Spoilt rotten: The decline and fall of the English public school

There's a fire at toff towers — and no-one knows quite what to do, says Ed Cumming

Eton, Harrow, Winchester and their ilk have never been cool, exactly — the tailcoats and Latin put paid to that. But it’s possible that their stock has never been lower than at this precise moment in time. From Yorkshire to Barnes, the public school is beset by scandal. Prestigious prep schools, like Boris Johnson’s alma mater Ashdown House, are being forced to close. Institutions whose alumni once went out to run the empire are forced to go abroad, cap in hand, hoping to lure the children of foreign plutocrats. A public school accent is no longer something to be bellowed across a crowded pub (probably the White Horse in Parsons Green) — but a source of shame whispered sotto voce in apologetic tones. 

“The only thing public school kids have going for them now is that at least they all know that it’s not OK to have gone to a public school,” says one teacher at a top public school. “There’s a bit of self-awareness, which wasn’t the case until about ten years ago. But because they’re aware of the social opprobrium, they are all determined to be actively woke in a constructive way. Five years ago they were all desperate to show you how into grime they were. Luckily that’s stopped. But they’re volunteering, they’re keen on the environment and sustainability. They’re making an effort to be slightly better people than they could have got away with before. They have to be aware of their privilege, and they can’t take themselves too seriously.

"Eton has never exactly been cool..."

“A lot of it’s down to social media, which has become less of an echo chamber,” he adds. “It’s not just them and their chinny mates any more. No posh people are being championed at the moment. Look at Rishi with his tweet saying ‘look how far I’ve come from Winchester, Oxford and Stanford’. That’s obviously unacceptable. Kids see the social reaction to stuff like that, and realise they can’t flaunt it.” 

Many of the schools themselves are lurching from crisis to crisis. There are few sadder or grimmer cases than Ampleforth. The country’s leading Catholic college was once a bastion that produced Lawrence Dallaglio, Antony Gormley, Rupert Everett and David Stirling, the founder of the SAS. Now it is circling the plughole following a catastrophic few years that began in 2016, when The Times published a report accusing the school of covering up sexual abuse claims. Two years later, an independent enquiry found that a culture of “appalling sexual abuse” had flourished for decades. Last year, Peter Turner, a former monk, was jailed for more than 20 years for offences committed between 1984 and 1990. The judge said: “You have brought evil into this world when, by your calling, you should have brought hope, help and succour.” Not what you want for your fees. 

In attempting to root out the problem and reform its practices, the school went through five heads in five years between 2014 and 2019. A fence has also been put to separate the school from the monastery next door. Then, last November Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, banned the school from taking new pupils, saying progress was too slow. The incumbent head, Robin Dyer, told The Times that, unless it is able to admit new pupils, the school — which unlike most other public schools has few assets and relies on fees —may be forced to close entirely.

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