New book reveals the perils of public schools

The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School is written by the former Financial Times education correspondent David Turner

Richard Garner
Wednesday 29 April 2015 23:06

Boosting education in disadvantaged areas, it seems, is not a new phenomenon. In 1880 a group of Eton boys ventured forth into Hackney Wick to take the gospel of education to the working classes.

Such was their fear of contact with those less fortunate than themselves, though, that all the boys were inoculated before they set off.

This and other interesting "not many people know this" facts are included in The Old Boys: The Decline and Rise of the Public School by the former Financial Times education correspondent David Turner.

There are darker stories, too. As late as 1930, a boy took his own life because he could no longer face the treatment meted out to "fags" by older boys.

Teachers could also be in peril. In 1301, John Newshom was found drowned in the River Cherwell after falling from a tree while cutting willow to make a cane. "One can almost hear cheers from the legions of schoolboys victimised over the centuries," the book wryly comments.

In their infancy, public schools concentrated on giving their charges an almost non-stop diet of Latin and Greek – so much so that Richard Busby, the headmaster of Westminster between 1638 and 1695, was considered an oddball for encouraging his charges to study maths.

Times have changed, obviously. The book starts and ends with Flashman, the archetypal bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays. If Flashman were alive today, he would no longer be able to rely on his cronies to help him impose his reign of terror over younger boys. "They would be cognisant of the fact that roasting boys [as happened to Tom Brown] was not something they could now get away with," argues Turner.

"These boys from the upper and middle classes have learnt to embrace and master the modern world," he says. "Public schools deserve much of the credit for this achievement."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments