Terence Blacker: The public school myth of character


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The Independent Online

In an unlikely union between Toby Young and JK Rowling, a bizarre idea is now being taken quite seriously. It is that private education – of the traditional, preferably boarding-school type – represents a model of how modern education should be.

First there were the jolly japes of Hogwarts. Now, with the launch of his West London Free School, Young is invoking the example of public schools. His school aims to be the "Eton of the state sector".

It emphasises what used to be known as "general attitude" – persistence, managing impulsiveness, finding humour and the like.

He has been supported by that champion of the caring side of private education, Anthony Seldon. "The left has tended to eschew character building as a right wing obsession," he writes in The Guardian. As an example of character building, Dr Seldon mentions, perhaps unwisely, something called "oiling", popular at Eton, which helps develop "a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness".

There has certainly been a good bit of oiling when it comes to promoting private education and trashing the state sector. Tony Blair, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg are seen as representing the smooth effectiveness of the modern public school product. State schools, on the other hand, are routinely portrayed as failing, mired in bureaucracy and ill-discipline; stifled by political correctness.

A little perspective is needed in this debate. Public schools can be every bit as grim and hopeless as any comprehensive, but in their own way. They can produce unhappy children. Even when character building is successful, some of the characters which have been built – self-centred, obsessed with money and status, cosseted by privilege, lacking in empathy – hardly contribute much to society.

It is as absurd to suggest that teachers in state schools fail to encourage the virtues of, say, persistence, managing impulsiveness or finding humour, as it is to suggest that public schools are run on a purer, higher ethic. The reason why private schools succeed has absolutely nothing to do with educational philosophy. They are blessed with vast financial resources, the support of parents and the ability to impose discipline – and they select their pupils.

Of course, it is important to help children emerge from education with a good personality as well as good grades, but that aim exists outside private education. I have spoken in classrooms to children of both sectors and have no doubt that the most memorable sessions – where the discussion was most impassioned, engaged and unpredictable – were in comprehensives.

There is often a sense of entitlement among the privately educated; a slightly numbed politeness; a natural assumption that good things will happen to them in the future, as they have in the past.

That may be part of the oiling process and it is possible that those children will be among the leaders of the future, but I know which type of character building I prefer.