Written by David Turner
Published by Yale Press
Review by Charlie Britten
Every British schoolboy or schoolgirl is desperate to go to boarding school at some time in their life, tantalised by Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series (girls), Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series (boys) and more recently by Harry Potter (both sexes). The Old Boys, published in March 2015 and written by David Turner, former education correspondent for the Financial Times, is not about ‘jolly japes’, but a very serious, thorough and well-researched account of the British public school system from the very first such establishment – Winchester College, founded in 1394 – to the present day.
Winchester, like many public schools that followed it, started out with charitable intentions, as a free educational facility for boys from poor families, subsidised by commoners who did pay fees. Of course, the commoners rapidly overtook the non-fee payers in numbers and in status, with the result that, within a hundred years, public schools had become the place where arrivistes with money but without noble status or connections could purchase the latter, alongside a classical education. The Old Boys chronicles riots by boys, bullying and poor accommodation. Many of the problems which beset schools today were present from the beginning: huge class sizes, with teachers frequently asked to supervise two classes at once; the standard of teaching on offer being so poor that parents hire extra tutors; well-connected parents making a nuisance of themselves to teachers until their darlings were awarded better grades.
Although Turner’s work includes a lot of fascinating information, backed up by excellent primary sources, his treatment of the topic is disorganised and off-putting. The book starts in an uninviting way, with some long captions to illustrations, which don’t have much meaning as the illustrations are not displayed with them. Chapters are very long and, although the book attempts to tell the story of British public schools in chronological order, rather than by topic, the result is meandering. For instance, the reader is amidst a discussion of the impact of sport on the curriculum when suddenly we move on to homosexuality. Turner does not discuss girls’ public schools in any great detail, but that is not the brief he set himself.
Although The Old Boys has been promoted for the ‘general interest’ genre, it is, in truth, one for academic historians.
Charlie Britten is a contributing reviewer for The Copperfield Review.