Playwright Alan Bennett has hit out against public schools, claiming that to allow some young people a privileged education, while others make do without, is "not Christian".
In a lecture given at Cambridge University this week, Bennett – who perhaps most famously penned 'The History Boys', a play set in a Sheffield grammar school that documents the struggles of eight bright, working-class teenage boys as they apply to Oxbridge – shared his own experience of taking the entrance exam for the University of Cambridge in his youth.
It was here, Bennett noted, that he first began to see the differences between private and state education, and indeed those that attended such institutions.
"They [public school boys] were loud, self-confident and all seemed to know one another, shouting down the table to prove it while also being shockingly greedy. Public school they might be, but they were louts," he said, adding that it was the first time he himself was "conscious of having a Northern accent".
"Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it," Bennett declared.
"And those who receive it know it, or should. And if their education ends without it dawning on them, then that education has been wasted.
"I would also suggest – hesitantly, as I am not adept enough to follow the ethical arguments involved – that if it is not fair, then maybe it's not Christian either," he continued.
"Souls, after all, are equal in the sight of God and thus deserving of what these days is called a level playing field."
Bennett went on to insist that the education system must be transformed if we are to offer young British teenagers an equal start in life.
As a grammar school pupil, he said the odds were "stacked against" him, but had hoped that the situation would at least begin to change in time. "It was only when, as time passed this didn't happen, that what in my case had begun as a selfish and even plaintive grievance, hardened to take in not just entrance to Oxford and Cambridge, but access to higher education in general," he said.
"And to say that nothing is fair is not an answer," he continued. "Governments, even this one, exist to make the nation's circumstances more fair, but no government, whatever its complexion, has dared to tackle private education."
Bennett suggested that "gradual reform", whereupon state and public schools merge together for sixth-form "ought to be feasible and hardly revolutionary".
"Isn't it time we made a proper start? Unlike today's ideologues, whom I would call single-minded if mind came into it at all, I have no fear of the state," he concluded.
"I was educated at the expense of the state, both at school and university. My father's life was saved by the state as, on one occasion, was my own. This would be the nanny state, a sneering appellation that gets short shrift with me. Without the state, I would not be standing here today."
In response to Bennett's assertions, however, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, told the Daily Mail: "Independent schools are very keen to widen access and are committed to improving social mobility. Over a third of pupils at our schools receive some fee assistance with ISC independent schools providing £660 million this year.
"The best solution is that pursued by all recent governments: learn from the best schools, whatever sector they are in, and pass the lessons on to all schools."