In tough times, we have to be persuaded to buy the non-essentials in life. While no one would deny an education is essential, many parents are beginning to question whether paying tens of thousands of pounds for a clutch of GCSEs is really worth it. Therefore public schools are having to come up with ever more selling points to draw in the punters.
Anthony Seldon, the never willingly underquoted Master of Wellington College, has a new reason to encourage you to send your children to his school. He claims that his establishment, and others like it, can offer to teach your children ‘character’ in a way that no state school can.
What is ‘character’ anyway? Can it really be taught by a bunch of soldiers coming in and telling you about their time in Afghanistan? The word coming as it does from the Greek charakter ‘engraved mark’, or ‘symbol or imprint on the soul’, we should immediately raise the questions a) whether a school can and b) whether a school should be imprinting our children’s souls. Are they not meant to be educated — led out — rather than stamped upon? Yes, there is such a thing as an (invisible) Eton hallmark, but do we really want our children hallmarked so young?
The phrase ‘character building’ is not a new one; it is usually applied to difficult, stressful situations, to rejection or failure, to sorrow or strife. It suggests that your character is strengthened through your experiences, not through listening to a talk, however moving or inspiring that talk may be.
Those of us who work in state schools become increasingly frustrated with this kind patronage from the public schools, who pat us on the head and tell us there, there, they know it’s hard for us, but we don’t really work with the same material, do we? What can we expect? Well, we expect very much the same as you do, Mr Seldon. We expect our children to be well mannered and to work hard. We expect them to show courtesy towards each other, not to mock those less fortunate than themselves, to show restraint in times of anger and understanding in times of trouble. We may tell them again and again that education is the way forward, but we also try to show them that respect garners respect, that kindness will be met with kindness.
Seldon says, with some reason, that a lack of social mobility is a modern curse, but I would question his assertion that giving children free places in expensive public schools is the way forward. I for one would not want a child to be the poorest in a rich society. There might be the opportunity of learning Latin (which has alas vanished from the state sector) and the lovely soldiers to listen to, but won’t it be hideously isolating in the holidays to watch the others scamper off to the Val d’Isère and Mustique? Mixing with richer peers is as likely to foster resentment and revolution as it is to teach character.
State schools used to focus their PHSE (personal health and social education) on the mechanics of sex and drugs. If you have unprotected sex, you will get pregnant or… and a series of pictures of hideously diseased genitals is put on to the board. If you take drugs, you will die or… and some of those frightening before and after pictures appear. We did not seem to address morals, indeed seemed to shy away from any suggestion that there was such a thing as right or wrong. My cupboard was full of plastic blue penises and lesson plans on how to put on a condom, but while we could suggest that maybe children (and most of them are still children) should think before having sex, we were discouraged from telling them it was positively a bad idea to do so.
However, things have changed since then. PHSE still covers the mechanics, but pays much more heed to the morals of which Seldon implies we in the state sector are ignorant. With much more open discussion (and it is amazing how much children, in the right atmosphere, join in) we do now cover more contentious issues than ‘how to’.
While this might reassure the public schools’ view of state school morality, I would still argue that morality and character are not anyway the same thing. Character, to me, implies moral courage rather than morality — something completely different. A solider who follows orders into battle does not necessarily have a fine character; it is the soldier who refuses to follow orders which go against his conscience who has character.
Children who go to public schools are of course very lucky in many ways, and the public schools have much to offer that we cannot. Public schools have better facilities and smaller classes; they often teach subjects that we have lost. A public school child is still more likely to make friends with a future prime minister than is a state school child in County Durham. They are also more likely to have the superficial charm and good manners of the ruling classes — but isn’t that as much because those are learnt at home as well as at school?
The school in which I teach is a very successful comprehensive. We are not, however, entirely middle class; indeed we have a very wide socioeconomic intake. We also have children of every ability, from those who can barely read to those who could sit an A-level. While not for a moment suggesting that there is no suffering among better-off families, I would say that the children in our school will have much more awareness of social differences, of the terrible effects of bad choices, of the need we have to look after each other. Our children do not leave school expecting life to be easy, far from it. Even those who have not experienced much trouble or sorrow are more likely to have seen it at close hand.
I would suggest to Dr Seldon and his like that maybe some of his children should go and spend a term or two in a comprehensive school. Even one like ours, where respect and support are the norm, would open their eyes and, just possibly, give them a little character.