It is a matter of common knowledge (and frustration) amongst the more politically active people in our country that the private school system has an oversized influence on our government. In the United Kingdom, roughly 7% of the population attends a private school yet this cohort dominates almost every aspect of society, from journalism and the courts to our elected representatives. For example, prime minister Rishi Sunak’s first cabinet in 2022 was majority privately educated, with 65% of his top jobs going to this group.
However, this dominance by such a small sector of the population with few special qualities,except the wealth of their family, has been well documented and indeed, Sunak is often criticised for his insincere and ‘head boyish’ demeanour. But instead of looking at the deleterious social effects of private schools, this article will compare some mottos of the private schools and what they can tell us about the ethos, values, and beliefs that they instil in the pupils who often go on to rule this country.
Beginning with the “chief nurse of England’s statesmen” like David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Eton College, we can see that othering and the formation of privilege networks begins at a very young age. With the motto “floreat Etona”, “may Eton flourish”, the self-interest of the school becomes apparent. It is not for the country that boys are educated at Eton, or for the Church or even for the boys themselves, but for Eton. Eton’s motto demonstrates the primary purpose of Eton College and its attended networks.
Found guilty of breaking the law by partaking in a price-fixing cartel in 2005 and afflicted by repeated and numerous behavioural controversies, the school nonetheless maintains its reputation as one of (if not the) premier public school in the country and possibly the world. One indispensable facet of this success is the strong corporate bond formed by adoption into the ranks of “Old Etonians” who then, as demonstrated by the motto, go into the world in order to better the state of Eton College.
Virtutis Fortuna Comes
“Fortune is the companion of virtue” is the motto of Wellington College, a Victorian foundation and one that is often seen as one of the most successful and innovative private schools in the United Kingdom. While often viewed as a call to virtue by asserting that fortune will smile on you if you act virtuously, the fact that to be rich and successful enough to send your child to Wellington College means you have already “made it”. Therefore, this motto neatly shows one of the important advantages of a private education, a self-belief that you are special and part of an elevated aristocracy of virtue that a private schooling has merely revealed (for the low, low cost of £45,000 per annum).
By asserting that all it takes to be successful is ambition, desire and virtue, the motto of Wellington College cleverly assuages the privately educated of their own worries that they owe their success to unearned wealth rather than their innate ability. By stating that those who are fortunate are the virtuous, this motto subliminally reinforces the paradigm that the upper classes are successful by right of their virtue. Therefore, this means that the class system is arranged in its natural and proper order which is then perpetuated by successive generations sending their children to private school. Of course, such a motto also tacitly announces this, for if the successful are fortunate due to their virtue, are not the unfortunate lacking in virtue and therefore deserving of their degraded state?
Manners Maketh Man
Winchester College, which educated the prime minister and at which he was head boy, has the motto “Manners Maketh Man”, inherited from its illustrious founder William of Wykeham. This is one of the only mottos from the schools of the Rugby Group in the vernacular, especially interesting considering that Winchester predates many newer foundations having been established in 1382, older than many universities on the Continent.
In contrast to the brash, bullish nature of the multiplicity of Old Etonians in public life who delight in breaking custom and practice when it conflicts with their desires, Winchester tends to produce a more reserved sort of young man focussed on proper behaviour and working within the system. Indeed, this is soon to include young women, as the school goes co-educational for the first time in its six-hundred-year history. As current headmaster Tim Hands says, rather than generals and prime ministers, Winchester “produces judges and civil servants”. This can be seen with Rishi Sunak’s apparent belief that if he treats people politely and organises barbeques in a head boy fashion, they will not notice that he is the most right-wing prime minister since Margaret Thatcher.
Praesis ut Prosis
In order to provide some contrast, I would like to introduce the motto of one of England’s oldest non-private schools, Lancaster Royal Grammar School (LRGS). With a putative foundation date much older than even Winchester and a confirmed date in the 15th century, the school carries the motto of “praesis ut prosis”, “lead in order to serve”. This perhaps demonstrates one of the starkest differences with private schools like Eton. LRGS educates and supports these young men (and women since 2019) to the best of their ability in order that they use those skills to provide and support their communities and organisations.
The ideals embodied in such a motto are to produce valuable and civic minded members of society who drive boundaries forward, not merely for their own benefit or the success of their alma mater but rather to serve society as a whole. This includes leaders of the armed forces; arts and entertainment sectors; the churches of Britain, and yes, the political field as well. Unlike Old Etonians, Old Lancastrians are not there to support the interests of LRGS but to aid their fellow members of society rather than an exclusive and narrow interest group.
Mottos and Manners
Overall, trying to pigeonhole the personalities of individuals predicated upon the school they attended is a futile endeavour. Additionally, trying to assign a behavioural pattern to a school based on its motto is a hiding to nothing. However, more knowledge about a system that is so important to understanding why our politicians are the way they are is never a bad thing.
The vast majority of the population have no interaction with the private school system and yet the privately educated directly and extensively influence and have authority over the lives of everyone in the United Kingdom. Looking at the mottos of schools for insight might seem superficial but as Sir Francis Bacon wrote, scientia ipsa potentia est, knowledge is power.
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