My public school days & the building of upper class solidarity

Posted on June 25, 2013 by | 55 Comments

This piece first appeared in Perspectives

To understand the British public school system, or certainly, the part of it in which I spent my teenage years, it is crucial to get your head around three things.

The first is that no pupil I can think of left my school fat. Sometimes, a tubby, or even an obese child would step from their parents’ car into the front quad at the age of thirteen. But by the time they left, they would be a sleek, muscular young adult.

The second is that it was only when I arrived at university that I realised I am not short. At five foot ten, at school, I was small. I remember the specific, baffling moment that I was standing in a crowd of my fellow university freshers and saw, for the first time, that my peers didn’t tower over me.

The third is that I know a pair of twins who, when they left, felt such a sense of loyalty to the school they had its emblem tattooed onto their backsides.

How these things happen is not complex.

Glenalmond College – my school

Every afternoon, for at least an hour, and often two, we played sport. I say “played”. It was, particularly in the pre-Christmas ‘Michaelmas’ term, significantly more brutal than that. To warm up before rugby, we would be made to sprint lengths of the pitch until, sometimes, the less fit children vomited. We would lie in the mud with our feet in the air until our stomachs screamed in agony, and, gradually, formed themselves into neat rows of muscle. And then, come rain or hail or ice or snow, we would play.

When we’d finished, we would limp back to our various houses, where we’d boil a large pot of spaghetti, mix in a jar of pesto sauce, and sit round with our peers and a loaf of bread. Using the sliced white to grab, we would swallow handful after handful of oily, salty pasta. Table manners are largely a chain the aristocracy use to tie down the aspirant bourgeoisies.

Soon after finishing this snack, we would go to the grand dining hall, queue up past the names of previous scholars (David Sole, Adair Turner, Rob Wainwright) and collect a three course meal crammed with more carbs.

Outside class, and other than sport, every other waking moment would be filled with some kind of activity. I sang in the choir, played the tympani in the orchestra and the concert band and the snare drum in the pipe band. There were inter-house debating competitions, a school newsletter to write for, school plays in which to perform. In the summer (‘Trinity’) term, I’d spend Tuesday afternoons climbing the cliffs at Dunkeld, and Thursday afternoons kayaking down the whitewater rapids of the Tay. At 13, I learnt to fence. I could, instead, have chosen to spend that time, at the rifle range.

On Wednesdays, it was CCF – the Combined Cadet Force. I mostly managed to avoid it by playing in the pipe band. But I still learnt to stand to attention, march in perfect formation, and to strip, clean and rebuild a gun in under 30 seconds.

Every day but Saturday, we had chapel – the whole school would come together, be preached to by our episcopalian (posh Scots are, in every way, anglicised) minister, and then sing together. We, other than the choir, would sit in pews allocated by house: Skrines, Goodacres, Reids, Patchells, Matheson’s for boys, Lothian and Home for girls.

The chapel at Glenalmond College

It was a matter of pride for our housemasters and housemistresses how loud our respective contributions to the collective musical volume were. My housemaster was choirmaster and organist. His compositions can be found in hymn books across the country. Even for a hardened atheist the effect he conducted, in the glorious, high ceilinged chapel, was majestic and moving. I have often since regretted that every community doesn’t come together each morning, and sing.

On Saturdays, we had assemblies. At these the head teacher (The Warden) would lecture us on something, and then hand out whatever prizes had been won by pupils that week: inter-school shooting competitions, pipe band performances, cross country races and, most important of all, rugby tournaments. And every evening, bar Saturday, it was ‘prep’ – sitting at your desk and doing your homework – followed by TV. In order to stray beyond the ‘front quad’ after these hours, you needed a ‘docket’ – permission slip. All day, every day, every move could be accounted for.

At night, younger pupils slept in ‘cubes’ – cubicles rather like larger versions of those found in a public toilet, with a flimsy wall about 8ft high dividing up each person’s portion of an otherwise shared dormitory. 6thformers would have their own rooms along a corridor, with a desk and a spring-laden bed. Each corridor was governed by a prefect – a ‘beak’. At 17, I was responsible for 13 boys in my year, and fifteen in the year below – for ensuring that they were OK, were quiet during ‘prep’, and, most importantly, that they were in bed on time.

These houses, along with a few of the classrooms formed between them the main school buildings – a front and a back quad designed to mimick those of the most impressive Oxford college – Christ Church. Every 15 minutes, all night long, the bells of the clock tower would echo around the magnificent buildings. After five years, they became a nighttime friend.

