The rise of the private (boys only) boarding schools of England in the 19th century and their close relationship with Oxford and Cambridge universities was responsible for two huge, influential social effects in this country. One, a wave of homosexuality, . . . which is now slowly dying down — voluntarily– and the other, a strong bias against science, which is now being slowly corrected — both governmentally and by parents who are now allowed to set up Free Schools where relevant skills for the modern age can be taught. (The homosexual surge, which spread to Germany and America — copying England and burgeoning in both cases — is also petering out there. Science teaching in schools may be petering out in America but, as far as I can judge, not so in Germany.)
In the early 19th century, with the stupendous increase in prosperity in Manchester and surrounding towns in north-west England, the wealthy cotton masters started sending their sons to the relatively few remaining Medieval schools which had survived. These were the schools to which a traditional body of about 200 aristocrats and 2,000 or 3,000 yeoman land-owners had been sending their sons.
The eldest sons of these traditional land-owners inherited both the Parliamentary constituencies of the House of Commons and, of course, the wealth of their fathers. Subsequent sons, under the Medieval Church law of primogeniture (which ensured that the Church would inevitably pick up great wealth from intestate eldest bachelor sons sooner or later), only had two main income opportunities when their fathers died and they were on their own — the Church itself or the Army.
The remnants of the Medieval grammar schools that still existed in the early 19th century catered mainly to all three of these needs — suitable training for aristocrats, church leaders and army officers. The largest school-leaving contingent of these — future church leaders — were then further trained in the only two universities in England at that time — Oxford and Cambridge — which were, to all intent and purposes, theological training colleges more than anything else.
However, the cotton masters were not much interested in the church or the army for their sons, but they were very keen that they should become land-owning aristocrats — or minor versions thereof — so they could live graciously in countryside mansions and also be able to enter Parliament and thus have political power. Arguably the greatest Prime Minister we have ever had, Robert Peel, was the son of one these newly rich industrialists.
The remaining grammar schools of Medieval England were barely able to cope with the new surge of rich fee-paying clients. They didn’t have enough teachers for one thing because most of the products of Oxbridge went into the church (whose jobs were mostly under the control of the land-owners) rather than teaching. Thus the few teachers the schools had were trying to cope with scores, perhaps a hundred or more, pupils in their classes.
This was obviously impossible for practical teaching so they developed what became known as the ‘Victorian’ or ‘Monitor’ method. The few Oxbridge-trained teachers would teach the brightest poor pupils. Most of the Medieval schools had been set up to teach poor children and most still retained an obligation to teach a few of that ilk from the local town in every intake. The bright pupils, taught early in the morning, then became mmonitor-teachers who would take over the bulk of the teaching for the rest of the day.
Besides the teaching of English and elementary maths, the curriculum was heavily geared towards Latin grammar and literature because a high proportion of their pupils would be going to Oxbridge. It was not so much that these schools were actively anti-science. They just didn’t know anything about it.
Also, because of the new surge of boys from the north, the original schools couldn’t find enough board and lodgings for the children either. So instead of parking their charges with local households, they started to put them two or three in a bed (a common enough practice in the inns of England at that time) in the school itself or, a little later, in large dormitories where, understandably boys going through their giddy years of pubescence would get up to all sorts of sexual high jinks, particularly in those schools where the eldest boys would have new boys as personal servants, or fags.
And this homosexuality, of course, persisted when they grew up to be young men at Oxbridge — and then persisted afterwards as Oxbridge sent increasing numbers of graduates into the rapidly growing army and administrative ranks of the civil service as well as the traditional church leaders and politicians — all the way through into the 20th century.
Thus, even though homosexuality was still strictly illegal (buggery had been outlawed by King Henry VIII) it was, in fact, practised quite widely, albeit secretly, in the upper classes. This also accounts for the high proclivity for paedophilia (also learned in the boarding schools) among the upper classes, even among senior politicians and civil servants until recent times (which the police, at the present time, are still being reluctant to bring out into the open even though they say they have the evidence).
It was only towards the latter end of the 19th century, stimulated by the growth of the new municipal universities in cities like Manchester and Birmingham, that Oxford and Cambridge started waking up from their theological and philosophical slumbers and realised that they’d have to start taking an interest in the sciences and more modern subjects like engineering. And, a few decades later, the private boarding schools also started devoted much more attention to the sciences.
Later still — about 20 years ago — realising that they had been responsible for the wave of homosexuality and paedophilia — that were now drifting downwards throughout the middle-classes, as all fashions do — several of the more progressive boarding schools (now quite panicky when headmasters talked among themselves about the effect this might have on lucrative foreign pupils) also started taking girl boarders or at least organising regular social events the boys could orientate their sexual urges in the usual way.
As to the teaching of science at the boarding schools and Oxbridge it has only been in the last couple of decades that they’ve been going overboard because they have realised that the world economy is now accelerating into almost complete dependence on science. Even before this giddy rush to their heads, the boarding schools and Oxbridge were accounting for half of the leading research scientists in the country and were already far ahead than the state schools in taking to teaching science subjects.
But even this was insufficient. We’d already been defeated in developing science by Germany and America. Now we stand to be defeated by much smaller countries like Sweden, Israel or Singapore. If there’s any panic these days it is now in the highest levels of both the Conservative and Labour Parties
Even Tony Blair, who is presently the most despised politician in England (about evenly with George Brown) had the sense to try and break the power of the bureaucracy in the Department of Education and the intransigent teaching unions (adopting the thinking modes of the 1920s trade unions) by founding Academies and also Free Schools during his term of office.
The former haven’t been notably successful as yet despite (usually) their sparkling, but often crazy, new architecture (nor do I think they’ll ever be better than the state secondary schools) and the Free Schools (usually only being able to afford old buildings, often derelict ones) are really far too recent to make a firm judgement. But the Charter Schools in America, their equivalents across the pond, are showing promise even though they, due to strong teaching union resistance, have usually only been able to be set up in the poorest districts of American cities.
My blog today has been prompted by learning of a new book, The Old Boys, written by David Turner. This is a history of Britain’s private schools since the founding of Winchester College in 1382. I haven’t read it yet but I might do later because my own school, Bablake, was founded even earlier — in 1344 — though it never made it into modern times like Winchester College or Eton or Harrow as an independent boarding school. In my time, it was trying to be one (desperately so by our headmaster — who wouldn’t allow us to play working class games like soccer!) but didn’t succeed and had to be state-supported as a grammar school.