Terence Blacker: The public school myth of 'character'

Social Studies: There is often a quiet sense of entitlement among the privately educated, a slightly numbed politeness

Share
Related Topics

Born of 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". Its curriculum 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 rightwing obsession," Dr Seldon writes in The Guardian. "Young is right to put the emphasis on character. It puts the finger on what is going wrong in state schools." 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. Even comprehensives with good exam results tend to be on the receiving end of sneers; "factory schools", Dr Seldon calls them.

A little perspective is needed in this debate. Public schools can be every bit as grim and hopeless as any state sector 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 unthinking privilege, lacking in empathy – are hardly those which 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 where those in the state sector do not comes down to a simple matter which 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 the little enclave of social advantage which is 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 – was in comprehensives.

There is often a quiet 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.





The BBC's taste for airbrushing history



There is something undeniably creepy about the BBC's policy of tidying up its archive productions by removing what it deems to be undesirable elements. A performance by Jonathan King on an edition of Top of the Pops in 1976 has been quietly edited out of a rerun of the show on BBC4. The problem, presumably, was that 10 years ago King was convicted of having sex in the 1980s with underage teenage boys.

What is the rationale for this small-minded prissiness? Do BBC bowdlers fear that the moral health of the nation will be put at risk if King appears, singing "It Only Takes a Minute" under the stage name 100 Ton and a Feather? Or is there a vague fear that some feeble-minded moralist (or tabloid newspaper) might accuse it of somehow condoning the crime? It seems that the corporation is now so self-important that it sees itself as an extension of the law. King has been punished but the state broadcaster must add its own penalty.

Certainly, if the BBC's new policy is to give musicians a retrospective morality test before allowing them on the screen, its censorship department is going to be busy. There will be no room for Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pete Townshend, Ike Turner and many others – and that's before one has even reached jazz.





Lying makes you hot under the collar



Such is the speed of the technological revolution, and the erosion of privacy, that proposals which once would have caused huge concern now become part of everyday life almost unnoticed. At an unnamed British airport, a device will soon be introduced which, through thermal imaging, reveals whether the body temperature of someone being questioned has risen – a sign that a lie is being told. Its designer, Professor Hassan Ugail, has boasted, "In an interview, you can talk to a person, then just press a button and say: was he lying or not?"

Who could possibly have sponsored the research for this sinister new form of covert surveillance? You guessed it: the Home Office.



www.terenceblacker.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Advisor - £35,000 OTE

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Advisor is required to ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor / Contact Centre Advisor

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As the UK's leading accident an...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Web Hosting Support Agent

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading web hosting pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If teenagers were keen to vote, it could transform Britain

Peter Kellner
Crocuses bloom at The Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew  

From carpets of crocuses to cuckoos on the move, spring is truly springing

Michael McCarthy
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003