The concept of social justice and Britain’s most exclusive schools may not seem like obvious bedfellows. For decades, these institutions have been seen as bastions of unearned and undeserved advantage. For many, they remain potent symbols of exclusion in what Orwell called “the most class-ridden country under the Sun”.
Yet the majority of top public schools have a long and proud history in offering a ladder up to pupils from ordinary backgrounds. In recent years, plenty have lent their time, resources and expertise to found free schools, and many more share their facilities with neighbouring communities. To recover their original charitable heritage schools have laudably increased their outreach and access programmes for at least the last 10 years.
Both reputationally and on the ground, private schools have undergone something of a renaissance. The 2014 CBBC documentary My Life: The Most Famous School in the World tracked the careers of three winners of new scholarships to the school where I used to teach, Eton – all from humble backgrounds. Likewise, Harrow: A Very British School followed the paths of boys fortunate enough to win funded places. Leading British private schools also set a gold standard for academic rigour across the world.
This makes it all the more alarming to see the leadership of public schools turning against the institutions of which they are custodians, rubbishing not only their traditions but the very culture which gave them life. Most recently, the survival of single-sex education has been called into question. This week, Alastair Chirnside, warden of St Edward’s School, a renowned co-educational establishment in Oxford, said that single-sex schools have been forced to “take a harder look at their ethos” as a result of the societal focus on boosting diversity. He speculated that Eton and Harrow may have to admit girls in time.
No parent is ever forced to send their child to a single sex school. But for many, the ethos is a big draw: academic advantages aside, it cannot be denied that a single-sex school offers a unique educational atmosphere, culture and experience – one where, as a great headmaster once said, girls can really be girls and boys can really be boys.
To dismiss the camaraderie and fellowship this can foster as invented would be unfair; to say it’s destructive or sexist would be fundamentally to misunderstand it. Sadly, we can hardly trust that Eton and Harrow will resist this, even if they say they have no plans to admit girls at the moment. In recent years, school managers – and the equality, diversity and inclusion commissars they appoint – have been ditching tradition, left, right and centre.
In many cases, they have gone further, embracing the most contentious and divisive doctrines of the extreme social Left. At Eton, boys have been subjected to lectures on “toxic masculinity”, and in some schools Critical Race Theory is taught as fact. Wannabe head teachers recite these woke platitudes in the hope of advancing their careers; ordinary teachers keep quiet for fear of losing their jobs.
Independent schools have a role to play in opening up opportunity for the disadvantaged. Their adoption of woke dogma in place of the traditions which made them great is a dangerous experiment they may come to regret.