Until the 1970s, if you had asked a public school headmaster what such institutions were for, his reply would have been along the following lines: that their main job - like that of the class system itself - was to produce an honourable and public-spirited ruling class. Stowe, founded in 1923, the first one in 60 years - to which I went in 1935 - was regarded at that time as daringly progressive. But when I asked to be told the difference between it and Eton - where my father had been - my mother said: "Well darling, at Eton you have to wear stiff collars and tailcoats, while at Stowe it's soft collars and grey flannels." In other words, there was no difference in principle. Both were concerned to educate the ruling class. But while Eton was rooted in medieval and semi-monastic traditions going back to ancient times, Stowe, being new, promised a ruling class more suited to the 20th century. A ruling class "with the cobwebs brushed off", as J. F. Roxburgh, Stowe's stylish and sophisticated founding headmaster, was fond of saying. "No Blackshirts here, dear boy."
All this has been brought back to me by reading Brian Rees's - himself a very experienced headmaster of Charterhouse - sparkling history of Stowe (Stamp Publishing). He shows how profoundly the new school's culture was determined by its purposefully-chosen grand country house location in the rolling parklands and Palladian beauty of the seat of the late Dukes of Buckingham: quite the proudest of the Whig ruling families, to whom parliamentary - as against populist - democracy owes so much. As Rees makes clear, the founding fathers of Stowe had no doubt that even if some of the boys came from nouveau riche families from the North of England, five years in the palatial grounds and buildings of Stowe would give them the necessary polish and patina to take their rightful place among the ranks of Britain's great and good. It was a hope duly fulfilled by a list of Old Stoics which includes the late Sir Nicholas Henderson, Britain's least pompous ever ambassador, and other such civilised high flyers as Lords Annan and Quinton. Even the immensely literate Old Stoic jazz singer George Melly fits the bill.