THEY are known, quaintly, as “public schools”, though they are certainly not open to just anyone. Their names—Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Fettes—conjure up images of striped blazers and straw boaters, speech days and rugger matches. Be not deceived: for all their whimsiness, these are some of the world’s most ruthless businesses. Britain’s elite private schools are service-industry superpowers. They have increased their fees threefold in real terms since 1980 but still have parents beating at their doors. They have become thoroughly global: more than a third of their boarding pupils are foreign and the schools have established campuses in far-flung places such as Almaty, Kazakhstan (Haileybury) and Bangkok (Harrow) as well as more obvious ones like Singapore and Beijing.
The secret of their success is simple: they provide a first-class academic education, and a ticket to the best universities, in an age when the rewards for academic success are rising. Their exam results far outstrip those of state schools (though there is a debate over how much this is because of the selectivity of their intake). They bag two-fifths of the undergraduate places at Oxford and Cambridge, despite educating just 7% of children in Britain.
As David Turner writes in a new book, “The Old Boys”, the private schools have engineered a turnaround comparable with anything seen in other businesses, albeit played out over decades. In 1945, a year after Britain introduced universal, free secondary schooling, the headmaster of Winchester, Canon Spencer Leeson, worried that parents would no longer pay fees when they “can get state-aided education of a rapidly improving quality…for nothing or next to nothing”. In the egalitarian post-war mood, the private schools seemed like vestiges of an age of snobbery and privilege, surely on their way to extinction.
From then on they had to compete with booming “grammar schools”—academically selective, state-funded institutions. After a slow start, the private schools responded to this new competition by raising their standards. And then, in the 1970s, just as they had pulled up their socks, the government kindly took the competition away, by forcing most of the grammar schools to become mixed-ability “comprehensives”. (A few rebelled, and joined the ranks of the private schools instead.)
The publication of league tables of schools’ exam results, from the early 1990s, provided another impetus for private schools to improve their performance, relative both to state schools and to each other. Many responded by systematically weeding out their weaker teachers. The turnaround has been especially dramatic in two areas. The private schools once disparaged science as “stinks and bangs”; and failed to lift girls’ aspirations the way they did boys’. Today they are science powerhouses, and the proportion of private-school girls going on to university has risen from 9% in 1961 to 92% today.
Three management lessons can be drawn from the private schools’ revival. The first is that “tradition” and “innovation” need not be mutually exclusive. The private schools have become slick at exploiting such things as their famous old boys (Shrewsbury school has a statue of Charles Darwin) to market themselves, even as they have modernised their curriculums. Like other durable institutions, they survive by constantly reinventing themselves. Eton’s oldest classroom, which has been in continuous use since the 15th century, is now used, among other things, for Japanese lessons. Britain does not have a monopoly in such institutional reinvention: America’s Ivy League universities have transformed themselves from bastions of WASP privilege (Princeton rejected a student simply for being black in 1939) into champions of multiculturalism. But it is certainly very good at it: Ascot and Wimbledon have retooled themselves smoothly for the age of corporate hospitality and global money.
A second lesson is that competition, when combined with independent standard-setting and performance-measurement, can work wonders. For most of their history the private schools coasted along on snob appeal. The introduction of league tables forced them to prove that they delivered results. American Ivy League universities have likewise been prevented from resting on their laurels by the US News and World Report rankings. Business schools have been compelled to be a little more businesslike by the proliferation of MBA rankings.
The third insight is that insiders can make the best revolutionaries. The heads of the private schools were often men who had spent most of their lives inside them, except for a brief spell at university. But they nevertheless spotted a big business opportunity, from the 1980s, as the market for secondary education globalised along with everything else. British private schools have two advantages in this market: they teach in the world’s de facto business language; and many are within striking distance of London, one of the world’s great global cities. To some extent they are peddling old-fashioned snob appeal, but the schools’ heads have grasped that the super-rich will only pay for snobbery if it is packaged with academic results: they want their children to mingle with the “right sort”, but also want them to go on to Oxbridge.
Pay up, and play the game
Remarkable as their reinvention and revival have been, there is a risk that British private schools will become victims of their own success. Having raised their fees to such eye-watering levels (Eton charges more than £30,000 a year) and opened their doors to the children of the super-wealthy global elite, how can they continue to justify their charitable status and its accompanying tax breaks? And can they still claim to offer a traditional British education when their classes are increasingly stuffed with the offspring of Russian oligarchs and Asian crony capitalists? The turnaround in Britain’s private schools has required great business skill. Maintaining their success will require even greater acumen.
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