Friday, 9 September 2011

Back to School

In the Guardian recently, Anthony Seldon, head of public school Wellington College wrote in praise of... public schools. (For US readers, English public schools are expensive private schools. Yes, I know.) You see, public schools don't help you pass exams and get A*s, they teach you... character. And character is...? A pretty slippery concept. Here are a few excerpts.

"One of the core aims [of Toby Young's free school] is to instil in boys and girls from ordinary backgrounds the same edge that public school toffs have."

When Young arrived at Oxford University (the poshest) from a northern grammar school, he was bowled over by the public-school boys. "They had an assurance that contemporaries from humbler backgrounds altogether lacked" - he has probably been jealous of them ever since.

Top public school Eton "has a practice known as "oiling", which is learning how to win friends and influence others, and how to clamber over them to get what you want. It's a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness..."

"Young is right to emphasise the importance of character." State-educated youths "find they lack confidence and roundedness..." Baden-Powell described the Scout movement as a "character factory, designed to instil determination and resilience in all young people, regardless of class."

"Competitive sport is vital: it teaches resilience, teamwork and trust. Leadership training and mentoring should become widespread in schools. Young people should be given tough challenges, mental as well as physical..."

To give them "mental strength" send children on "hikes and gruelling expeditions". "Boarding... should become much more prevalent... The experience of living side by side with fellow students, and in conditions of relative deprivation, is profoundly character-building."

It looks like "character" can mean whatever you want it to mean. Public schools are often said to turn out "confident, articulate" young people. If you Google these words, you'll find they appear on the prospectus of most private schools. I like the sound of the Helen O'Grady Drama Academy in Africa, where they teach presentation, performance skills and public speaking. Because the confident, articulate child "finds it easier to make friends". If you want confident, articulate children, why not teach confidence and articulacy, rather than separating them from their families and subjecting them to gruelling hikes? It seems a roundabout method, to say the least.


  1. I understand the objections you're making to the quoted arguments, and of course one might go on, say, by mentioning that competitive sport can't only teach trust but may as well show the less physical boys their place for good.

    But I don't think confidence and such matters of the "School of Life" are easily taught on the blackboard. Some exceptions among the pupils might be able to understand intellectually and emotionally and then even to influence themselves by means of autosuggestion, but to most it's as useful as reading a (standard paperback) book on fitness is to transform yourself into a bodybuilder.

    Not that I could offer a solution.

  2. Children develop confidence when they are entrusted with appropriate challenges. Nowadays, we prefer to coddle and say "everyone is a winner!" - but we deprive our children of important lessons re the sense of accomplishment that comes when one tried ones best and truly wins, the importance of focused hard work, how to recognise ones own skills and strengths and weaknesses, and how to cope with failures, etc.

  3. Thanks for your comments - I'd rather teach children to fake it! Confidence, that is. Seriously, don't children gain confidence if you provide a safe and loving home? All this "recognise one's own strengths" etc sounds rather abstract to me. ;-)

  4. "Seriously, don't children gain confidence if you provide a safe and loving home?"

    Absolutely, but what do you do with those children who don't have such a home? Have them go to a state school where nobody cares about them and they're either weak and will be bullied or they're strong and bully others?

    It's all very complicated, and as I said, I haven't a solution.

    One of the paradoxes of children's minds is that those who have a safe and loving home often have much less seperation anxiety, so those with a "bad home" mind being away from it much more.

  5. I think we should identify our goals and then work out how to attain them. The defence of public schools sounds to me like justification after the fact. We need evidence-based policy.

  6. Here's an interesting article about two very different schools.