Other school facilities varied – on the one hand, music was taught and performed in one of Basil Spence’s finest. On the other, my maths classes were in portacabins and, until my final year (when a new block was built) sciences were taught on the same benches and with the same equipment as they had been for generations.

The final thing to consider is the very fact that this is a boarding school. I haven’t lived with my parents for any significant period since I was 13. Some, if they also went to boarding ‘preparatory’ (prep) schools, left home at eight or nine. If you suspect that this is likely to lead to insecurity then institutionalisation, then you’d be right. DH Lawrence wrote, famously quoted by Orwell, a poem about the upper classes:

“They all gibber and gibber and chatter,

and never a word they say

comes really out of their guts, lad,

they make it up half way…


“When they took you and refined you

they squeezed out most of your guts,

they took away your good old stones

and gave you a couple of nuts,

and they taught you to speak Kings English,

and butter your slippery buts.


Oh you’ve got to be like a monkey,

if you climb up the tree

you’ve no more use for the solid earth

and the lad you used to be.

you sit in the bows and gibber

with superiority…


I tell you something’s been done to ‘em,

to the pullets up above…”

Of course, things have changed somewhat since the 1940s. There’s no beating – my school days weren’t those of Tom Brown. But the thing that’s ‘been done’ is still the same. If posh people seem not to be rooted, not to be grounded, it’s because they (we) are untimely ripped from our parents’ home.

I have never seen a study of this collective childhood dislocation, but its psychological effects must surely be significant. It was certainly bizarre for me to meet peers at university had never before lived away from their parents. The process forces you to grow up fast and, I suspect, incompletely: you become tough, but bad at feeling or expressing the healthy range of emotions. Jimmy Reid famously said:

“It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.”

In this case, the products of the public school system – including those who fill the benches of our cabinet and our ‘leading’ banks, should be first in the counsellor’s chair.

The sport, the language, the dislocation, the chapel – all these things may sound odd. But they are typical for a British public school. And I describe them to make a point. Ask most people to outline what their school was like and you would imagine, alongside friends, that they would talk about their classes. But to do so would be to miss the point of Britain’s public school system.

When I went to university, I ended up living with two friends who had both attended Hutchison Grammar – a private day school in Glasgow. We often joked that, whilst they had attended the academically best school in Scotland, I, as an old boy of Glenalmond College – ‘Coll’ – had attended the poshest.

The classes were, of course, good. They were small (10-20 pupils), and most of the teachers were effective. Though some were clearly chosen more for their ability to coach rugby or cricket, and all slotted in to the absurdly posh setting, a few were truly excellent. I found most of them maddening in that they aimed to do no more than spoon feed us with the answers we needed to give in order to get the exam grades to be allowed into Britain’s more famous universities, but the odd one strained at that leash. And that job, at least, they certainly did.

But it is not because you want your child to get top grades that you send them to live for five years at a British public school. There are much easier and cheaper ways to achieve that.

There is a bizarre belief held by many that success in Britain correlates to intelligence and hard work. This is a very middle class concept. What the upper class understands is that success stems from two things: confidence – or, at least, the appearance of confidence, and community. And they are the purpose of public school.

So, all those hours of sport, the diet, the uncomfortable beds – they are all part of a process. They ensure that no one is fat, and that everyone reaches the maximum of their genetically permitted height – that everyone appears healthy, fit.

But more importantly, they are all about team building. These activities exist to build generation after generation who will work together to run a now vanished empire. Whilst the ruling elite might preach rugged individualism, we are brought up to sing together as a whole community every morning, to stand together on the rugby pitch every afternoon, and, after leaving, to go away together to govern India. Each school even has its own, surreal words: ‘docket’, ‘prep’, ‘Coll’, ‘beak’. The more prominent English schools even have their own sports – the Eton Wall Game, Winchester Fives and, well, Rugby Football.

In short, the aim is simple: to build class solidarity. Whilst there are many reasons that essentially the same families have ruled Britain for a millennium, this process of team building, of bonding is surely one of them.

And who were we taught to stand against? Anyone who has met me knows that, despite growing up in Scotland, I have what some call an English accent. I suppose I’d argue it’s better described as a ‘posh’ accent. If you didn’t speak like this at my school, you’d be bullied.

The specific term used was ‘scoit’ – laden with the implications of ‘chav’, but with the bizarre added hangover of the post-1745 crackdown on Scottish culture. Whilst the teachers tried to stop this astonishingly offensive tradition, it lasted throughout my time there – and the school made headlines a few years later when some of its pupils posted online a video in which they claimed to be ‘chav hunting’. So perhaps the oppression has shifted from anti-Scots in particular to just anti-working class. Of course, this tendency isn’t actively encouraged. But the culture of the school certainly perpetuates it.

The middle classes are taught to believe that they will succeed through individual hard work and gumption. The upper class know that this is nonsense – or, at least, our traditions are built on the idea that it is.

And so they teach their children to stick together, to exude confidence whether or not they have a clue what they are doing, to appear physically fit: to form old boys’ networks and to look out for one another. And if you don’t believe this, you just need to visit a British public school, and watch the values being drilled into the children.

The British public school system is best understood not by the brutality of Tom Brown nor by the excitement of Harry Potter – though both do capture a flavour of what it’s like. It is best understood as the root of the British elite. Each school has its own flavour – to the extent that I can usually, at sight, distinguish an OE (an old Etonian), from an ‘OG’ (Old Glenalmond pupil). But they all play a similar function: they build the class solidarity of the British elite. And at that, they are exceptional.

To finish, here are a verse from the Eton Boating Song:

Rugby may be more clever,
Harrow may make more row,
But we’ll row for ever,
Steady from stroke to bow,
And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now,
And nothing in life shall sever
The chain that is round us now.
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55 Responses to “My public school days & the building of upper class solidarity”

  1. Morag EyrieNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 9:31 am

    If you’re looking for research and organising around the damage boarding school does, there is Boarding School Survivors:

  2. Churm RincewindNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    Well, yes, spot on. But it seems to me that schools like Glenalmond, Gordonstoun, Loretto, and so on are not in fact representative of Scottish education and are instead outposts of the English public school system.

    So where you say “British” I would generally say “English”, and it seems to me that the great tragedy of Scottish educational policy over the past half century has been its subservience to predominantly English concerns, whether coming from the left or the right of the political spectrum.

  3. AlexNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  4. Rick BNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    Excellent piece, as John le Carre said, a prerequisite for any real change in the UK would be to close the Public Schools, while they remain the ruling class will continue to replicate itself.

  5. Richard DrysdaleNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 9:09 pm

    Saddened that this article shows Coll as an elitist training camp. Can only see this as stoking the fires of hatred from the people who didnt get the same opportunity. I value my days at Coll and everything that it gave me, even if i wasnt the best of students, but this is not how i remember the days. It was most certainly not the playground of the aristocratic offspring, it was much more than that.

  6. Andrew TobertNo Gravatar
    June 25th, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

    I went to Loretto and all of this read true. The emotional hardness is still something I struggle with, 15 years later.

  7. JanNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 4:11 am

    Fascinating, thank you. I’d be really interested to know more about how you feel personally about the experience, how big a part of your identity it is now, whether in a good way or bad way or both, especially since this seems quite a balanced view, but I’m just being nosy really. Being able to say that cultural problems existed at my school, to be able to analyse what they are while accepting that there were exceptions and that the staff weren’t as complicit as I once felt they were was a point it took me a long time to get to, and mine wasn’t a boarding school so psychologically I don’t think its influence was anywhere near as powerful.

  8. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    thanks for the comments.

    @Morag – interesting, I’ll have a look.

    @Churm – indeed. In fact, Glenalmond was founded by Gladstone, specifically as an attempt to introduce the English public school system to Scotland. One thing I didn’t write about is that I did GCSEs and A Levels despite going to school in Scotland. They are, in a sense, a vestage of the post-1945 attempt to Anglicise the Scottish elite.

    @Rick B, I didn’t know that quote, but, well, agreed.

    @Richard, sorry if this saddened you. I got lots out of it too, a huge amount. But I think it’s important that those of us who did understand how privilidged that makes us.

    @andrew and @Jan hmm. Well, I suppose the first thing to say is that I quite enjoyed my time there – obviously I can’t comment on what it was like compared to other schools because I wasn’t at other schools, but I don’t have any serious complaints about my time. How much of my identity it is is an interesting question – I don’t think about it often, and, consciously, it isn’t at all. But I’m sure that, if you scratch the surface, you’d find some bits of me still influenced by it all. Of course, the other thing is that it’s hard to seperate what I learnt there from my general upbringing as a posh Scot. I guess that’s a long way of saying that it’s a good question to which I don’t know the answer.

  9. DougNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    I wasn’t a border, but I did go to public school and if you meet me it probably shows – I’m an OE – Old Elizabethan, Elizabeth College Guernsey, notable as part of German Atlantic Command during WWII, and set up the year columbus discovered America – yes, that Queen Elizabeth.

    A lot of the things that are in this ring true for me – the confidence and solidarity in particular. I’m 30 and work in education, been to 4 different education institutions since and I don’t really identify with them as institutions in the same way as the college – there are people who I went to school with, did CCF with etc. etc. that I still speak to, I completely disagree with their politics etc. and they with mine, but we went to the same school and that is that.

    I also agree with Adam’s comments above about privilege – the advantage that simply going to that type of school confers is really significant, over and above that of the actual money in your family – my parents aren’t mega rich, the school isn’t even that expensive in the scheme of public schools – I was sent mainly for discipline.

  10. Sainsburr McManusNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    And now that privilege seems to have given you a very big say in the Green Party.

    Nothing really changes, does it?

    And it won’t until John Le Carre’s suggestion is taken up. Why not get out of the way and have a nice sustainable life from the sidelines and let some regular people have a go at running things? Put your money where your mouth is. It’s the only way. No matter how altruistic you are , by being where you are aqnd doing what you do, you are part of the problem. Positive discrimination maybe needs to happen?

  11. AndyNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    Sainsburr Mcmanus,

    What a spiteful, resentful comment to make which unfortunately is all too redolent of the hard left/greens. I actually don’t agree with much of what is written here but to suggest the author doesn’t even have the right to speak on the issue is fascistic and merely proves you lack the capacity to debate the issue in a grown up manner. Your facile comment about positive discrimination shows your real grasp of the situation.


    As a former classmate of yours I agree it’s important we recognise the inherent privilege we were afforded at a young age. In my current career the confidence and self-belief that was instilled has aided me no end. What I find tragic though is that this is not seen as something we should aim to emulate across the educational spectrum. An inquiring mind was for centuries the gold standard a Scots education sought and by and large achieved. I accept the concept of noblesse oblige is dead and buried (not quite the way they think in the square mile) but the contribution to civic life by this strata of society is not something which can be glossed over lightly, and not something the state could/should take on.

  12. punkscienceNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    I’m proud to say that I attended a grammar school on a local education authority scholarship. The boarding houses were mostly occupied by military sons (it was single sex). The ‘country houses’ were the offspring of rich farmers, entrepreneurs or other nouveau riche and the town houses contained scholarship boys such as I and a few offspring from wealthy town families.
    I joined the CCF, played rugby and badminton and joined choirs, drama societies and did D of E. Apart from D of E, I hated it. I received an expulsion warning every single year of the ten years I was there. The only alternative (as made absolutely clear to me by my cunt of a father) was to leave and attend the local comprehensive, where I would be either ostracised or victimised for my grammar school origins. The nouveau riche were generally spoilt brats who flaunted their wealth and toys. The borders were a closed group of variously traumatised characters and the remainder were denied any recognition or differentiation by the regime of discipline, school uniforms and chapel.
    I am entirely sympathetic to the philosophy of Lawrence and Le Carre.

  13. punkscienceNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    To clarify somewhat, what I objected to most was the culture that prevailed. It was subtly made clear that, beyond the sight of ‘Masters’ (what a beautiful euphemism), The Law Of The Jungle prevailed. Whilst bullying was publicly decried it was actively encouraged by many Masters as an alternative to dealing with the complexities and contrasts inherent within the school’s social structure.
    This Is How Real Life Works, was the message. Get used to it. Don’t rock the boat. Submit to your destiny as a pov.

  14. OsbertNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 1:41 pm


    Interesting! I’m glad to say that I escaped from ‘public’ school in England after O levels, and moved to a Scottish comprehensive for my Highers. I’d rather not think about who I might have become if I’d not moved, and I’d fully embraced what public school promoted.

    Here’s one study on the effect of public schools:

  15. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 2:23 pm

    Hi everyone, thanks for the comments. A few responses:

    @sainsburr I don’t accept the idea that because I have had privilege I ought not to do anything to challenge the system which gave it to me. I do agree that I shouldn’t shut out or squash voices of others, and if your criticism is that I do, then show me how and I’ll try to do better. But if your case is just that people from relatively wealthy backgrounds/classes should never be involved in movements to change the unjust system which gave them this luck, then I disagree.

