His award-winning play about bright pupils at a Yorkshire grammar school, The History Boys, is enjoying its last hurrah in London's West End. But Alan Bennett, a former grammar school boy himself, has launched a scathing attack on segregation in the British education system, calling for public schools to be abolished and saying it was "wrong" that good schooling could be bought by the wealthy.
"I think quite plainly that public schools should be abolished," he said. "How they could be abolished without enormous disruption I don't know. But the English are so hypocritical about it, the phrase that everybody uses now – 'the elephant in the room' – it's something that nobody mentions."
The 73-year-old playwright claimed the British system was fundamentally flawed and paled in comparison with other countries where state schools flourished. "It is the paying," he added. "It is the fact that you can buy advantages for your children over and above their abilities, which seems to me to be wrong.
"It's a fissure that runs right through English society and you don't get it in France. In France, state education is the best. It should be the same here. If the state schools were best, you had to compete to get into them and their education was better than what was on offer privately, then the whole nature of education would be transformed."
Bennett, born the son of a Co-op butcher in Armley, Leeds, attended the state-run Leeds Modern School, learned Russian during his National Service and was offered a place at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1951. It was there that he first met public schoolboys, whom he found to be a very different breed from his old classmates.
"I thought they were louts because they were so self-confident and we were timid grammar boys and they were very much at ease and hogged the bread and slurped the soup," Bennett said in an interview for BBC Radio 4's Today Programme. "But I also realised they had been better taught than I had and more individually taught. They were coming to this examination very much better prepared than I was and I thought that was unfair when I was 17. And that view has never changed."
Asked whether he sympathised with parents who scrimped and saved to send their children to private schools, Bennett said: "I understand they make sacrifices but, at the same time – and I feel the same about the health service, although I'm more hypocritical about the health service because I use private health services as well as the NHS – if there wasn't this option to go private with education, the atmosphere in the country would be better."
Bennett rejected Sidney Sussex and instead applied for a scholarship at Oxford. He was accepted by Exeter College, where he went on to gain a first-class history degree and performed in the Oxford Revue. His passion for satire later took him to the Edinburgh Festival in the revue Beyond The Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller.
The History Boys, which debuted at the National Theatre in 2004, tells the story of sixth-form boys studying for their Oxbridge entrance exams at the fictional Cutler's Grammar School in Sheffield.
The play won six Tony Awards and was made into a film in 2006, featuring the original stage cast including James Corden and Francis de la Tour. Following a run on Broadway and a worldwide tour, the play is in its final run at Wyndham's Theatre in London.Reuse content