2007 - 2021

Eton Mess

The hysteria about Labour’s notion to ‘abolish private schools’ is a foretaste of what would happen if anyone in this country actually challenged entrenched power and privilege.

If anyone was to actually abolish or reform the House of Lords, the monarchy, the industrial-scale tax evasion or the many pillars of the established order, they too would feel the same wrath of hysteria come down upon them.

For those defending private schooling they must also defend the reality of 64% of Boris Johnson’s cabinet being privately educated and 45% coming from Oxbridge.

They must think that the fact that – out of the 52 Prime Ministers, 19 have been from one school, Eton – is okay, or somehow a refection of some meritocracy at work.

Cringe, much?

What we are seeing is the debate about education and power in private schools bringing to the surface latent geneticism in elites:


In 1959 thirteen ministers were all from Eton. In 2011 the number was eleven:

David Cameron
Lord Howell (Foreign Office minister)
Henry Bellingham (Foreign Office minister)
Lord Astor of Hever (Defence minister)
Hugo Swire (Northern Ireland minister)
Sir George Young (Leader of the Commons)
Oliver Letwin (Cabinet Office minister)
Nick Hurd (Cabinet Office minister)
Philip Dunne (whip)
Bill Wiggin (whip)
Lord DeMauley (whip)
Lord Sassoon (Treasury minister)

A research by the Sutton Trust and the social mobility commission found that more than half of Britain’s senior judges, top civil servants and Foreign Office diplomats were privately educated, as well as substantial numbers in the media, arts and sports.

We know all this, but you can’t rage against ‘Westmonster’ and declare the Labour Party ‘Red Tories’ then reject every time they come up with genuine change.

We can and should make a distinction between Scottish Labour’s woeful leadership – and the positive arguments for change that come out of radical and progressive forces within Labour (and elsewhere across the UK and Europe).

A National Education Service should be seen in the same way as we view the National Health Service, and private education should be seen in the same way as we see private health care, something that undermines the public good, distorts the ‘market’ and offers the wealthy the opportunity to ring-fence their privilege.

The hysteria about Labour’s idea to ‘abolish private schools’ is a mirror to the hysteria that met the case for Scottish independence. Breaking up these elite networks would be a key to smashing the Union and the political powerbase that sustains it.

Comments (15)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    “you can’t rage against ‘Westmonster’ and declare the Labour Party ‘Red Tories’ then reject every time they come up with genuine change.” _ you make a valid point here Mr Small and in the subsequent paragraphs.

    Not only will Labour face opposition from the media, but, it will also face opposition from within its own ranks, who are products of the system and/or send their children to such schools. The same applies to SNP and LibDems, particularly the latter, since it is currently pitching for the ‘one-nation Tory voters.

    As you say, there can be an NES Scotland in the same way that there is NHS Scotland. This would become the Scottish Education Service following independence, replacing the current Scottish Education Department and associated bodies like Education Scotland and the Inspectorate, which, like most arms of government still has a significant number of private school alumni, despite substantial recruitment from other socio-economic origins and local schools.

  2. Michael says:

    There are big dangers with state monopoly, as there are with elitism.

    We should be promoting both equality and diversity. Neither outcome seems well served by state uniformity and bureaucracy, or by elitism and cronyism.

    Why not, for example, give each family its share of the education budget to spend on education as it sees fit?

    Maybe we would end up with very different kinds of education, health, policing (etc) systems if we truster people to know what their own particular needs and preferences are, and put them in control of shaping their local services!

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      You are really arguing for do not change things.

      The idea was first proposed by some the ‘radicals’ and ‘deschoolers’ in the US in the late 60s/early 70s. It was adopted by, amongst others. Keith Joseph, as part of his deregulation campaign, which led to things like ‘opting out’, ‘the parents’ charter’, and Ofsted which has gradually led to the hotch potch of education that there is in England today, with public education being in the hands of private companies, who are, in effect, saying to the ‘proles’ you can have any education you like as long as it is the one we provide.

      So, the same old idiocy comes around.

      You are also retreading the straw man stereotype of local authority comprehensive schools and the ‘one-size fits all, lie, by which ‘new’ Labour betrayed education. In Scotland, Wales and parts of Northern Ireland, we still have a public education system despite the lies BBC Scotland peddles.

  3. Carole Scott says:

    The system is broken. None of us have any influence with this Government Scotland has been generally ignored by the current system. All we are good for is oil, which has been appropriated by those in power. Our Scottish fishermen are having to put up with other nations fishing in our waters. What is ours has been whittled away by Westminster policies. Our determination to remain in the EU has been overridden by the massive leave vote coming from England. David Cameron was instrumental in leaving us in this mess. I have many friends who were wanting to remain in th EU – my best friend had bought an apartment in the south of France, but has been forced to sell it, losing a lot of money in the exchange.