    @Andy – hi – first, I don’t think Sainsburr’s comments are typical of the left/greens. As someone who has spent a decade after school living in that world, her/his attitude is one I have only come across very rarely. Secondly, I haven’t commented here on which elements I would or would not emulate in my ideal school and in all schools. Certainly, some aspects of our education was truly excellent and I wish everyone had access to them. Others weren’t. I was attempting here to discribe a part of the school system, not design a school system. Finally, I think that all people, including those we went to school with) contribute to society (though rich people give proportionally less of their income to charity and I would guess less of their time to their community). A more equal system would mean that everyone has the connections etc to contribute more – which is, surely, more democratic?

    @punksciene – I’m sorry yours was so terrible. I agree that they ought to be abolished.

    @osbert – hello.

  16. Jock BargeNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    That’s a strong article Adam, and good to have written it. It reminds me of ‘such, such were the joys’ which is excellent and sad.

    Having been through school with you, my first response is a visceral desire to tear the whole place down. Not because I was unhappy there – I wasn’t particularly – but simply because it’s central end is the continuance of delineations between people which are unhelpful, unpleasant and wholly false.

    As such the education is patchy. If your goal is a comfortable life as an asset manager in the New Town and golf at the weekends with folk like yourself, then yeah, it’s ideal, and I recognize the privilege in having that as an option. But if school only prepares you to interact with one narrow social strata, and your life before and after it in no way resembles that, then that’s a huge omission.

    Private schooling does for the class war what religious schooling does for sectarian conflict. To perpetuate conflicts like these, you have to keep the kids separate, prevent friendships, prevent sympathies – otherwise they’ll grow up thinking they’re all the same.

    One day.

  17. MakhnoNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

    Ye gods… my own experience was enough to convince me that no child of mine will ever go to a private school, and that was a non-boarding urban ex-grammar that was proudly integrated into the Scottish system. What the likes of Glenalmond would have done to me, I shudder to think.

  18. David GrantNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

    Well, as a Merchistonian, we always thought that Glenalmond was a bit weird! I think that was because it is stuck out in the middle of Perthshire with everything else a long way off.
    I have never thought that, with one possible exception, Scottish boarding schools were the least like what I know of English ones. For a start, I would not rate even Glenalmond as ‘posh’ and certainly we weren’t. I would say that parental wealth was the factor, rather than some sort of privileged ancestry, that determined who was able to attend. We had a good few farmers’ sons, a scrap-merchant’s lad, a couple of building firms’ spawn, the scions of the legal and medical professions and plenty more in the mix. No Lords or Dukes that I can recall – although at least two of my contemporaries got themselves peerages by hoovering up to the appropriate political outfits. By and large I enjoyed the experience. We were – and Merchiston still is – a single sex school. Scholastically the results were good and in sport, equally so.

    I suppose those people who have earned (Most had earned, rather than inherited) enough money to pay the fees tended to be conservative, in upper and lower case, by definition.

    I do not knock the boarding schools at all – but I do think that the education and all the other facilities offered ought to be available to pupils at all the schools in the land.

  19. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

    Jock – “otherwise they’ll grow up thinking they’re all the same” exactly.

  20. Darren JohnsonNo Gravatar
    June 26th, 2013 @ 11:58 pm

    Well it’s as different from my schooling and upbringing as something I’d read about in a novel or catch a glimpse of in some period drama. But I am always bemused at how many ex-public schoolboys in green/left/progressive circles are keen to lecture the rest of us on how to engage with the working class…

  21. Stephanie Irons-Young MBENo Gravatar
    June 27th, 2013 @ 1:03 am

    I chose Glenalamond college for my childrens’ further education and whilst there were problems they were addressed and I could sleep at night knowing my children were in the safest most Christian environment in Scotland. The fact that children who attend the school become fit is to be applauded. Every school in the world has problems but Glenalmond has produced so many wonderful free-thinking,intelligent and curteous young people that I for one applaud it.

  22. Sainsburr McManusNo Gravatar
    June 27th, 2013 @ 1:48 pm

    Are you are privately-educated boys and girls in this party. Mr Johnson excepted?

    Positive discrimination is fine for race and sex but not when it comes to class. Best just carry on then with your in-house naval gazing and running of the party.

