In 1998 Harrow school opened a satellite campus in Bangkok. Founded in 1572 by Royal Charter from Elizabeth I, Harrow is one of Britain’s ancient “public” schools, fee-paying institutions independent of the state that educate some of the wealthiest and most privileged members of society. Following Harrow’s example, other public schools quickly expanded into the new global market for private education. Sherborne now has a sister school in Qatar, Repton in Dubai, Haileybury in Almaty, and Wellington in Tianjin. This new global profile mirrors that of many private universities in the US, which have recently opened outposts in the Gulf, the Far East, and other emerging markets. The websites that promote overseas public schools project a heady mixture of British tradition and globalized modernity. Alongside the signifiers of the Victorian boarding school—school crests, straw hats, and team sports—they speak the language of postmodern business management. In addition to gold standard qualifications such as A Levels and the International Baccalaureate, they claim to imbue their pupils with the qualities of “leadership,” “creativity,” “resilience,” and “collaboration.” In place of the Victorian ideal of the “well-rounded man,” fluent in the classics but also a hearty competitor on the cricket pitch, the new public school ideal is more like Harry Potter with an MBA.
But what exactly do wealthy families from the world’s emerging economies want with a British public school education? Not, it would seem, the kind of liberal humanism that modern schoolmasters make such a fuss about (the sub-text: we may be over-privileged, but at least we’re open-minded).
In his new history of the public school system, The Old Boys, David Turner quotes numerous school leaders who worry about the instrumental bent of their foreign students’ interests, and their lack of appetite for the arts and critical thinking. Instead, it is what one headmaster calls “historical reputation” that appeals to overseas parents. This is one of the ways the new global elite anoints itself: by purchasing the trappings of the old forms of cultural capital that fuelled British geopolitical might in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Old Boys traces the growth of the public school system from its monastic medieval origins to its current status as a lavishly appointed training ground for the new global elite. Turner clarifies some of the more puzzling features of this history. Why, for instance, are these exclusive institutions called “public schools”? The answer lies in the legal niceties of their original charters, which were set up as charitable trusts to provide scholarships for boys whose families could not afford private tutors, the preferred means of education for wealthy families well into the eighteenth century. And how is it that these socially divisive institutions have remained largely free from state regulation? The answer in this case lies both in the patchwork nature of Britain’s education system, which proved notoriously difficult to weave into a rational whole when the welfare state was created after the Second World War, and in the fact that the great majority of both Conservative and Labour cabinet ministers at the time were themselves educated at public schools. The political anaesthetic of schoolboy nostalgia has been a prominent feature not only of romantic novels such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays, but also of government education policy.
Alongside the signifiers of the Victorian boarding school—school crests, straw hats, and team sports—they speak the language of postmodern business management.
While Turner identifies some of the paradoxes of Britain’s elite private schools, he falls a long way short of explaining their persistent allure. The closest he comes is when he observes that parents pay exorbitant fees not only for lavish facilities and excellent exam results, but also for “something else,” a “special magic” that exceeds mere pedagogy. Over the years this obscure property has gone by many different names, from the Renaissance Italian “sprezzatura” to the Victorian “gentlemanly reserve” to the “effortless sense of superiority” that today’s public school graduates are often said to possess. Call it what you will, the shifting terminology points to an abiding feature of public school education. More than just a vehicle for imparting knowledge, the public school is an engine of identity. It confers upon its graduates not only the capacity to pass exams and gain access to elite universities, but the almost magical confidence in one’s own worth and abilities that is the very essence of class privilege. With their glossy websites and old school aesthetics, it is precisely this impalpable sense of self-possession that overseas schools attempt to convey to their prospective customers.
The ease with which the public schools have adapted themselves to the globalized economy is both an example of their famed resilience and a source of potential hazard. As Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government shrunk the state education budget in the 1980s, public schools enjoyed an up-tick in enrollments along with large fee increases. This money was ploughed into a massive building program, which saw schools competing to provide ever more opulent facilities and smaller class sizes. Over the course of the 1980s, school fees rose by 76 percent. Today, a year’s boarding at a top-tier school costs around £30,000, well above the national average annual income. Many parents have funded these exorbitant costs on the back of rising property prices, cheap credit, investment portfolios, and bonuses. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, there is talk of an unsustainable “bubble” in the private education sector. While the system grows in Britain’s south east, it shrinks in the north, which is cut off from the globalized turbo-economy of Greater London.
More than simply a vehicle for imparting knowledge, the public school is an engine of identity.
In many ways, the story of the post-1980s public schools echoes that of another invented tradition of the Victorian age: association football. In recent years, English soccer has been transformed from a decaying working-class culture into a globally branded luxury product, awash with foreign money and international super-stars. A residual feature of Britain’s deeply entrenched class system – one whose rules were codified in the Victorian public schools, no less – has been transformed through the alchemy of neoliberal capitalism into a high-gloss consumer spectacle for the global marketplace. With their luxury facilities and overseas franchises, the public schools have done something similar for an iconic signifier of upper-class culture. Today, Harrow and Wellington sit alongside Arsenal and Manchester United as part of “Brand Britain,” a portfolio of luxury products that help to export British cultural and economic influence overseas.
In spite of the changes in their financial and demographic profiles, the public schools continue to frame their mission in terms of leadership and governance. Just as the Victorian schools staffed the Imperial civil service, today’s institutions aim to cultivate a new global leadership class. In the final chapters of Turner’s book we get a brief suggestion of how this new elite might think. It is here that Turner segues from a historical description to a moral defence of the system, which he seeks to justify on the grounds that it makes a net contribution to GDP. He readily concedes that private education does little to encourage social mobility, acknowledges the modest amount of scholarship support on offer, and finds it “healthy” that 40 percent of all Oxbridge places and 50 percent of all positions in elite professions should go to public school graduates (7 percent of British schoolchildren attend a public school). This is all just fine, claims Turner, so long as the schools play their part in macro-economic growth, regardless of how that wealth is distributed and how access to elite institutions is managed. This is the true measure of the distance traveled by the public schools since their Victorian heyday. Where earlier apologists argued from individual liberty and civic virtue, today it is the logic of the marketplace that serves as the final arbiter of social justice.