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Status anxiety

Keeping children in their place

28 July 2012

6:00 AM

28 July 2012

6:00 AM

It won’t surprise many people to learn that the British Olympian selected to carry Team GB’s flag at the opening ceremony tomorrow went to a private school. Triple gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy attended George Watson’s College, a Scottish independent school established in 1741. Annual fees are a fraction under £10,000.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister complained that a third of the athletes representing Britain at the Games were privately educated and blamed state schools for failing to encourage sporting excellence. As several commentators pointed out, that was a bit rich given that the last Conservative government did little to discourage comprehensives from selling off their playing fields.

In a sense, though, the Prime Minister — and these commentators — are missing the point since the ‘all must win prizes’ philosophy of so many state schools extends far beyond the sports field. It applies to excellence across the board. In too many comprehensives, children are discouraged from trying to stand out in any area. This is partly because the teachers don’t want them to be disappointed, but mainly because they think ordinary, common-or-garden children aren’t entitled to life’s glittering prizes.

It was this attitude that Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France, had to overcome at St Augustine’s Church of England high school in Kilburn. In a piece about his old PE master in the Times Educational Supplement, Wiggins contrasted Mr Gaunt’s ‘can do’ attitude with that of the rest of the staff. ‘When I told most other teachers that I wanted to win an Olympic gold in cycling, they dismissed it as crazy,’ he wrote. ‘They said: “How many inner-city kids do that?’’’


Tom Daley, the diving prodigy who is one of Britain’s brightest Olympic hopes, encountered a similar attitude at Eggbuckland Community College in Plymouth. On its website, the school describes itself as a ‘Centre of Excellence for e-learning’, but Daley’s achievements certainly weren’t celebrated. His parents were forced to transfer him to a private school after he was bullied by his fellow pupils. Like the staff at St Augustine’s, they didn’t approve of children getting above themselves.

The charitable view is that this attitude is largely unconscious, particularly on the part of teachers. I’ve always thought of the English class system as being like some sinister organism in a science fiction movie, prompting people to do its bidding by exerting some mysterious, hypnotic force. We desperately want to escape its influence — it literally has no defenders — and yet we remain in its grip.

But while that may be partly true, some teachers in state schools are quite overtly anti-aspirational. Earlier this year, the TES published a piece by a maths teacher at a sixth-form college in Norfolk in which he complained about a pupil who was desperate to get into Cambridge. ‘Sometimes, ambitious children need to slow down,’ he wrote. In the piece, he recounts a conversation with the boy, in which he tells him to stop worrying about where he ends up. ‘What’s better?’ he asks him. ‘To go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?’

As a state school boy at Oxford, I joined a ‘community outreach’ programme whereby I was dispatched to various inner-city comprehensives to encourage the sixth-formers to apply, and met with almost no success. The stumbling block wasn’t a lack of ability or even a lack of knowledge. It was the children’s unshakable conviction that Oxford wasn’t for the likes of them. Academic excellence — like sporting excellence — was the sole preserve of the privileged elite. That was the message that had been drummed into them from the age of 11 by teachers who thought they should know their place.

If we’re going to see a British Olympic team that reflects the socio-economic profile of contemporary Britain, we need to do something about what George W. Bush called ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. On the last day of term at the West London Free School I gave a speech in which I encouraged the children to be inspired by the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. ‘When you come back next term, I want you to run faster, aim higher, be stronger,’ I said.

It is only if we start telling all children that there’s no limit to what they can achieve, no matter what their background, that we will stand a chance of defeating our monstrous class system.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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