As you read this, I’ll be preparing to give an after-dinner speech at one of the oldest prep schools in Kenya. The school motto is Fortuna Favet Fortibus, so my theme is going to be the importance of character. I’m going to ask whether there’s any point in spending upwards of £30,000 a year to send your child to an English public school — a decision that many of the Kenyan parents will shortly have to make. If one of the purposes of a good education is to teach their children resilience in the face of adversity, wouldn’t they be better off sending them to a state school in Nairobi?
This is partly for provocative reasons. On the night I’ll be speaking, the audience will be crawling with agents for top public schools. They’ll be trying to gull the parents into parting with their life savings, so I feel dutybound to debunk some of the myths they’ll be peddling about the benefits of a public school education. That part should be fun.
But I’m also genuinely convinced that institutions like Rugby and Marlborough have suffered a terrible decline in the past 20 years or so. I don’t mean academically, obviously. From a purely academic point of view, England’s top public schools are still world class. I mean they no longer have the same positive impact on their pupils’ characters. The reason for this is simple: they’ve become too luxurious. Instead of being one step removed from prison camps, they’re now five-star hotels.
I’m basing this entirely on the experiences of my wife Caroline, who attended Cheltenham Ladies College from 1985-90. On her first day as a boarder, she returned from lessons to discover ‘cuddly’ had gone missing. This was the tattered old blanket she’d been clutching to her chest since she was a toddler. She was understandably distressed and asked her housemistress if she’d seen it. ‘That disgusting old rag?’ she said. ‘I threw it away. We regard that sort of thing as childish at Cheltenham.’
Bear in mind that Caroline was ten at the time and had never spent a night away from her mum and dad before. Nevertheless, in addition to being deprived of ‘cuddly’, she was forbidden to contact her parents for the first three weeks of term.
But that was the least of it. She was forced to sleep in a dormitory that was so cold, in winter she would wake up to find ice on the inside of the windows. Reveille was at 7a.m., but if you wanted a bath you had to put your name down on a waiting list and when it came up you were allowed no more than six inches of water.
There was one television in her house — a small black and white affair — and the girls were only allowed to watch one programme a week. They all had to watch it at the same time, too, so they had to take a vote about which programme to put on.
I could go on, but you get the idea. A ten-year-old girl was forced to endure conditions that would send the average inmate of Belmarsh scuttling off to the European Court of Human Rights.
To this day, Caroline harbours a burning hatred of Cheltenham, but I am in no doubt that it made her the person she is — the no-nonsense mother of four who thinks that women who elect for any sort of pain relief when giving birth are ‘wet’. Needless to say, she is constantly aghast at what a cissy I am.
The last time we went camping, I took a pillow with me — something Caroline immediately dismissed as ‘day-boy behaviour’. I’m sure she’s cried at some point in the 15 years we’ve been together, but for the life of me I can’t remember when. In short, she’s stoical, uncomplaining, imperturbable — all thanks to the privations she suffered as a child.
The Cheltenham Ladies College of today, I fear, is a very different place. The website has pictures of girls sitting on luxurious beds, Apple Macs on their laps. It proudly boasts of the awards won by the school food — unspeakable in Caroline’s day, naturally. The wealth of facilities make it look like the country pile of a Saudi prince. Attractive to Russian oligarchs no doubt, but unlikely to turn out the sort of women who were the backbone of the British Empire.
No, if the intrepid Kenyans I’ll be addressing care about character, they shouldn’t waste their money on these holiday camps. They should move back to Britain and send their children to bog-standard comprehensives.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.