Next Friday, Boris Johnson will officially open the West London Free School. I’m particularly pleased that the ribbon is being cut by a former editor of this magazine.
Next Friday, Boris Johnson will officially open the West London Free School. I’m particularly pleased that the ribbon is being cut by a former editor of this magazine. Not only is The Spectator my longest-standing employer and my spiritual home — I’ve been a columnist for 13 years — but many of the ideas that have informed the set-up of the school were first rehearsed in these pages. It’s also appropriate in another respect, because it was encountering Boris at Oxford that first made me aware of the huge gulf between the private and state education sector.
Then I met Boris. I first set eyes on him at a freshers’ debate at the Oxford Union and, to all intents and purposes, he was the man you see today. It was if he had already mastered the art of public speaking several years earlier and gone a step beyond, adding a layer of befuddlement in order not to appear too polished. He seemed at least 25 years older than me — a fully formed personality, comfortable in his own skin. Watching his total command of the audience, I realised I’d never be able to compete.
It wasn’t just Boris. Two years later, David Cameron arrived and I was immediately struck by his bottomless well of self-confidence. Nearly all the products of major public schools I encountered at Oxford possessed this savoir-faire. Any trace of the children they had once been had vanished. They were ready to take on the world, many of them with career paths already mapped out. They weren’t just more sophisticated than me, they seemed to belong to a different species.
In part, this was attributable to their privileged upbringings. ‘There was a constant supply of sugary homemade lemonade and fresh sandwiches and chocolate cake,’ an ex-girlfriend of David Cameron’s reported, describing his home in Berkshire.
But to a great extent it was attributable to their education. At Britain’s best public schools, children don’t merely learn how to conjugate Greek verbs, they’re taught how to be successful adults as well. I don’t just mean they’re taught manners — though God knows that’s important — I mean they’re told how to win friends and influence people. At Eton this is referred to as ‘oiling’ and I imagine there are other words to describe the same thing at similar schools. Politics isn’t on the curriculum — it’s the sort of soft subject that’s only taught in the state sector — but it’s the no. 1 extra-curricular activity. Most of the public schoolboys I met at Oxford had spent the previous five years clambering over one another in an effort to become the president of this and the captain of that. As a result, they’d mastered the art of self-advancement.
The products of state schools, by contrast, were utterly clueless. We might be able to recite the periodic table and quote Shakespeare, but we were complete innocents when it came to politics. Like flies to wanton boys were we to gods like Boris and Dave.
This is the reason why the products of public schools still dominate the professions. Only 7.3 per cent of the UK population attend independent schools up to GCSE level, yet, according to the Sutton Trust, 75 per cent of judges, 70 per cent of finance directors, 45 per cent of top civil servants and 32 per cent of MPs have been privately educated. They’ve been taught how to oil.
My main reason for getting involved in education is because I want to close this gap. At the West London Free School, we intend to produce a little army of high-achievers who can oil with the best of them. We want to take children who aren’t from privileged backgrounds, make sure they do well enough to get into top universities, and, just as important, give them the confidence to take on the next generation of Borises and Daves.
I hope that among our first 120 pupils who’ll be sitting there next week, gazing up at the blond god as he wields the giant scissors, will be a young man from one of the neighbouring housing estates who goes on to become the Mayor of London.