  23. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    June 27th, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    @Sainsburr, I have no problem with positive discrimination when it comes to class – but positive discrimination on gender doesn’t mean no men should be involved in anything.

  24. RuthiNo Gravatar
    June 27th, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

    Very interesting!

    An interesting insight into the British class system. Always something a bit mystifying to anyone not born to it.

    And interesting parallels – in terms of child development-psychology – to communal sleeping in Kibbutzes, though obviously a very different set-up, and for very different reasons. And it only lasted for a couple of generations or so…

  25. Alastair McIntoshNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    A friend drew my attention to this excellent post and discussion which is of huge importance, as the link Osbert gives highlights, in understanding the construction of landed power in Scotland. I see that somebody also mentions the Boarding School Survivors network. A leading light behind this is the psychotherapist, Nick Duffell, whose book “The Making of Them” (Lone Arrow Press, available on Amazon) is essential reading to understand the psychodynamics of elite power in Britain, as also is “For Your Own Good” by Alice Miller.

  26. RebeccaNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 10:36 am

    A very good article, it pretty much sums up Coll.

    You are totally correct when you say no one left our school “tubby”. In some ways this was a good thing as being overweight is not good, but there was also a downside. I remember at least two people in my class having anorexia and I myself left slightly underweight believing that I was fat.

    My experiences of Coll unfortunately were very negative. I remember how a few people who came from far more wealthy families than me (I was on a scholarship) would regular steal my things. It got so bad I had to lock calculator number 4 in a box to prevent it going missing.

    I was also actively discouraged from phoning home, when I most needed to, mainly by being told something along the lines of “you will make them unhappy”. Looking back I now know this was bad advice, at the time I needed to speak to someone outside of Coll to try and get an objective view, to try and find some way of dealing with the issues I was facing.

    Although I had these negative experiences and I was bullied I do appreciate that Coll gave me opportunities I would not have had otherwise and there are a few things I remember positively.

  27. LizNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 10:40 am

    It’s interesting, as I think date schools often do the opposite- particularly aspirational ones. Certainly at my state school there was an elite of academic achievers (of which I was one) who generally were more lower middle class than working class, and it gave this mentality (for me anyway) of get out of Cas, and also that you were better than your peers at school who were less academically able. Obviously I feel kind of ashamed about all that now, but I also see how the school functioned to destroy the possibility of class solidarity by creating that mentally amongst the most ‘high acheiving’.

  28. LupinNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 2:31 pm

    @David Grant, its a fair point that Glenalmond isn’t generally very aristocratic, and the reason is that mostly the aristocracy (and some of the very rich) don’t rate any Scottish school and feel obliged to send their sons and daughters to school in England. Which in itself is an interesting bit of sociology!

  29. Jim BennettNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    Absolutely fascinating article, thank you to the author.
    I am interested in the debate about those from private school backgrounds like the author taking up leadership positions though. Sainsbur McManus seems to have been roundly turned on for the points which she(?) makes but they make sense to me:
    “And now that privilege seems to have given you a very big say in the Green Party. Nothing really changes, does it?”.
    I can’t see anything wrong with pointing out the natural logic of the article; that being trained to lead from childhood means that those with that privilege will automatically gravitate to positions of power, including in the Green Party. If not in their genes, then what this article is saying is that it’s in their nurture.
    So, I would encourage the author of this article and others who share his tribal background to question themselves each and every time they gravitate to a position of power. Instead of taking these positions of power, use your time, anergy and privilege to assist others to take power – and step back yourself.
    In case anyone is interested, I’m fat, bald and middle aged and went to a comprehensive and have a huge chip on my shoulder!

  30. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    June 28th, 2013 @ 6:26 pm


    A fascinating and honest article, thank you.

    Like you, I went to public schools for most (but not quite all) of my childhood. I had many similar experiences, but my schools were different in some respects.

    At Bedford School, for example, the sport was nowhere near as brutal. By the time you reached the age of 13 or 14 the school was only really interested in the top teams and players who beat other rival schools or ended up (as with Alistair Cook) as top players in our national teams.

    The school was mixed day and boarding, so most pupils didn’t suffer that horrid dislocation from family.

