BOOK REVIEW / Humbug in the tuckshop: Delusions of grandeur: A Headmaster's Life 1966-86 - John Rae: HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
QUITE early in life, John Rae concluded that 'there was something wrong with a society in which education and class had such an incestuous relationship'. Late in middle age, his critique was more precise but no less severe: 'In a way that was peculiar to Britain, the public schools inhibited the development of a well-educated society. As long as parents who could afford to do so automatically sent their children to public schools, the state schools that educated the majority of children would be seen as second best . . . To put it simply, the public schools were holding Britain back.'

This diagnosis is familiar, even platitudinous. Yet this particular critic spent 12 years as an assistant master at Harrow, four as head of an obscure West Country public school and 16 more as headmaster of Westminster. Further, for several years in the 1970s, when a Labour government seemed set on grievous bodily harm against the independent sector, Dr Rae was chosen by his fellow headmasters as their leading media spokesman.

So there are two mysteries about this highly entertaining account of a headmaster's career. The first is how the author - who never made any secret of his iconoclastic views - got to the top and stayed there. It does not, after all, take much to seem a dangerous radical in the public school world. Sir Robert Birley, once headmaster of Eton, acquired a reputation because a portrait of Brahms on his wall was mistaken for one of Karl Marx. Dr Rae had nothing obvious to recommend him except a certain urbane headmasterly manner: he was educated at a minor public school, he scraped a lower second in history, he had never been a housemaster or head of department, he was a nonconformist by upbringing and a sceptic by temperament.

All this turns out not to be such a mystery. The Westminster governors appointed Dr Rae at the end of the swinging Sixties and probably calculated that he was sort of person who could keep an ancient institution alive. Only a sophisticated metropolitan body, whose members included Lord (formerly R A) Butler, could have been so acute. Throughout the next decade, Dr Rae, wearing his puzzled liberal look, proved an ideal spokesman for the public schools. The likes of Eton, Harrow and Westminster, he soothingly acknowledged, were socially divisive and bad for the country. But reforming them would be impossible - their exclusivity was precisely what made them successful - and abolishing them would be a breach of human rights. With the conviction that only headmasters can muster, Dr Rae said that it hurt him more than it hurt us - but the painful truth was that nothing could be done.

In the different climate of the 1980s, Dr Rae had outlived his usefulness and was frozen, first, out of the inner circles of the public school headmasters and, then, out of Westminster itself.

The second mystery is not so easily solved. Is Dr Rae an honest liberal or a humbug? Nowhere does he explain why he could not have taken his undoubted talents to the state sector. Dr Rae's explanation is that he is an insecure man who never recovered from the sense of inferiority created by going to a minor public school. He had to prove himself through being accepted inside the posh schools.

It is to Dr Rae's credit that he does not invent something more pompous and self-regarding. It is to his credit, too, that his book does not try to pretend that there is something mystically improving about private education. A public school turns out to be much like any other, with its share of incompetent teachers, lazy children, uncaring parents and daft governors. Its advantages over state schools are handpicked pupils and lots more money. Perhaps some ingenious politician will be sufficiently outraged to discover that something can be done.