ike contemplating Hamlet without the ghost: that’s what one historian calls anything about education in England that doesn’t mention the Endowed Schools Act of 1869. Before it, England had no such thing as a secondary-education system. If you were rich you might go to Eton or Rugby or Winchester or Harrow; if you were lucky you might live near a city merchant’s charitable foundation. But for most people there was nothing much at all. The 1869 act changed that by seizing the endowments that had been left, over the centuries, to the ancient grammar schools and distributing the money in what was, in some ways, a more sensible fashion: for example, by funding schools for girls. But the act also abolished provisions made for educating poor scholars completely free – this wasn’t the something-for-nothing society, this was Victorian England. And it helped split schools into three basic types, for working-class, middle-class and upper-class children – a divide, buried though governments have tried to make it, that continues to distort and disfigure the education system today.
There’s something else people need to know about the 1869 act. The heads of the endowed schools hated it, and set up a club, the Headmasters’ Conference, to defend themselves against it. It is now called the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, but it’s still the main body representing the elite education providers in Britain, the schools that, even now, can promise pupils a much better chance than average of gaining wealth, power, Ucas points, and membership of the mysterious old boys’ networks that continue to gird the globe. “More than half of the top medics, civil servants, lawyers, media figures and Conservative MPs” in Britain attended an HMC school, says David Turner, not to mention “pop stars – 22% of them, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission”. Worse, the very fact such privilege exists causes many people to feel that state schools, no matter how good they are, are never good enough. Academies, free schools and grammar schools, and church places, music places and places for whatever else: all spring from a sense of inadequacy that goes back decades.