    The intake at Bedford School was also quite different, though going by some comments maybe not as different as I might assume from your article. Most weren’t upper class, but came from relatively wealthy middle class backgrounds, or from parents who prioritised putting their children through private school above foreign holidays and the like. The school didn’t talk of empire and India, but of “achieving excellence” and training future “captains of industry”. It inculcated, not quite upper class solidarity, but perhaps instead that more insidious (and ironic) illusion of meritocracy that you mention, and a full-chested confidence borne of years of boastful arrogance and endless extra curricular activities.

    In important respects, all public schools are the same, just as all comprehensive schools can be said to be the same. But in other important respects they often differ, and if we fail to recognise that we end up feeding into prejudice. It is (almost) as wrong to assume a privately educated person was rich and “posh” as it is to assume a state educated person was poor and “chavvy”.

    I imagine there are many grammar and other state schools that also inculcate dubious values, just as there are a few public (and otherwise independent) schools that try to promote very different values (like Summerhill or co-op schools).

  31. Sainsburr McManusNo Gravatar
    June 29th, 2013 @ 1:25 pm


    I knew the Greens were a bit of a toffs’ haven, but most of you who with high profiles seem to be public-school educated. More so than the bloody tories.

    And both your last and current leaders are public-school educated.

    It’s as funny as it is tragic really

  32. TomNo Gravatar
    July 2nd, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    Interesting read. I went through a below-average (non-boarding) state school outside the UK.

    Some of the differences: not many extracurricular activities; no school sports teams, though the local youth teams were popular and probably served a similar role; decent teachers but no real attempts to academically improve students beyond a passing grade — certainly nothing like the activities above. You had to motivate yourself for the main part. And no door opening alumni network afterwards.

    Some similarities: not much institutional bullying, but plenty of the unofficial variety; the usual reign of terror by older boys and picking on each other by defacing, stealing, or destroying each others’ property and humiliating each other by various means; fistfights were usually decently secluded but sometimes occurred in the hallways and were only punished when blatant indeed, e.g., right in front of an unsuspecting teacher. (There were no hall monitors or roving teachers as a rule. More of a, perhaps not benign, but at least non-malign neglect.) As you might have guessed, not a lot of discipline enforced, with numerous virtual drop outs, perhaps 10-15% per class, roaming the halls (but not expelled).

  33. Jenny BarnesNo Gravatar
    July 3rd, 2013 @ 2:33 pm

    The Making of Them by Nick Duffell
    is a -not particularly rigorous – study of the effects of boarding schools.

  34. MakhnoNo Gravatar
    July 5th, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

    Sainsburr – are you seriously basing your view of the Green Party’s social make-up on the background of people commenting on this article? It’s *about* public school education, therefore unsurprisingly attracts comment from people who have experience of it.

  35. StrapNo Gravatar
    July 19th, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

    I was at Coll. from 1958 to 1963 and there’s quite a lot of this article I don’t buy. There was one boy at least who didn’t leave thin (“sleek, muscular”) and that was McMillan, A.R. (Patchell’s, 1963-1968), otherwise known as Robbie Coltrane.

  36. JanNo Gravatar
    July 20th, 2013 @ 11:18 pm

    Wandering back to read subsequent comments, I have to say that this is a fabulous debate and one that we don’t have anywhere near enough. Childhood is not called the formative years for nothing.

    @Adam Ramsay – thanks so much for thinking about my question. Psychology is my area so I’m not sure how much less geeky people think about the formation of their identities (I think in-depth self-analysis is normal and tend to freak people out with my digging!). I wonder how much comprehensive- and privately-educated people get to compare their experiences in open and nonjudgemental ways. I can’t imagine it’s something that happens often, for the exact reason talked about above; separation is encouraged. Also very interesting to see the point about segregation within schools, including comprehensives, as a motivation for the high-achievers. Great stuff.

  37. Gil PaysonNo Gravatar
    August 2nd, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    Well done Adam.

    I went to an American prep school -Milton Academy – one of those created after the revolution and preserved and reincarnated a few times in order to perpetuate the public school after independence. It is the sister school of Winchester – my other grandfather’s school, and all were very happy that I was in the fold.

    I came to it from a very, very different place, though. I was in a “Free School” in the years prior to going to Milton. It was the social opposite: we basically taught ourselves, and had little or no traditional guidance. Our teachers were Don, O.D., Jim, Marion – all hippies who saw themselves as part of a new social movement. There were posters of Mao on the wall, and the great enemy of freedom was “the establishment”. We travelled to protests, sat in court to watch civil rights cases, learned about “real modern history”. Its message was the individual, and we were the first children of a movement that broke the chains of the establishement.

