No teacher speaks in this book. There is not – and there are screeds from the Daily Mail – even a line from the teachers’ paper, the TES. Teachers’ training and working conditions are barely glanced at and neither are any of the enormous recent changes in the school curriculum and exam system. This isn’t just dull: it leads to inaccuracy and irrelevancy. Green spends pages, for example, distinguishing between “luxurious” and “positional” spending in private schools – how much is spent to get one over on state schools, and how much merely to show off – but never inquires how much teachers need to be paid... They’ve boxed a terrific match and it would, sadly, take a much defter, subtler and better researched book than this to even lay a glove on them.
These might go some way to removing the advantages private schools currently enjoy. But is there any political will to implement them? It might be simpler just to acknowledge the extent of the inequality which has reappeared in British society in the past forty years and reserve all places at Oxford and Cambridge for the private schools, on the condition that they increase their bursaries for the poor. Everyone favours equality of opportunity, but the hard measures to achieve it are always lacking. Perhaps we should concede that a hereditary elite was what we secretly wanted all along.
...a fresh dissection of what its authors deem “Britain’s private school problem”. But in this richly detailed account of Britain’s educational castes, insistent in its calls for change, the historian David Kynaston and education economist Francis Green lapse into a contagious weariness... Even if the ideas for rolling the pitch in Engines of Privilege vary in their political usefulness, the appeal to act is heartfelt. As the conclusion to such exhaustive histories of these peculiar institutions and their evolutionary genius, it’s a persuasive case.
Like many jointly written books, Engines of Privilege often reads like a committee report, though there are moments when Kynaston’s flair for anecdotes shines through. In a fascinating early chapter, which draws on his excellent histories, he shows how the public schools weathered the storms of the 1940s and 1950s, when even many Conservatives assumed they would eventually become absorbed into the state system.
What saved them was partly their perceived irrelevance.
The unmistakable trend, when grammar schools were at their height, was for private schools to lose business as Oxbridge places went increasingly to ambitious, well-taught grammar-school kids.
Green and Kynaston are not keen on pursuing this fruitful track, probably because opposition to “selection” by ability is one of the Left’s beloved shibboleths. What a pity. They have no difficulty devoting the rest of this turgid, finger-wagging book to ways in which we could wipe out selection by wealth...This is the main drawback with Engines of Privilege. Ironically enough, its public-school-educated authors don’t seem to have the first clue about the very people they are most concerned about. What would it do to morale at a state school if you helicoptered a third of its pupils to the posh place up the road?
While this book does a fine job of explaining and damning Britain’s private school problem, I’m not sure there’s much in it that staunch defenders of those schools would mind all that much. For anybody with young kids, meanwhile, maybe it’s time to remortgage the house and start googling open days.
As these books recount, many ex-pupils — and I am one — of the grandest institutions are sure there’s something wrong. In fact 64 per cent of users of private education, according to Green’s and Kynaston’s research, call the system ‘unfair’.
That is of course just the kind of neat, self-preserving deflection at which we excel. ‘It is dreadful. Indefensible. But what is one to do? And young Archie does so love St Cake’s…’ The class that runs Britain has always practised tolerance and absorption of its enemies and critics as a strategy in its long survival. James Brooke-Smith’s highly entertaining cultural history of the British public school has many examples of this tendency.
The historical background to our arguments over state and private education today is the most intriguing part of Engines of Privilege, a co-production between the celebrated social historian of post-war Britain, David Kynaston, and Francis Green of UCL’s Institute of Education... At its best, Engines of Privilege reminds us that many arguments recur down the decades. Yet exclusive education is only superior as long as it does better than the other kind.