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?