    Enter grandad. I need “out” of my family situation, he felt that a lad of my station needed saving. Perhaps he was exhibiting empathy, and translated into the vocabulary of his world. In any case, I went from the free school to Milton. My old teachers warned me about it: the “belly of the beast” they joked “it the uterus of the establishment”.

    The next years read like Adam’s time in the “Coll” – but we had far, far richer benefactors that built dormitories of single and double rooms. Lovely campus.

    As a child of the 60’S alternative schools, boarding school was very tough for me. Going from 100% personal responsibility and freedom to chose to its social opposite was the most severe culture shock imaginable.

    Having both in my pocket gave me insider views of where both extremes fail.

  38. Gil PaysonNo Gravatar
    August 3rd, 2013 @ 7:58 am


    Thirty years later, the extremes lead as different lives as one would expect. Thanks to facebook, the Free School has re-united, and you can see where people have ended up. Reunion was never an issue at Milton.

    Most of the Free-schoolers are working in mid-level jobs, with a disproportionatly high number living “off of the grid”. One of the main teachers has now had two stints in federal prison (drugs, etc), and the great experiment got killed off early in Reagan’s time. They write daily about their struggles to keep body & soul together.

    Milton grads? They are up to what you would expect: CEO’s, independant investors. My classmates are at the top of Wall Street and political power. Quite a few fell off of the map – but the rest are doing very, very well.

  39. Liam Barrington-BushNo Gravatar
    August 5th, 2013 @ 10:22 am

    Great stuff, Adam! Also says to me that this system is likely a significant part of the lack of creativity or genuine ingenuity found in British institutions. The drill seems so focused on breaking down individualism (w/ all the contradictions you highlight, re: ‘self-made man’ shite), that it is no wonder the rulers of this country seem unable to comprehend ideas that diverge significantly from their own, deeply-ingrained frameworks…
    Thanks for sharing!

  40. LaurieNo Gravatar
    August 5th, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    Illuminating stuff Adam – I enjoyed reading your perspectives.

    Some research summaries that might provide interesting context for the issues discussed above:

    Sainsburr McManus – I am sorry for your suffering. I hope you’ll forgive my condescending tone but it seems your ego is tricking you into attacking others who – at their core – are the same as you (universal consciousness). It does this primarily by creating an illusion of separateness (as fostered by many of our institutions, including the ‘public’ school system) in order to strengthen your own sense of self and feeling of being special. This is the route only to misery.

    You might find A New Earth or The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle useful for freeing yourself from this trap that continues to causing mass suffering and ecosystem destruction.

  41. Elizabeth JohnsonNo Gravatar
    October 20th, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    Your article is very interesting to an Anglophile American. I must say that the internecine class war is COMPLETELY unfamiliar (personally) to me. We do have our differences, but they are organized along religious/regional lines. I went to a state-supported ‘public’ school, and my children went to an independent ‘private’ school. Their education was clearly superior to mine, but they mostly hated it. Sigh.

  42. O.B. WilsonNo Gravatar
    March 13th, 2014 @ 7:37 pm

    My gt-gt grandfather went to Glenalmond College. Much of what you have to say here is true.

  43. O.B. WilsonNo Gravatar
    March 13th, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

    Although, with that said, a significant proportion of this is also untrue.

  44. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    March 13th, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

    So, you are saying that you know I’m not telling the truth about my time at school (1998-2003) because you know someone who was there what, 100 years ago..?

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  52. Violeta VajdaNo Gravatar
    November 4th, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

    I only just saw this, Adam, and I wanted to thank you for speaking up in a way that, for me, is truly revolutionary. I long for the days to come when everyone who went to public school can be as open about their experience there as you are in this piece. I think that will help enormously with bringing down this skewed economic and social system that we live in. I myself have done a lot of work unearthing the scraps of ‘posh’ upbringing that I got in communist Romania, from my mum’s family who were part of the pre-World War II elite. I found the process extremely valuable and illuminating – especially around how the bits of privilege I inherited still propel me higher up the social hierarchy than I would normally manage to climb. If you ever want to chat more about all this, please let me know.
    PS. I am inspired to write a blog entry for Bright Green about a group of young people who grew up with privilege in the US and who use their understanding of how that privilege was formed to work for social justice. Watch this space and in the meantime check out their website


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