Paying £40,000 a year to send your child to one of Britain's elite private schools might sound like a lot – but just consider what all that money could get them: a place at Oxbridge, a ministerial position and, now, potential TikTok fame.
With the hair of 90s Hugh Grant and the plummy patter of Michael McIntyre, Private School TikTok has firmly established itself as one of the app's many subcultures, with the hashtag "#privateschool" racking up 396 million views. Open that hashtag and you'll find videos ranging from obvious self-parodies (a riff on Lizzo's "Boys", with the lyrics "I like: signet rings, schoffels, mullets, trust funds, polo, Range Rovers, daddy's money"), semi-ironic displays of wealth (a video of a pupil fanning their face with £50) and overt classism (lip-syncing to audio of anyone without an RP accent).
Rich kids parading their wealth online has a long history: think gratuitous YouTube hauls or the Rich Kids of the Internet Instagram page. The key difference here is that Private School TikTok is less concerned with wealth itself, and more the comedic mileage that wealth affords.
So: why are so many posh, privately-educated kids cosplaying as even posher privately-educated kids? Besides gathering ammunition for the upcoming class war, why are people watching them? And what the hell is a schoffel?
Marcus, who's 15, and Henry, Harry and Rory, who are all 16, are the team behind a popular Private School TikTok account (which we'll refer to as "MHHR"). They told me that after a TikTok about niche private school subjects – like Latin, beekeeping and debating – went viral, they realised there was a market for exaggerated portrayals of private school life, and decided to "build their account from there and just mess about with it".
Eloise, aged 16, had a similar experience. When a skit of her and her friend wielding a lacrosse stick and playing up to private school stereotypes received thousands of views, she realised there was an appetite for TikToks about stereotypical private school girls, explaining that "all the pages that go viral are ones with themes, so I decided to stick my theme to Britain, weather, the Conservatives and private school".
For 17-year-old Michael, Private School TikTok provides a platform to "utilise the satire in middle class problems". His most popular video is of him outside a Toby Carvery, saying, "I'm in the ghetto, ratatata," with the hashtag #sendhelp.
In September of 2019, delegates at the Labour Party Conference voted to abolish private schools by removing their charitable status. Coupled with the endless discourse about the relationship between Oxbridge and private education (most recently: "Was my son rejected by Oxbridge because he went to a private school?"), the topic is as firmly on the national agenda as it's ever been.
The MHHR boys note that, although we're having more discussions about private school, none of these shed any light on what life at one is like, telling me, "People always want to talk about what adults think about private schools, but we're the ones actually at private schools." The foursome believe public curiosity has contributed to their popularity on TikTok, telling me, "I think if you're not from a private school, you'd be kind of interested in what private school life is like."
Eloise agrees: "Lots of people want to see what it's like, as they don't really know."
It's tempting to attribute the TikTok trend to an emboldened online conservative youth movement, flexing their muscles in the wake of Boris Johnson's ascendance and the 2019 election result. In fact, Michael tells me he thinks TikTok has helped "shine the spotlight on the young Tories, young right wing adolescents", while the media only focuses on "young left wing people, who actively oppose Brexit and climate change".
However, beyond using the stereotype of private school kids voting Conservative for comedy, Eloise and the MHHR boys don't believe the popularity of their videos has anything to do with British politics. Instead, say the four boys, their videos appeal internationally, particularly with American viewers: "I think the Americans think we're all really posh, so for them our TikTok is like a documentary."
As Private School TikTok has grown increasingly popular, both Eloise and the MHHR team have noticed more critical viewers. "We look through our comments, and we're like, 'How do these people legit think we're actually like this?'" says MHHR. "We're playing other characters, not really playing ourselves." Echoing this, Eloise says, "When people comment stuff like, 'I hate these people,' it's like, 'Oh my god, it's obviously a joke.'"
Being unable to distinguish between the sincere and the satirical is a mainstay of contemporary internet culture, where the dance between ambiguity and ambivalence makes determining meaning increasingly difficult.
If Poe's Law, an internet adage coined in 2005, states that "without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article", then perhaps Araminta's Law should reflect the fact that "it is utterly impossible to clearly parody a private school pupil while simultaneously being a private school pupil".
Viewers could accept the self-parody as sincere and laugh along, or cast the pupils as private school heartthrobs, as older people might have with Etonian actors like Tom Hiddleston and Eddie Redmayne. But if the number of "eat the rich" or "vote Labour" comments underneath the videos is anything to go by, clearly many viewers do take the videos at face value.
I found myself watching one video where a girl asks her friend, "My daddy doesn't really support chavs – does yours?" on a loop, not because I thought her question was particularly genuine (she bursts into laughter at the end of the video), but because the idea that it might be was a seductive one.
In the end, whether you're posting about private school ironically or un-ironically makes no difference to your material circumstances. While we can all call a kid flashing his AirPods gauche, self-parodies are deceptive: by creating caricatures of wealth so extreme and obnoxious, private school TikTokers conjure up a posh-bogeyman, then use this as the benchmark against which their privilege is measured.
Suddenly, by not being called Jonty, or coming from a family that merely owns two homes instead of three, you can argue that you're not truly privileged. Playing dress-up as a character who is "posher" than you works as an act of deflection and concealment, not unlike the trend of rich kids donning adidas and waxing lyrical about Wetherspoons. If, as Nathalie Olah writes in her 2019 book Steal As Much As You Can, "an aristocrat's son wearing a tracksuit remains an aristocrat's son", then a private school pupil parodying his privilege remains a private school pupil.
Oh, and a schoffel – it turns out – is basically just a gilet.