March 31, 2021

The truth is here, and it is vicious: even a public school education does not protect women from their own femininity. Even in the enchanted castles of the English public schools, where everything is available, some things can’t be bought: bodily autonomy, for instance.

Last week, testimony from pupils at Highgate School, Latymer Upper School, Dulwich College and elsewhere was circulated online from a website called Everyone’s Invited, a name that is bleakly witty. The allegations are posted anonymously by those at both private and state schools and universities across the country: but the media emphasised the private schools, where the cognitive dissonance is more dramatic, and the photographs are better.

There are stories of forced fellatio, emotional bullying and rape, drunken and sober. It is repulsive to read, and the schools had to respond. They will listen to The Times, if not the students, whose parents pay £21,600 a year. Allegations were reportedly ignored or soothed away with conundrums such as: we believe you — but will others? Now Dulwich College has called the police on two of its own pupils and Highgate offered an apology and promised to commission an independent review: the medium guns, then, and they need them, because anger is building.

The term “rape culture” is used to describe what is happening in these schools, and this makes me uneasy. The very phrase seems to offer the possibility of mitigation, for rape is the only crime in which this race for mitigation exists: if everyone is complicit, no one is guilty. Is a culture convictable? Is it punishable? I would be amazed if there were more sexual assaults in public schools than in state schools, even as the word entitlement is also used of these children: why would there be? Who is not entitled when it comes to young female bodies? Sexual assault: the great leveller.

There will be hand wringing and an offensive and cosmetic penance. Let us see how many careless teachers are sacked, how many teenage rapists jailed. There will possibly be a handful of out-of-court settlements, and then — nothing much at all. And that’s for the public school girls. Will the girls from state schools get any justice worth the name? The experience of the victims of the Rotherham grooming scandal suggests not. The victims will carry their burden alone; many will break, not under the burden of the crime, but under the burden of the disbelief: a double abandonment. That is usually the way.

For the private school pupils, though, it is different. Their stories lead the news pages, which may give them hope, but the defensive propaganda has already begun, as it does when these institutions, entwined with the British state for centuries, feel themselves threatened. They can afford skillful PR. They are selling a dreamland, after all; but a dreamland for some is not a dreamland for others. It has begun to roll out already; and there will be more of it.

My teenage son is not a rapist, wrote an anonymous mother in a Sunday newspaper, of an anonymous son that no one is calling a rapist: call him then a straw rapist. Do not blight a generation of schoolboys with upsetting allegations of rape, they say, ignoring the basic truth that rape is upsetting, and should always be treated as such. I would call these the old guns. There is an element of tribute in the reporting of the crisis for the public schools, even as this is described as “the next major scandal” for the country. But gawping is not justice. It is, quite often, a way of not seeing. It is entertainment.

And people, and journalists, will gawp. I was educated at a minor public school: almost half of newspaper columnists are, which is probably why our journalism on this subject is not better. We circle the fountain of inequality with jealous eyes; we rarely challenge it. Shame can still a pen. So can envy. Even progressive newspapers do not attack private schools as they should (it is not education they offer — if they did it would be cheaper — but social privilege) because so many journalists are educated there, and so are their children. Better to be a hypocrite in private than a fool in public. If you want justice, don’t look at us. We’re banging on the door too.

We do this because they are enchanted castles: it is no coincidence that Hogwarts is quite obviously an English public school, and strictly selective, though all fees are paid by the magical government, magically. Free public school standard education for all and an elite which includes everyone: that might be the most fantastical thing J K Rowling ever wrote.

But that enchanted girdle that public school winds around your future will only extend so far if you are female. The pay gap between the privately educated and state school educated university graduate with the same class of degree (7%-15%) does not exist for women, according to Engines of Privilege by David Kynaston and Francis Green, the definitive polemical book about private schools. Those girls who walked out of lessons last week in protest, might turn to this next.

But first, there are allegations like this: “In year 9, a teacher said to a class of 13-year-olds that ‘wife’ stood for ‘washing, ironing, fucking etc.’ It came to a head for me when I was sexual assaulted by my then boyfriend and his friend at 17. I tried to confront them about it and was told I was ‘over-reacting’.” That is the race for mitigation, but they wouldn’t call it that. They imbue it subconsciously, completely, and without critical thought. Perhaps it will matter this time. But, again, I doubt it. William Knowland, the Eton master fired for his lecture The Patriarchy Paradox — “saying smash the patriarchy amounts to saying smash human nature and biological reality” (a straw mob now?) — had support for his reinstatement from thousands of alumni, and boys.

It is ageless. What should be a moment of genuine crisis, a catalyst for change, borne on the rising tide of domestic violence under the pandemic and the singular, shocking murder of Sarah Everard and the police’s response, will likely ebb away. The private schools at least have the resources for counselling, if they are minded, which is part of their ocean of privilege; the state schools do not. I grieve for all victims, but will the state school girls even be heard amid the clamour?

Perhaps, if we are lucky, we will learn exactly what has happened in these schools, and whether the privilege they inculcate in their pupils has contributed to something ignoble, and terrible. We will learn what happened in all the schools where girls are unsafe, and how to make them safe. Or will we learn that — as I think more likely — men of all classes like to harm women when they can get away with it, and they can get away with it as easily in an enchanted castle as anywhere? It is a kind of equality: of misery.