  4. Graeme Purves says:


  5. Wul says:

    If we abolish private schools, would we also be doing away with the many charitable schools which care for pupils with disabilities, autism and special educational needs?

    As much as I hate the idea that so many leaders are drawn from such a small pool, I don’t like the idea that there be only one, state-controlled, way to educate a child.

    Schools like Eton are a symptom as much as a breeding ground of privilege & inequality. Wouldn’t the posh just find other ways to “stream” their elite offspring? ( private tuition, sports & country clubs, holiday camps etc)

    Could we simply create laws which effectively say; “Sorry, but you’re too rich, and therefore too unrepresentative, to hold public office”

  6. Wul says:

    Charlotte Gill’s “genetics” argument contains both truth, lies and much sleight of hand.

    I would agree that educational performance has some (rather than a “high”) genetic component. However, to say that this then means “it can only be socially engineered so much.” is an outright, barefaced lie.

    The WHOLE POINT in private schooling is to ensure that educationally mediocre people rise to levels way above that of a state-educated pupil with the same ability and intelligence. These schools are massive social engineering factories. Many parents who send their kids there will happily admit to this; “Giving him the best start in life”.

    Private schools buy privilege. If Tarquil was so feckin clever & superior, he wouldn’t need an extra £100k+ spent on his education to make sure he succeeds in life.

    And that’s ignoring the whole argument about boarding schools ripping kids away from maternal attachment and turning out an army of near sociopathic, tortured man-babies to lead our country.

  7. BSA says:

    As far as I know no other European democracy is saddled with the products of such a powerful and pervasive private system. It’s not just about its products either. No other democracy has such a system as a major reference point in debating the ethos, methods and financing of its state system. How do the Finns, with one the world’s best educations systems, manage without Eton to show them how ? Do they worry about a ‘state monopoly’ on education ?

  8. SleepingDog says:

    The attempts of the British elite to establish a caste system inspired by India’s go back centuries. To Nepotism must be added Double Standards as one of the Great British Values. It appears that the private school system is little more than a scam to entrench pan-generational privilege, fostering cheating and creating cheats. The confidence (or ‘polish’) of its empathy-extracted alumni is a mask for incompetence and worse. When pumped into the diplomatic interface with other nations, they discredit us all, yet are presumably the last to appreciate this. There is an ideology taught at such institutions which sees the British Empire as the inheritor of the Greek and Roman civilizations (the only ones that ‘matter’) and the mother of the Great Men (rarely Women) whose native (i.e. racial) ‘genius’ has built the modern world, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

    I have little to add to the significant criticism already in the comments. It will be interesting to see what changes in society happen following this declaration.

  9. Bumble Bee Sllim says:

    abolish private schools – good luck with that one…………..

  10. Richard Easson says:

    I still cannot understand how the likes of Eton ,Harrow ,Rugby et al can be classified as charities with all the possible tax breaks, no VAT and so on. If this was withdrawn it would be a start and I might think about giving to real charitable causes, which I do not . Presumably if I was a n FP of any of these schools I would also save tax by giving to my old school as a charitable donation and so on ad ifinitum. If they must exist let them do it without these “subsidies”.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      Rates/Council Tax exemption for private schools is manifestly wrong, when public sector schools have to make such payments. I was head Teacher of a large comprehensive. If it had been rates exempt, the school could have employed three more teachers or 6 classroom assistants, for example.

      1. florian albert says:

        I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about withdrawing charitable status from private schools.

        Your statement about employing 3 teachers or 6 class room assistants is interesting. It values teachers at twice the rate of classroom assistants.
        When the Scottish government relaxed its austerity programme recently, the group singled out for ‘special’ and generous treatment were teachers. Yet, in the decade of austerity previously, those who suffered most were – as ever – those at the bottom in our society; certainly, not teachers.

  11. Herbert Eppel says:

    The blog post title reminded me of this: http://herbeppel.blogspot.com/2016/02/eaton-mess.html

  12. Michael says:

    The class divide you see in the UK is not created by Eaton but reflected in Eaton. Abolishing all private schools will do nothing to change the class structures of the UK. Fixing the mess the state schools are in would go a long way. The use of Eaton as a stand in for all private schools is also wildly inaccurate. There are many excellent schools that have academic merit as the main criteria for entrance and the bill is near to 9000 =, which is only 2,400 more than state school get per pupil in the North to educate a child from the state. Surely the fight should be to increase state funding for schools and fix that problem rather than destroy what does often work.

    The Finnish model is often mentioned in these discussions due to the lack of private schools there. But they also spend much more per student and pay and train teachers to be excellent. There are also social and cultural differences where teachers are respected professions on par with medical doctors. Here in the UK they are mistreated as glorified baby-sitters and over-worked beyond scale. A profession I was glad to exit as class sizes grew, resources were stretched and the focus was exams rather than learning.

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