditions to keep the fags on their toes”.

Today, the 7% of the UK population who were privately educated make up 75% of judges, 62% of senior armed forces personnel, almost half of business leaders and 36% of cabinet ministers. And although attempts at reform have continued for centuries, investigating commissions have too often been populated by public school alumni. Even the great post-war welfare state-builders, William Beveridge (Charterhouse) and Clement Attlee (Haileybury) left well alone and as educational campaigner Fiona Millar once observed, “the history of educational reform on the left has been hindered by people who fear allegations of hypocrisy … and therefore do nothing”. Diane Abbott, Shami Chakabarti and Anas Sarwar are among Labour politicians who privately educated their children, and Verkaik takes serious aim at Jeremy Corbyn's claims to represent “the many not the few” by highlighting the party leader's affluent background and prep school education, as well as the public school roots of Momentum founder Jon Lansman (Highgate), political advisor James Schneider and communications director Seumas Milne (both Winchester).

No-one can be blamed for their parents' choices, however, and Verkaik's demolition of the Corbynistas' populist credentials is marred by an apparent determination to present them as hard-left extremists that seems as irrelevant as it's poorly evidenced. Did Milne's standing as a Maoist candidate in a mock school election really constitute “early links to communism”?

I wasn't entirely convinced by the depiction of the Brexit project as a kind of ill-fated boys-own adventure and I'd like to have read more about girls' education including some exploration of why, as Verkaik mentions, female public school alumni tend to earn less than their male counterparts.

Yet while Posh Boys could never claim to provide an objective history of the public school system, even if it does offer a right of reply to apologists such as the Independent Schools Council, it's undoubtedly an illuminating and hugely enjoyable read, packed full of eye-opening facts.

Everyone wants the best for their child and it's perhaps unfair to blame parents for choosing the best possible education for theirs, but as Posh Boys makes clear, they are doing so – however unwittingly - at the expense of children whose parents could never afford to buy the same advantages for their offspring, no matter how many sacrifices they made.

It's time for radical change. After all, what is the state for if not to regulate humankind's nasty, brutish and short-sighted tendency to feather its own nest? “A good citizen should want for all children what they want for their own child,” says Cambridge University professor of education Diane Reay.

And as Verkaik points out, fiddling about by coaxing these institutions to offer a few more bursaries will only encourage yet more creative accountancy by middle-class parents who already think nothing of borrowing a tatty old car to drive to placement interviews. Instead, he calls for “slow and peaceful euthanasia” through measures such as limiting private school admissions to leading universities, tackling the internship system that facilitates old-school nepotism and restricting the number of top jobs in certain fields that can be allocated to the privately educated.

Protests about chippy jealousy and the politics of envy will be resounding even now. But at a time when the gap between rich and poor is widening, we need to talk seriously about the role of public schools in our society. Posh Boys is a welcome catalyst for that debate.