Schools That Teach Children to Lie

By Williams, Hywel | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Schools That Teach Children to Lie


Williams, Hywel, New Statesman (1996)


Hywel Williams, a former master at Rugby, marvels at the hypocrisies, ancient and modern, that continue to sustain the English public schools

From obscure East Anglian Framlingham to vulgarly gin-and-tonic-belt Charterhouse, from rugged Rossall and its hockey on the Lancashire sands to cloistered Winchester, brooding over its medieval enchantments, the public school year is now under way -- and, as always, rather later than the calendar dates observed by the "maintained". The Headmasters Conference -- the only teachers' association whose members can get away from school in term time -- has just held its annual meeting. Even chronology conspires to confirm England's great divide.

Elsewhere in Europe, private education is for the Catholic or the thick (or both). Here, opting out from the state sector is a consuming passion, one that squeezes the disposable income, postpones the conservatory and defers the gratification of the kitchen extension. Self-serving rhetoric of "choice", "variety" and "diversity" keeps a very old show on the road -- one whose chief characteristics are uniformity and conformity.

The division is ancient. England is an ancien regime state which came to public education late and unwillingly. The French had something like a national curriculum in the 17th century. Prussia had its edict of 1711. Here, we had education acts from the late 19th century onwards only because there was a labour force that needed just enough education to kick-start an industrial revolution running out of steam.

This is the only European country to have both a thriving private sector in education and a weak state one. The abolition of public schools was once a necessity for the left -- here was a clear example of a freedom to choose whose exercise diminished the greater freedoms of the greater number.

Towards the end of the 1945 Labour government, R H Tawney said that the failure to abolish public schools would undermine everything the Labour movement had achieved in other areas. It was the one reform that mattered -- the profound one from which all other changes in the way the English treated each other and looked at the world would flow. Yet the system that inhibits conversation between the English is still here. Even the question mark over "charitable status" -- that major market distortion -- has gone. The rather sad gesture of sharing playing fields with "local" schools, much trumpeted a few years ago, is long since forgotten.

The residual liberal guilt among the system's defenders has also disappeared. No longer is there a need for a frontman to supply a smooth ratiocination, as John Rae, then headmaster of Westminster, did in the 1970s. The Headmasters' conference is an anonymous organisation that knows it is on to a very good thing, and keeps mum. Smugness is all. Once, the regime produced decent agonisers, men of liberal culture and conscience who struggled awkwardly to justify the unjustifiable -- as Robert Birley did at Eton, and John Dancy at Marlborough. Now, their heirs attract criticism only if their schools slide down the league table of exam results and fail the test of market share.

What weird quirk of the national psyche explains this survival, its easy toleration and seeming immunity from the case for the prosecution? As with many Establishment successes, this one has been artfully packaged. The "public" in "public school" seemed too obvious an in-your-face paradox for so privatised a world, and thus the weaselly worded "independent school" came into its own.

The social Darwinism of the 1980s helped, too. Public schools started to compete against each other in arenas other than the cricket field. The new competition made for some turf wars, swagger and conceit. Eton rose and then fell; Rugby stumbled and then rose. Accelerating crises in state education made for a boom time, with convenient new reasons for signing cheques. The disappearance of grammar schools helped to rationalise gut instincts. …

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