A review of David Walsh & Anthony Seldon's, Public Schools and the Second World War (Barnsley, 2020)
It is, of course, a cliché that one should not judge a book by its cover, or, in this case, its title. David Walsh and Anthony Seldon have written a book that it much broader in scope and ambition than its title suggests: it is really a history of public schools in twentieth-century Britain with the Second World War as the hinge or pivot of both the narrative and the analysis. As a sequel to Public Schools and the Great War (2013), Walsh and Seldon have therefore produced something more akin to The Godfather Part II than Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
In contrast to the view that if the Great War had been a ‘public-school war’ then the Second World War was a ‘people’s war’, Walsh and Seldon argue that there were significant continuities between the two conflicts in relation to the role of public schools. In the Second World War, as in the First, the contribution of public schools was substantial and the authors are careful to push this argument without denigrating the value of areas where public-school alumni played little role, such as merchant ship convoys crossing the Atlantic, or the role of individuals, for example Ernest Bevin, whose formal education ended at the age of 11. Casualty figures among public school old boys, as in the Great War, were close to twice the national average. Public schools were over-represented in the military high command and officer corps, the intelligence services, scientific research and development and government. Much of this should not be surprising and reflects the inevitable interlinkage between the cultural, intellectual and economic elite and British public schools in the first half of the twentieth century. Judgements on the performance of the British elite become ipso facto judgements on public schools. Walsh and Seldon would have us draw up a more balanced and more favourable ledger.
The Second World War challenged public schools as institutions. All too Victorian in outlook and hard-hit by the Depression, several public schools were forced to evacuate their premises either as a consequence of requisitioning by the government or the threat of invasion or bombing. Tonbridge may not have been evacuated but a legacy of the invasion threat is visible to this day in the pill box constructed at the northern end of the High Street which, following the completion of the Barton Science Centre, once more visibly guards the approach up from the river. Walsh and Seldon trace the efforts of public schools to rise, very largely successfully, to these challenges, thereby securing the survival of almost all the institutions extant in 1939.
The Second World War was undoubtedly a turning point in the history of British education due to the 1944 Education Act. Walsh and Seldon explain why public schools were not included within its provisions but also why an opportunity was lost to bring about closer connections between public and state schools as recommended by the report of the Fleming Committee of 1944. Writing in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the authors draw parallels between this missed opportunity and the challenges facing the independent sector today, arguing that then as now public schools should work with government to broaden access to private education. As a Boarding Housemaster, I could not help but be struck by the similarity of communications with parents about safety from bombing in summer of 1940 and from coronavirus in the summer of 2020: ‘I could not tell parents that Brentwood is a safe place because it is not, but I do say ‘reasonably safe’ and we take precautions.’
Readers with a more parochial interest in all things Tonbridgian are perhaps better directed to David Walsh’s earlier book, A Duty to Serve: Tonbridge School and the 1939-45 war (2011). Nevertheless, there are of course some notable vignettes about our school and this reader was particularly interested to learn about the ways in which Tonbridge and other public schools offered education and shelter to refugees from Nazi Germany and later Nazi-occupied Europe. If public schools are to rise to the opportunity for self-reflection and a renewal of their sense of purpose in the current crisis, as demanded by Walsh and Seldon, then the ethos and obligation of public service that reverberates though their account of public schools and the Second World War provides both inspiration and a great place to start.