State School Lessons from a Public School Headmaster/Clergyman

Allan Beavis's picture
 7
Weeks after the rightwing thinktank Adam Smith Institute declared the government’s free schools policy doomed to failure unless the already ideologically persuaded Michael Gove took their advice and threw open the doors to profit-making companies to run schools comes another bastion of privilege to do more of the Education Secretary’s dirty work. Step forward The Rev John Witheridge, Headmaster of Charterhouse School, curate Luton Parish Church 1979-82, head of religious studies and asst chaplain Marlborough Coll 1982-84, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury 1984-87, conduct (sr chaplain) Eton Coll 1987-96, govr: Brambletye Sch 2009-, Clifton Coll 2009-; FRSA 1998. (Debretts)

Charterhouse (fees about £25,000), is drooled over in Tatler magazine’s list of recommended schools - “one of the great historic public schools of England and the proud owner of some pretty swoonworthy buildings: glorious cloisters, honey-coloured turrets et al.” Well, obviously not suffering from the abolition of BSF funds then it wouldn’t have qualified, not being a state school. I can’t see that John Witheridge has had much – if any – experience of working in state schools but this hasn’t stopped this holy man from loudly and publicly commenting that the Coalition’s pledge of a radical programme of educational reform of state schools will fail unless Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is prepared to consider the reintroduction of academic selection.

So the policies aren’t going to fail because they are inherently bad but because they aren’t pandering enough to commercial interests or to social segregation. If Jesus was a Socialist, he would surely be wondering if his crucifixion had been in vain as he listens to one of his servants on Earth pontificating with the fury of the self-righteous that the introduction of mixed ability schooling was a “regrettable and damaging political step, inspired not by good educational practice, sense or experience, but by socialist dogma”.

Perhaps Witheridge, in his haste to claim his place amongst the Establishment, has forgotten that he is a man of the cloth otherwise he might realise that the comments he has made and reported with admirable bombast by the Daily Telegraph resonate with the dissonant twin chimes of hypocrisy and exclusion, not virtues expounded by the Church, surely, in anyone’s experience? He trots out the usual mantra that selection is a good thing, that poor but bright kids can get a better chance in life, that parents really want this, that lefty dogma is holding back social mobility etc. but ultimately it is rhetoric that conceals the rather uglier truth that admission and academic selection = social and class segregation.

Witheridge says the abolition of academic selection in most of England has led to a “loss of opportunities at both ends of the spectrum” as bright children are left to coast and practically-minded pupils miss out on decent skills training. Or put another way – selection means the few lucky enough to pass what the present rightwing government deems the right sort of examination can go onto a decent life and the rest can, well, serve them as mechanics, plumbers and hairdressers. What an unholy alliance.

Hilariously and crassly, he sermonises that “It’s interesting…that programmes like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and award ceremonies like the Oscars, are so popular in a society which is supposed to despise selection”. But these programmes have got nothing to do with academic selection at age 11 or 13, they are talent shows which contestants are not compelled to submit themselves to and, unlike grammar or private schools, the entertainment industry is open to anyone of any background or academic ability sufficiently stage-struck to want to give it a go and wait to be given the ovation or the hook.

According to The Telegraph, The Rev John Witheridge will deliver this lecture – the first in the series of Charterhouse Quatercentenary Lectures - at 6.30pm on Wednesday, May 11, at St James's Church, 197 Piccadilly, London.

Tickets are £7. Hooks are free.
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Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 10/05/2011 - 08:32

"unlike grammar or private schools, the entertainment industry is open to anyone of any background or academic ability sufficiently stage-struck to want to give it a go and wait to be given the ovation or the hook."

Well, up to a point. Amongst the most successful bands of the past thirty years would be Genesis (Charterhouse, as it happens), Coldplay (UCL), Queen (Imperial, mostly), and their long-term success often came down to their ability, garnered through their education, to not be ripped off by sharky figures, something that Mick Jagger often attributes to his education at the LSE.

On a narrower perspective, BBC comedy is virtually a closed shop for ex-Footlights people, as the long careers of Atkinson (prep and independent secondary, then Oxford), Fry (prep and independent secondary, then Cambridge), Emma Thompson (state grammar, so a bit downmarket, but then Cambridge), Laurie (Eton as well as Cambridge!), Rhys Jones (independent secondary, Cambridge), Richard Curtis (Harrow and Oxford), Douglas Adams (see Rhys Jones) and so on attest Victoria Wood is a bit redbrick, dahling. It's _exactly_ what you're complaining of: a network of affluent people's children, who met at private schools and then went to elite universities, from which they networked into the BBC. To hold television entertainment up as some sort of meritocracy is preposterous: its recruiting base of the 1970s and 1980s makes Tory MPs look like a randomly-selected jury.

The arts are just like the rest of society: brains, education, contacts and family support are crucial (the early years of a career in entertainment make the scandal of internships look positively benign in terms of requiring support from parents), and the sort of advantages that lead to people doing well in education are the sort of advantages that lead to people doing well in entertainment. There are exceptions in both cases, of course, but pointing to Lenny Henry and going "see, we're all inclusive now!" is not very convincing. Genesis were able to rehearse in their early years at a house with a swimming pool owned by one of the members' parents; how many working class bands can do that?

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 10/05/2011 - 19:49

Always worth remembering that in 1959, the height of the so called golden age of selective education, around 9% of the population left school with five O levels. By 1968 it had shot up to a stunning 18%. Today that figure is about 60%, thanks to the opening up of educational opportunities to all children, not just an elite few.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 07:17

"Today that figure is about 60%, thanks to the opening up of educational opportunities to all children, not just an elite few."

Let's not, eh? Because someone will get out a set of O Level papers, and then it'll all get messy.

Attaining multiple A grades at O Level was incredibly rare in the past --- at the 330-intake comprehensive I attended, one girl in my year (1981) got 8 As, and that hadn't happened, and didn't happen, for several years each way --- and even over in exotic grammar schools, the precursors of today's super-selectives, it was a few per year. Look at, say, http://www.westminster.org.uk/academic-life/results.html and see that the %age of A* grades at GCSE has doubled over the past ten years: do you think Westminster School has doubled the quality of its teaching? That its intake has become much brighter? Or, perhaps, that something else has happened?

Now as it happens, I don't think that grade inflation is the simple explanation the Telegraph would have you believe: grades should be normed to attainment, not some notional curve, and therefore it's perfectly reasonable to believe that amongst the drivers are indeed improved teaching, better motivated children, better funding into schools, the beneficial outcomes of the then-reviled Literacy Hour and other improvements to education. My children are getting a far better education than I did, and that their GCSEs will probably be across the board better than my O Levels is not necessarily a sign of the end times. But concomitant with that has to be a realisation that you can't just trot out raw numbers and use them to prove any case you point them at: there are a lot of reasons why O Level passes were much lower than they are today (and lower, you'll note, than the proportion of the population, about 20%, that attended grammar schools --- plenty of people failed to get the "school certificate" equivalent of five O Level passes even in grammar schools) apart from boo-hiss selection. Even had you waved a magic wand in 1960 and comprehensivised the whole country, I doubt there would have been a transformation of the results: O Levels served a different purpose to the GCSE for a different society with different expectations, and selection was a symptom of that, not a cause. The pretence that O Levels and GCSEs are equivalent has to be stopped: they simply aren't, and nor should they be.

To be clear, I think looking at a set of 1959, 1968 or indeed 1981 O Level papers would reveal a limited, narrow, hoop-jumping curriculum with an emphasis on the repetition of poorly-understood party tricks; I did a lot more maths at O Level than my children are doing at GCSE, as the syllabus was chock-full of seemingly hard stuff, but I don't think I really understood much of it, and nor did I have to in order to do well in the exams. Today's GCSEs aspire to, and sometimes succeed in, measuring understanding, whereas the past's O Levels measured recall. But just saying "X% O Level 1959, Y% GCSE 2010, X<Y" proves little beyond the fact that O Levels and GCSEs are different.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 07:22

Oh, and "selection means the few lucky enough to pass what the present rightwing government deems the right sort of examination can go onto a decent life and the rest can, well, serve them as mechanics, plumbers and hairdressers." is possibly one of the snobbiest things I've ever read by someone posing as progressive. Are you saying that plumbers, mechanics and hairdressers don't lead a decent life? Is that because they're poor (which is manifestly not the case), or is it because you believe that being in trade is inherently bad? Next time you get your car serviced, or your hair cut, or your pipes fixed, be sure to look down on the person doing it and remind them that you don't think their life is decent.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 13:20

Tokyo - You really are extremely tiresome.

You are either cannot grasp the nuances of prose (in this case, my pointing out that it is those favouring selection who are the "snobs" as you would put it) or you spend your days and evenings homing in on a phrase, hijacking it, ripping it out of context, then highlighting it for no better purpose than to distort what someone has written or for you to draw attention to whatever polemic suddenly takes your fancy.

For the avoidance of doubt, I don't favour selection (that surely has been crystal clear to everyone but you), I don't "pose" as anything, I have never inferred that a trade is bad but I am flattered you would consider me a "progressive" even though we have never met and, with some luck, are unlikely to.

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 13:36

Allan,

It's a pity that again you are unable to have a debate without name calling?

What is your problem ?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 11/05/2011 - 13:37

Tokyo -

The entertainment industry is not limited to BBC comedy with or without the contributions of ex-footlights allumni. Nor is it restricted to a handful of British bands whose members were privately educated. So I am not going to provide a list of all those professional entertainers around the world who don't fit into the categories of education, familial support, intelligence, whether they had a swimming pool that you would like to argue is why the arts is selective in the way that grammar schools are. It is nonsense.

You state that "To hold television entertainment up as some sort of meritocracy is preposterous: its recruiting base of the 1970s and 1980s makes Tory MPs look like a randomly-selected jury." But yes - you said that, not me. And what has Lenny Henry got to do with the price of fish? I haven't picked him out because he is worthy of inclusion because he is what? Working class and black? You did.
As you say - quite preposterous

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