Gilded cages and ghetto kids

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GILDED youth . . . a barbed phrase in which envy and the sneer are combined. Yet gilded youth in the flesh is undeniably seductive; and one evening last week I quite forbore to sneer and sat back to enjoy the sight.

The occasion was a dinner at Westminster School, known since time immemorial as Election Dinner. Its purpose is to say goodbye to everyone leaving the school, masters and sixth formers (about one-sixth of whom, nowadays, are girls). Those departing are eulogised in verse - but no ordinary doggerel, nor even English verse. They are eulogised chiefly in Latin and Greek, but also in German or French, and in one case in Chinese, complete with blindingly clever bilingual puns.

The setting was the soaring grandeur and antiquity of Westminster School (founded by Elizabeth I in 1560), dominated by the newly restored towers of Westminster Abbey, set amid quadrangles and secret gardens. The evening was balmy. The men wore black ties; the women long dresses and their best jewels.

To those whose sneer is now fully formed, I can only say that it was a demonstration of something the privileged classes do supremely well: which is to cherish their traditions while reinventing them for each generation. As a guest, I felt that it would have been churlish not to surrender to the pleasures on offer.

Dining in a hammer-beam hall beneath portraits of founders and other notables (all male), under the eye of college servants immaculate in black and white (mostly female); and in the company of 150 people, aged from 17 to more than 70, who all seemed clever, witty and charming, is not a pleasure to be despised. Should it be rejected just because it is not available to all?

During the meal we were entertained by pupils with songs and epigrams, performed to great and - as the company relaxed and the wine continued to circulate - noisy appreciation.

The apparent sophistication of these gilded youths was daunting; but true sophistication is acquired by worldly experience, which even these precocious and poised pupils cannot yet claim.

Westminster's fees must be at least pounds 10,000 a year. For parents who can afford it, with children brainy enough to pass the entrance exam, the product is impressive. Out of a sixth form of 150, four-fifths go on to university, half of them to Oxbridge.

By the time they are 18, these gilded youths and maidens, having spent a decade studying in some of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in London, taught by brilliant and iconoclastic teachers, hold a dazzling hand of exam results. Money can't buy you everything, but it buys you a pretty good education and a head-start into adult life.

Now for another sort of privilege, a different kind of gilded youth. A few nights before, I had watched most (it ran for nearly four hours) of a programme about a high school in Harlem, one of New York's most socially deprived areas. High School II was made by the American director, Frederick Wiseman.

There was no commentary and little editing; events happened at a pace close to 'real time', leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Apart from a pupil-teacher ratio that looked comparable with Westminster's, and a staff of extraordinarily gifted and dedicated teachers, the two schools could not have been more different. Yet as I watched, it gradually dawned on me that, although few pupils possessed the intellectual talents of Westminster's hand-picked bunch, and the school buildings looked more like a prison than a mediaeval foundation, these ghetto children were remarkable in several ways: not least in that they never swore (not on camera, anyway) and never interrupted.

It was touching to see two older boys and a teacher referee a quarrel between a pair of scowling 11-year-olds, bringing them to a negotiated agreement on future behaviour, without a raised hand or voice. It was absolutely extraordinary to realise that they all heard one another out in silence.

I became riveted as patient teachers coaxed from initially bored and indifferent youngsters (some looking menacingly adult) interest, involvement and response. It was a revelation to see how a sullen and inarticulate youth realised, to his own dawning astonishment, that he was interested in and understood the principles of Mendelian genetics.

Beyond the school compound, on streets we never saw, where drugs and guns are common currency, these disadvantaged kids may never experience such tolerance and respect again.

Inside this remarkable school they were learning, however briefly, to accord dignity to others while regarding their own opinions as valid. They were acquiring the good manners and language with which to articulate those opinions.

Most importantly, they were grasping the difficult lesson that knowledge takes time but is hugely rewarding; that learning immeasurably repays the effort.

These are the benefits that inspired teachers can provide. Thanks to them, the school - without land or funds or privilege or mediaeval buildings - yielded great good.

Can our beleaguered state system show anything comparable?

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