State schools

Public schools and the Quiet Revolution in Oxbridge

Photo: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Because it happens quietly, it is no less revolutionary. The rapid increase in admissions to public schools in Oxford and Cambridge is wresting these great universities from the grip of Eton and the public schools. In due course, this could have drastic social and political consequences.

Amid a second summer of canceled exams, college admissions may feel like a lottery, but look closer and you can see patterns emerging. Last year, Cambridge allocated 70% of its home undergraduate places to applicants from state schools, Oxford 68%. For Oxford, this was a 62% increase in just one year. Go back 20 years and the state/private ratios were roughly half and half. In the 1980s when I was in Oxford and the place looked like a huge public school that a few more of us had been smuggled into by mistake, it was more than half fee-paying schools , mostly historic elite public schools. .

There was nothing inevitable about the dominance of the Oxbridge public school over the past generation. As I describe in my profile of Boris Johnson, ‘The Prime Etonian’, in the current issue of Perspectivethis public school ascendant was restored beginning in the 1970s, after decades of decline, due to the double whammy of the abolition of public high schools and the reinvention of public schools as “meritocratic” institutions delivering top exam results in exchange for fees ever higher education. Eton now charges £48,501 a year.

In the space of barely a decade under the modernization of Eric Anderson, who died last year, and principal of Johnson and Cameron, Eton has gone from a comprehensive school to a grammar school, in terms of conditions of admission, program and results. The change in social input has been negligible, however, as his feeding prep schools, like Boris Johnson’s Ashdown House in Sussex, have raised their game to match. A new English form of meritocratic plutocracy reigned.

Meanwhile, the abolition of public high schools largely eliminated exam factories allowing unprivileged children to compete at the highest level. To escape abolition, many of these schools became entirely private, especially those that were mixed (part free, part fee-paying) “direct grants” institutions under a post-war settlement forged by the Labor and Conservative governments. This huge upheaval was largely the work of Tony Crosland and Shirley Williams, the two privately trained Labor education secretaries. The transition from state to private has encompassed almost all of the most prestigious and historic grammar schools, including grammar schools in Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and Bristol, and a host of highly academic day schools in London.

One can debate the educational and social effects of the decision to make labor education policy in the 1960s and 1970s an assault on high schools, rather than a solid pillar of state technical and vocational schools as in Germany and in the Netherlands, which retained and gradually expanded their high schools as part of the mix. However, the political consequences are only now fully felt.

While the Tories are led and heavily staffed in parliament by the meritocratic plutocracy, Labor has little to do beyond the very latest generation of high school students whose luminaries were Harold Wilson, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey . Enter Keir Starmer, whose Reigate Grammar School went from direct grant to private, in the process I just described, while he was there.

What about the only two Labor leaders to have led the country for the past 40 years? Tony Blair, a classic state school rebel, went to Fettes (“Scotland’s Eton”) where his headmaster was, wait for it, Eric Anderson before the transition to Eton. Gordon Brown was from high school at Kirkcaldy High School before going to Edinburgh at the early age of 16. I keep quiet, m’lud.

Why is the Quiet Revolution taking place, ironically under a Conservative government led by Eton? Partly because, thanks to the long-term impact of New Labor’s education reforms, the state system is once again competing at the highest academic level. A series of new state academies set up in the 2000s are attacking Eton and Westminster with vigour. Just three academies in east London – Brampton Manor Academy in East Ham, London Academy of Excellence in Stratford and Mossbourne Academy in Hackney – sent 100 a year to Oxbridge last year and hundreds more to other Russell Group universities.

Equally important is the ‘pull’ factor of a new generation of Oxbridge admissions tutors and university heads who are positively interested in recruiting fairer social representation. Will Hutton, Alan Rusbridger and Helena Kennedy – among the principals of Oxford colleges over the past decade – were the precursors of this new egalitarian meritocracy. Several colleges in Oxbridge now recruit more than 80% from state schools, suggesting the revolution still has some way to go.

Maybe, just maybe, it heralds a brighter future for the next generation of non-conservative English forces. When I spoke at the Cambridge University Labor Cub just before the first lockdown, the chairman and secretary were both from Mossbourne Academy. Both wanted to become Labor MPs.

But don’t shed too many crocodile tears for those poor ignorant schoolboys and public girls. When Boris moved up to Balliol College in 1983, he joined over 150 Etonians at Oxford. The number is always over 100. Like all English revolutions, although many changes, many remain.

This article is from Andrew Adonis’ weekly newsletter for PerspectiveThe initiate. Get The Insider straight to your inbox every week by signing up here: