Anthony Seldon claims Public Schools have much to teach state schools about character building. Do they really?

Allan Beavis's picture
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Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, argues in The Guardian  that what is still wrong in state schools is its inability or reluctance to instil in children the practice of “oiling”, a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness. Apparently, this will equip the state school oik for university and beyond to better compete with the public school toff in a level playing field of grabbing the best, most influential jobs and the lifestyles that come with them. He asks us to consider that The West London Free School culture of aping the manners and norms of Eton will thus truly improve the life chances of even the most deprived child and will be the true legacy of what new schools such as Toby Young’s will bequeath to the plebs, if not the nation.

Seldon says it’s all about “character building”, which is formed in top public schools less from “breeding” than by methods such as competitive sports, leadership training, tough mental and physical challenges, cadet training, hikes and boarding schools. Seldon says that this ambition will “nauseate” many on the left who will regard such ambitions as the perpetuation of a self-regarding and uncaring oligarchy.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment will close the divide between those wealthy or titled enough to assume a sense of entitlement from birth and those born into households struggling to pay bills where parents, if they work at all, do not run private estates, the media, the banks, corporations or government. Social advancement has more to do with the class you are born into than with genuine meritocratic reward. Public schools exist to segregate the children of the wealthy and powerful to be educated and engineered together, instilling in them not confidence and character, but with a contacts books of friends and useful people in what they would consider the higher echelons of society to fast track them to the top careers they have been entitled to from birth.

If the alumni of Eton, Wellington, Winchester, Harrow and other top public schools already look down and sneer at those entering university and careers from “minor public schools”, then I don’t see how the working class boy or girl from the council estate graduating from West London Free School armed with a fistful if A* grades at GCSE and A Levels and maximum wattage self-confidence and steely determination is going to automatically gain membership of the Bullingdon Club when they roll up at Oxford. Seldon’s snobbish notion of good breeding seems to be rooted in the behaviour of the Establishment ring-fencing their interests to protect the status quo in which they alone will flourish. Others might see good breeding as having manners, consideration for other people and the ability to mix and accept people from all backgrounds.

It’s about class, inherited wealth and new wealth. Once an oik always an oik, no matter what fantastic academic qualifications and reserves of ruthless ambition the state school educated child has acquired. If the vision of schools such as West London Free School is to equip its pupils with the tools of character building and competing with toffs in the academic, career and social arenas, then they also need to include in their sparse curriculum a warning that doors will more likely open far more readily for a chap educated beyond his intelligence but with the correct background in the sort of jobs and salons populated by public schoolboys.

Seldon informs us that David Cameron’s Bullingdon Club toff-mate Boris Johnson is to open the West London Free School next week. It is unclear whether the invitation was politically motivated or whether Boris will go in his capacity as London Mayor or Eton/Oxford/Bullingdon stereotype. I wonder if Lord Sugar from Stamford Hill and Clapton, self made millionaire of humble East End origins had been considered to open the school? He might have more in common with the ordinary children from ordinary backgrounds, be more of an inspiration and given them more of a realistic example of how to succeed in the world without resorting to believing that the only route to self confidence and life success is to compete with and emulate those born with a silver spoon in their mouths or millions in a trust fund. I don’t think Bumbling Boris needed to hone his self confidence and build his character at Eton. Rather, Eton provided him with the secure knowledge that his network of chums and chinless wonders would steer him towards the right revolving doors.

Seldon says that the greatest failure of state schools is that, although the best can match private schools in academic performance, they still fail to instil in their students the “edge” that public schools toffs have but this is to presume that the vision or ideology of state schools is driven by the same principles or expectations of private schools. They aren’t. Or at least they weren’t, before school reform was implemented with bewildering speed and ruthless execution by the present government.

If the government endorses what Seldon here advances as the vision for state schools (and one presumes they do, since Toby Young was the first applicant to get a Funding Agreement), then it cannot be true that genuine social mobility is underpinning its schools reform policy. Those not born into the ruling class want to believe that social mobility via education is a real possibility but until the privileged and ruling classes become less class obsessed and less of a closed shop, then there is virtually no hope that class divisions will be eradicated. Only then can state school “oiling” compete with private school “oiling” to ensure a fair and meritocratic outcome.

It may well be that Seldon and Young are offering up the examples of schools like Eton to encourage young people to motivate themselves to aspire to something better than where they came from, but this is nothing new. Generations upon generations of working class people have “bettered” themselves via a state education system without being reminded that however much their school and education emulates Eton, it is never going to actually be Eton.

Seldon’s criticism of state schools not providing the “edge” misses the point that not everyone in state schools desires or is equipped for a public school style regime. Many of these kids are happy to leave school and join an alternative “Establishment” where their creativity or abilities can be appreciated by people not obsessed with class privilege or values and achievements only the “toffs” find admirable as they seek to maintain the status quo. One could argue that the “edgier” personalities and opinions in culture, politics, business have come from ordinary state schools, their creativity and ambition shaped by an altogether less restrictive notion of what the rules are, as written by the unimaginative privileged class.

State schools should exist to give every child a chance to get an education matched to their ability and expectations. Latin and social “oiling” may be jolly useful for some oiks but I suspect it will continue to be of no interest or benefit to the majority. Self confidence comes from a sense of self worth, defined by being happy with yourself and not by endless comparisons with people intent on proving that they are somewhat better than us by virtue of their expensive education.

If “oiling” is, as Seldon says, learning to win friends and influence others, then Toby Young has evidently learnt the lessons that eluded him in his first incarnation when he lost friends and alienated people to a hilarious and lovable degree. Seldon says the hapless Young arrived at Oxford bowled over by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron. Fortunately, plenty of young people have the self confidence and self awareness not to have to yearn for acceptance by the toffs and their attitude should be applauded and rewarded.

Kneejerk reactions to Young should indeed be avoided, but it is worrying that the taxpayer funded West London Free School will be run by someone “starstruck” by an Eton he never went to and who doesn’t appear to value a diversity of opinion or political differences. Someone who believes that it is acceptable to point and laugh at the lone voice in the “dunce’s corner”. Is that what public schools encourage? What kind of message does that send to parents and children? And is it one that Michael Gove tacitly endorses?
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Nigel Ford's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 22:19

Didn't Anthony Seldon write a sycophantic autobiography of Anthony Blair because he was public school educated, although Blair gave us a lousy legacy of unneccessary wars (trying to impose imperialist democracy in Muslim countries), mass immigration, much higher council taxes, handing over more powers to the EU, welfare dependency, not building any new power stations and squandering an excellent economic inheritance that he was bequeathed in 1997. Let's not forget that Blair and his greedy, materialistic wife also creamed off a posh Grant Maintained school for their sons miles from their home passing up 50 nearer comprehensives and then abolished GM status when he came to power.

But in regard to Selsdon's other points about the superiority qualities that public schools breed, this doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Plenty of state educated people make the top in music, business, politics and sport. Sport is an area where products of private schools do excel apart from football but so do former state educated pupils. In fact given the matchless facilities of private schools and the number of scholarships they give out to gifted sportsmen and women to boost their credentials they should have a dominance of alumni in well heeled sports but it's highly debatable that they do.

In cricket our best all rounders of late were Flintoff and Botham, state educated. Our best spinner is Grame Swann with other England players like Bell, Bopara, Tremlett, Anderson and Bresnan all coming through the comprehensive sector. The most petulant behaviour by England cricketers in recent times has been from the public school educated Matt Prior and Stuart Broad.

At rugby there are as many state educated England players as private in the World Cup squad and our only World Cup winning captain was Martin Johnson ex comprehensive school. The current England Captain is Lewis Moody of Oakham public school who attended De Montfort University, presumably not good enough results to get into Leicester.

Our best post war tennis player is Andy Murray of Dunblane Comprehensive. Plenty of athletes and Olympians attended comprehensive schools like David "Dai" Greene, Rebecca Addlington and Paula Radcliffe to name a few.

Maybe there are more public school educated polo players than state ones, perhaps someone can confirm that?.

Nigel Gann's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 10:41

Anyone writing a column for the Guardian about education - even an occasional one - should feel that they have a duty to apply proper academic rigour to their case. This might apply particularly when the writer is challenging what traditional Guardian readers might believe.

I have rarely read such a lazy piece of writing masquerading as argument as Anthony Seldon produced on Saturday ("Toby Young has a point"). What is his point? That 'independent' schools by their very nature produce something called 'character' - confidence and roundedness - that is an integral part of their students' lives. Few state schools can be led by headteachers prone to such vacuous and idle thinking - thinking that would have looked naive if put forward by Thomas Arnold 150 years ago.

Is what Seldon wants more of, the kind of behaviour that has led us into the worst recession in eighty years, with no present prospect of recovery (Cameron, Eton College/Osborne, St Paul's)? That produced the illegal war in Iraq and the murderous debacle that is Afghanistan (Blair, Fettes)? That send our unconfident and unrounded youngsters, victims of increasingly intractable social inequity, into lifelong unemployment or the closure of the bodybag? That leaves comprehensively educated kids paying for the negligent and often criminal behaviour of the bankers (King, Wolverhampton Grammar; Goodwin, Paisley Grammar). Clearly there is much to be said for both independent and selective education. Young wants ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness "to go viral throughout his school". Just the qualities of the greedy, self-obsessed and homicidal feral elite?

How is it that the wise are so full of doubt, and fools so sure of everything they say?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 10:54

I was rather alarmed by the concept of "oiling" as I had not heard the word before in this context. Apparently, according to the article, it's being able to "win friends and influence others" and then "clamber over them to get what you want". Wasn't that what rioters were doing a little while back? My classical education (thanks to the OU) introduced me to Aristophanes. In "The Clouds", the character named Right describes with idealised lyricism the best education:

"I'll tell you about the way boys were brought up in the old days... First of all, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. Then, all the boys of the district were expected to walk together through the streets to their music-master's, quietly and decorously, and without a coat, even when it was snowing confetti - and they did. And when they got there he made them learn some of the old songs by heart...and on no account pressing their thighs together... What's more, [sternly] they never put on oil below the belt..."

I think "oiling" may have had a different meaning in Fifth-Century Athens.

botzarelli's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 11:10

Everyone overstates the value of "oiling" (what a suitably oleaginous and unpleasant term to use). Both the Seldons of this world and Allan Beavis in caricaturing the value of independent schools as being principally in the form of a ready-made network.

The proportion of Etonians and Oxbridge graduates that go on to "great things" is tiny. Not as tiny as from other schools and universities, but, still so small as to make the idea of there being effortless entry into privileged networks misleading. The vast majority of those who have had elite educations have no real network and advancement given to them in their record of achievement. They, like everyone else, have to make them for themselves.

Perhaps the ethos of their educations helps them to see what needs to be done and the belief that they can do it. That is, I think, Toby Young's point. It does not mean that there are not other ways of achieving, but there should be room for the state sector to offer the ability to beat the privileged Etonians at their own game rather than merely to say "we're not playing that game but going to complain when we lose it".

Is it really necessary to descend to ad hominem attacks on Toby Young to argue the positive case for a different vision of improving state education?

http://bit.ly/q5FPEN

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 17:55

botzarelli -

Very noble of you to jump to Toby Young's defence but Anthony Seldon, in bringing Young and his Eton of the State School (Young's description of WLFS) into the centre of his article, has done him no favours!

Fame junkies don't really care whether they are being criticised or praised, only that they are being noticed and discussed. Young has plenty of outlets and opportunities to fan the flames and keep his profile up and his interests in the news. A media celebrity turned school leader capable of labelling people who don't agree with his ideology or politics as "dunces" in his latest blog, is capable of launching unprovoked attacks, ad hominem (Latin!!) or otherwise.

Had he taken a leaf out of Peter Hyman's book and gone about quietly setting up a Free School with no pretensions to ape Eton, with a more credible argument for helping disadvantaged children and less of a tendency to attack existing schools and self publicise his political affiliations then no doubt he would have been left alone. But he doesn't want to go about unnoticed.

I agree that not everyone from a top public school will automatically go to the top with the help of connections but their background and educational establishment means their life chances are undoubtedly way much higher and they stand a much higher chance of getting into careers traditionally occupied by public schoolboys.

Seldon has effectively re-introduced the mores of Eton into the consciousness of WLFS so I hope that his comments won't now encourage the students there to become as starstruck by Eton as he claims Young to be.

There really is no need for state school educated children to go through life feeling inferior and in thrall to a posh education they never had. It is worrying that Seldon is predatorially promoting the interests of private school in the new state schools and we should wonder what the motives are because, quite frankly, kids don't need public schools to teach them about "character" or how to gain confidence or trample over one another to get to the top.

Fetishisizing Eton or other top public schools might have an unhealthy effect on impressionable students. Much healthier and productive for them to gain confidence and skills by nurturing and encouraging them to find self belief from within, not by having a chip on their shoulder. Why try and beat Eton at a game for which they have set the rules? And why try and apply these rules to state schools?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 12:49

Character, especially in the term character building, means good personal qualities, especially the qualities of being determined when doing something difficult and showing consideration to other people. There are many ways in which these can be fostered – it’s not just about competitive sports, which Seldon says are “vital”, or the combined cadet force (CCF), useful as these are for those who enjoy them. Teamwork, resilience, determination, perseverance and tolerance can be fostered in schools by other activities such as: singing in a choir, taking part in a theatrical production, playing in a band , Young Enterprise, Duke of Edinburgh Award, making a newspaper in a day, organising a charity fund-raising event, entertaining local pensioners, activity days, work experience… State schools already offer most of these activities as well as sporting competitions (teams and individuals) for those who want to take part. It’s true you won’t find many with CCF but state school pupils who want this type of activity can join the Army Cadet Force, Air Training Corps and similar organisations. And many state schools have links with organisations like the Army in Education.

It’s not necessary to ape the trappings of a public school – the blazer from the same outlet that supplies Eton and Harrow, a Latin motto, or calling terms Michaelmas, Lent and Trinity. Activities which foster personal qualities are already happening in state schools but without fuss and fanfare. Perhaps it’s time that Mr Gove and his supporters recognised this.

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