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Private Privilege

One often hears the refrain that state schools should be more like private schools if they are to generate success. And not just from the usual ill-informed cliché peddlers: it resides within the presumptions and pronunciations of all too many at the very top, too. Of course, when we hear that the local comprehensive should be more like private schools, this rarely means that plans are afoot to fund smaller class sizes, or build better facilities, or give staff and students longer holidays – no, it usually means something else, something fleeting, will-o’-the-wisp, but nonetheless relating, in some ill-defined fashion, to the educational milieu within which our students are nurtured. And in so much that that shifting concept expresses an aspiration for something different, something better, then for all its ambiguity it nonetheless has a kernel of truth to it.

Declaration of interest: I was lucky enough to attend a private school for a year or so at the age of eight. It was an MoD funded placement given, or so I was told, to offer stability after years of moving around and multiple school changes. (I should say from the outset, to preempt the lazy assumptions of all too many, that my Dad was a corporal, and of the four of us that I remember starting that year, none of our fathers were officers. Sad to say it, but if they were, we wouldn’t have been hanging around together.)

And I shall never cease to be grateful for this opportunity. It changed everything.

For example, it was at this school that I first had my ears opened to classical music, bombarding the senses as we all filed into church on a Saturday morning for an unapologetically high church service. It was here that I first sang in a choir, an assemblage of students of all ages, itself increasingly unusual, all of us singing (and reading) the complex and beautiful choral music that has stayed with me to this day. The church where we sang was a beautiful if slightly higgledy-piggledy-in-a-very-English-rural-church-kind-of-way affair, set amidst what appeared to a nostalgic mind to be the deepest forest (it wasn’t), with a little gravel path wandering up to a welcoming stone porch with an offset wooden door, framed by a humorously grand pair of faux-gothic columns.

It was also at this school that I sailed my first dinghy (the school having its own lakes) and went on my first camp (we were all enrolled in clubs – I took Beavers. Once put someone in the recovery position in 9 seconds. I’m still owed a Mars Bar by Mr [x] for that). It was here that I read my first full novel and wrote my first poem. It was here that I experienced my first art gallery, attended my first theatre performance, and first found my love for History – I vividly remember a trip to Hampton Court Palace, listening open-mouthed as the guide explained the legends of the Haunted Corridor, and the symbolism of the great Tapestries, and the intrigue and downfall surrounding Cardinal Wolsey.

It was here that I first experienced the Latin language, and learned of Greek gods, and studied Roman generals. It was here I first played hockey, and rugby, and American football, and archery, and even horse riding (alright, I exaggerate a touch on that one – I didn’t do it. But a couple of my mates in House did. Never fancied it, to be honest). It was here I learned to play chess, and draw in 3D, and (help) organise charity events, and put on public performances, and deal with (a very old school) male teacher, a thing foreign to me up until that point and a genuine source of anxiety before I joined, all the teachers I had ever experienced being female.

And all of that in just one year.

Yet it went far beyond the standard curriculum. It was also here that I was taught many disciplines that stay with me still, little things that we could never expect a state school to attempt: how to polish my shoes properly, and tie my tie correctly, and organise my belongings and possessions. In addition, the curriculum was not just about pursuit of the humanities and sciences: we boys learned skills necessary to complete general DIY tasks, and we were also taught to sew, since it was fully expected that as time went by it was not for the sewing lady (a lovely, kindly old woman whom I only ever saw sat down in her sewing chair) to fix our school clothes, but for us to see to it ourselves. In other words, the academic was situated within a wider framework of values which brought it into a coherent whole – of thrift, self-sufficiency, and pride in oneself.

The school, it should also be said, was set in beautiful grounds with woods and lakes, where we wiled away hours on end climbing trees and ‘making dens’ waiting for the bell to be rung for tea (this being after the homework hour in house, obviously). In addition, the school contained within it a magnificent country house (Georgian, or thereabouts), which was still used by the elder students in school as halls of residence, and around which we had numerous tours to learn about not only the families that had lived there, but also the meaning and provenance of the architecture on display.

In other words, this kid who had lived his life on army camps, and who would spend the rest of his school years in a council house in the north east, was exposed to high culture. And not only exposed to it, but completely immersed in it, day after day, as the backdrop and foreground within which our development took place. Here, aesthetics was not a cerebral pursuit for ageing dons – it permeated everything, and infused us with a sense of awe and humility that forced the eyes, even the soul, to look upwards in its educational pursuits. We were encouraged to reach for the stars, not future salary scales.

Why is this no doubt rose-tinted recounting of a single year of my schooling relevant?

Well, for me, it is precisely this that divides private education from state – this exposure to high culture, this instinctive commitment to and formation within a higher aesthetic. I’m well aware how pompous that might sound: I do not possess the words to explain it any other way. Nonetheless, I think it is true. And it can only ever be a source of disappointment that in having such experiences I was the lucky one, the unusual one, the one who should be grateful for such a start in life but who cannot seriously expect that others of a similar background could realistically all experience the same.

But, why not? Well, resources and money is a factor that cannot be overcome here, even though I do not seriously expect anything ever to be done about that. But it also goes a little deeper. In truth, the real tragedy is that all too many teachers in the state sector not only show an ignorance of this high culture (I readily confess to my own ignorance, too), but also display an overt hostility toward it. It is bad enough that so very few of our students in the comprehensive system get to experience the cultural and intellectual treasures passed on as a matter of course within parts of the private sector – it is lamentable that this can occasionally be because of the hangup of the teacher, rather than the (equally wrong, yet mostly ignored) inequalities of the system we have created.

Doubt me? Try saying comprehensive kids should be able to learn Latin in school and see what response you get.

I must say, in closing, that for all the evident admiration I have for the education I received at my private school, this does not mean that all aspects of it were superior. From what I recall, the classroom behaviour was much worse than any state comprehensive I’ve ever taught in, certainly worse than any I had attended, and bullying was a serious problem for some poor, unfortunate souls. I also firmly believe, so far as my memory serves me well, that the teaching was not as good as that in the state school I attended immediately after it, even if the curriculum was much more entertaining and challenging.

Still, as vital great teaching is and great teachers are, one cannot help but feel that that until we naturally and routinely raise our sights and try to capture those higher aesthetic ideals, to embed them within our schools and the culture we shape within them, then our kids in comprehensives, for all their high grades and multiple certificates, will remain culturally poorer than their more privileged peers.


  1. […] academic curriculum: you cannot give up Maths, English, Science, Humanities or a Language until 18. Michael Merrick puts it beautifully in his post about a year growing up in a private […]


  2. teachwell says:

    I did suggest looking into teaching Latin in our primary and this got short shrift. I am not saying it was the best option but given that it was one of them, they should have been thought about and considered in terms of their merits instead of “these kids?”

    Liked by 1 person

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