“Old boy wanted. Must be able to sing the school song with gusto, have a non-functional knowledge of Latin and understand the rules of Harrow Football and/or the Eton Wall Game.”
I am not a closet socialist. I don’t consider myself, truth be told, to have any political leanings whatsoever. And yet when I tell you that I have an issue with private and catholic schools, I am bound to be dismissed as some kind of neo-communist who has intentions to level every child in Britain socially. While those might be my ultimate intentions, they are not driven by anything so banal as political fervour. I am driven by jealousy, pure and simple. Why should others of higher birth than I receive an education of greater value but equal quality? That is not to say, of course, that were I to be offered a place to receive an education of such ‘greater value’ I would not be at it like a shot. So you will see that my angle here is not exactly honourable.
But I have an issue with private and catholic schools. I don’t have quite so much firepower to level at catholic schools, being as they are almost as staid and simple as state schools, but still my egalitarian self-righteousness flares up at the exalted status afforded to them in their reputations as ‘better’ schools. I have no particular wish to alienate the bible-bashers of all people, but it does strike me as a touch hypocritical that I happen to know people who are far more religious attending state schools than anyone I have ever encountered at these bastions of faith put on a pedestal due to their affiliation. In fact, catholic school students seem to be more openly hostile to religion due to their education than anyone else.
But it’s mostly private schools that cause me the greatest indignation, these little outposts of an outdated way of life – that of the lackadaisical aristocrat – now populated by the children of bank-traders and foreign politicians. In one too many towns can be seen these little compounds in which monumentally bored-looking children in piped blazers learn the grammatical rules of ancient Greek, solve problems with verbal and physical abuse and play utterly pointless games which have been played at the school (not any private school, mind, just this one) for the best part of eight hundred years. It’s not these bizarre little games themselves that infuriate me, but the oh-so-secret historical exclusivity which surrounds them. It’s the same with all of the traditions and rituals which permeate the public schools of Britain: functionally useless but these days only maintained to attract the rich foreigners looking for “a real British education” whose oil money keeps the entire system afloat for the next generation. And let’s not forget that the most exclusive of our schools are looking even further that way of recent years – outposts of Eton and Harrow in sunnier climes are being opened to serve the laziest of the world’s mini-plurocrats who can’t be bothered to drag their heels backwards and forwards between their mansions in Antigua and this tiny, boring, grey island.
It won’t be long before “The Eton Experience” is available over the internet, so that the nouveau-riche of the world can give their children the education they wish they’d had… in the comfort of their own homes. It would certainly work, as recent documentaries have attested to: the unique Sodom-and-Gomorrah atmosphere of a boarding-school dormitory also seems to have a wider appeal to the viewing public of Britain. Not, of course, that these self-made parents are actually sending their children to receive a world-class education or to mingle with the royals of Europe: most of these schools are crumbling and filled with cantankerous ‘masters’ whose deaths would remain unnoticed until the end of the term when the grounds-man found them still at their desks. The royals, naturally, send their children elsewhere – Eton and Harrow are full of the vulgar children of petit-bourgeoisie foreigners.
Neither are these schools actually preparing their pupils for life. I mean, aside from preventing ‘improprieties’ between students, what purpose can segregating the genders actually serve? It’s a story too often seen amongst the educated middle classes – young Tarquin, who has spent the entirety of his education with only matron for company of the opposite sex, has absolutely no idea how to deal with women, hops into bed with the first pretty pair of legs he sees and later finds that he has absolutely nothing in common with his new bride. One child and costly divorce later, Tarquin finds himself a lot more circumspect with regard to such matters. These schools might teach their young wards how to translate the Iliad and which one is the fish fork, but there’s absolutely nothing in their insulated existences which teaches them how to live life ‘on the outside’. In the words of Bill Bryson, “Britain no longer needs colonial administrators who can quip in Latin”, an idea which neatly encapsulates the uselessness of the so-called ‘traditional’ education offered in these schools. The heyday of these institutions is long gone, along with the powerful aristocracy, serfdom and fore-lock tugging.
Not that the schools are actually as insulated in practice as parents and teachers alike suppose them to be: one of the primary motivations for parents sending their children to private schools is to avoid, whether pre-emptively or otherwise, the bullying which is supposedly endemic in state schools. This, of course, is anything but the case: rates of bullying are often as high, if not higher, than in state counterparts. This is before we even begin to consider what depositing one’s children at what is near-as-enough a prison for the vast majority of the year says about parenting skills. But then we must remember that most of these parents were farmed out to boarding schools themselves as children, and thus have absolutely no experience of family life. These so-called families are trapped in what an anthropologist, should one ever do this valuable research, might pithily name as a ‘parental apathy feedback loop’.
And yet somehow privately educated students have a greater value in the academic and working communities. Currently, over forty-four percent of Oxbridge undergraduate places are awarded to students from private schools, a statistic which is quite frankly staggering when compared to the fact that only seven percent of all the secondary students in Britain are privately educated. But for some reason universities and employers favour these privileged prigs, despite the fact that their exam results mean little and aren’t exactly excellent in the first instance. And there is something utterly repulsive to me in the idea of the old boys’ network, the Good Chap ideal, the “I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine” system that runs within the private schools of Britain. A student of even the most second-rate non-recognised independent school can rely upon the support of the one or two of the school’s ex-students who actually went somewhere in life. The best simple English (if Americanism) synonym for this, in my view, is freeloading.
I mean, it’s not as though I have any real issue with the students in these schools: some of my nearest (and certainly dearest) are privately educated, after all. My real problem is with the system which processes them in such a way. I could drag out my figures here, related anecdotes, sociological studies and so on, but I won’t. Because the issue is simple – these schools simply do not prepare their students for real life, and despite this these students are more likely to get a job, more likely to go to Oxbridge universities: more likely to have a prosperous life, in other words, than the other ninety-three percent of the population. And why, above all the perfectly serviceable, possibly more intelligent state students around? Because they went to “a good school”, that’s why.
I won’t attempt to fight a losing battle by arguing that every single victim of the private school system is the same bluff, perennially over-reserved Hooray Henry rugger-bugger. That would be insensitive and cruel, and I would be maligning some of those closest to me. No, it’s just the vast, vast majority of them. So I will offer a solution: those private schools occupy historic buildings worth, I would imagine, nearly as much as the schools themselves, don’t they? Let the National Trust buy up the premises at bargain-basement prices and open them to the public. The students can then be placed in the nearest inner-city comprehensive at a reduced fee (which will still be paid to their school), with the little Algernons and Cynthias receiving some genuine life education while trying to avoid being stabbed for their lunch money (that would make a decent reality television programme, wouldn’t it?). The teachers will be distributed to schools around the country. With this plan tourism is increased, struggling schools will receive more funding and supposedly ‘world-class’ teaching staff, and the Russian hedge-fund managers and people-smugglers will take their infuriatingly spoilt children elsewhere. If you’re listening Nicky Morgan, I will sell you this plan tax-free for a thousand pounds. Send the cash to my school.