As a child, the long walk to school took me and my friends past the high, red sandstone walls of an all-boys preparatory school, whose pupils were destined for the major English public schools, such as Eton, Rugby and Harrow.

We rarely saw the boys, other than on Sundays, when they would file into church, kilts and sporrans swinging, before being marched back down the school drive for Sunday lunch and whatever sporting activities filled their weekends.

Occasionally their idea of sport extended to hanging over the school walls, spitting down on us locals and yelling “oiks!”. It was a classic example of the “them and us” ethos which typified private education. We oiks would run off laughing, aware, even at that age, that our lives were infinitely preferable to their spartan and timetabled existence.

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We had no idea, of course, what life could be like in what were euphemistically called “good” schools. As recent allegations made by a former pupil at Loretto School in Musselburgh reveal, however, we could not have begun to imagine just how awful things in some institutions could be.

Angus Bell, who was at Loretto in the 1990s, is suing the school for £1 million in a civil action, for the savage and depraved bullying he suffered at the hands of older pupils. In an interview with The Herald on Sunday he described the physical, sexual and psychological torment he endured: “It’s like you’re being murdered every single day… It was like living through The Lord of the Flies.” Some of his tormentors, he said, are now in high-flying careers; others have been accused of crimes as adults.

What he described was appalling, and to say that he still bears the scars barely does justice to the trauma he continues to suffer. Nor, he made clear, was he the only one. Some years earlier, a teacher who became aware of what older pupils were doing reported their behaviour, but no action was taken. He felt he had no option but to leave, after being obliged to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Loretto has already acknowledged that a teacher in the 1950s and 60s was guilty of abusing pupils, but it is hardly alone in having harboured such vile individuals. Historic revelations about teachers abusing children at Edinburgh Academy have made headlines in recent months, as also at institutions such as Fort Augustus Abbey School. The website of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry gives a chilling idea of how many cases have been reported, from across the country.

The Herald: The contacts that students will make at schools like Eton, are considered well worth the financial drainThe contacts that students will make at schools like Eton, are considered well worth the financial drain (Image: Getty)

In Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s excoriating satire of public schools, it was taken as given that teachers were, at best, peculiar, and often far worse than that. In his interview with the Headmaster, aptly named Dr Fagan, young Paul Pennyfeather admits he was sent down from university for indecent behaviour: “Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.”

Anyone who has read Tom Brown’s Schooldays or the Flashman novels will have encountered the iniquitous fagging system, in which younger boys are routinely humiliated and physically assaulted by their seniors. It is nevertheless staggering that an antiquated and barbaric system existed in Loretto in our own times.

Yet in private schools, who knows what is going on if nobody dares to go public? Behind high walls or closed doors, boarders are effectively imprisoned. To ask why victims don’t tell their parents or go to the police or run away is fundamentally to misunderstand the psychological trap in which they find themselves. The stiff-upper-lip culture of public schools, and the credo of never betraying others, are among its most corrosive legacies.

This is not to say that all public schools are miserable places, or that such institutions are inevitably hot-beds of paedophiles or sadists. What is indisputable, however, is that the nature of enclosed communities allows such behaviour to exist and, in the worst cases, to flourish. Corralling children 24 hours a day can quickly create an environment that becomes a breeding ground - and indeed a parade ground - for bullies.

The malign influence of unhappy schooldays reaches to the very pinnacle of society. Even the King has spoken of his misery at his treatment by fellow pupils at Gordonstoun. This being so, you have to question the undue deference we give such places. Why are they accorded such exaggerated respect that some parents will almost bankrupt themselves to send their children there?

The answer is obvious: these are the schools from which the ruling class and many of our political leaders are drawn. The contacts that students will make, say, at Eton, are considered well worth the financial drain. Despite the downsides of packing children off for weeks at a time, parents hope this network will ease their way through their future careers, perhaps even catapulting them to the top.

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As seen in recent cliques at Westminster, and so often in the past, the “them and us” principle is alive and well in the country’s public schools. As a result, it is also embodied in their alumni’s professional lives. Even more worrying, though, is the thought that any pathological behaviour pupils either endured or inflicted on others will be perpetuated in their adult lives.

How will the desperate cruelty some youngsters inflicted on their peers play out in their careers? Sadly, if this happens to be the world of politics, they’ll probably feel right at home, Westminster being designed by and for those educated in unhealthy and potentially dangerous isolation.

Why public schools are given charitable status remains baffling. That bastions of privilege are allowed a further financial boost exemplifies the inequities of our society. Removing charitable status would not solve problems of child abuse, but it would at least signal the end of an age of deference. I confess I rarely gave a thought to whether the boys at our nearby prep school were happy.

All these years later, I find myself hoping that this was one of the good schools. Not “good” as in expensive and elitist, but vigilant, supportive, understanding and kind. Surely that’s the only definition of good that should ever be applied to a school.