Eton has a practice known as "oiling", which as Anthony Seldon has noted, “is learning how to win friends and influence others, and how to clamber over them to get what you want. It's a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness.” Seldon was writing in 2011 to celebrate the fact that Toby Young had set up the West London Free School - a flagship for Michael Gove’s educational reforms - and Young “wanted “oiling” to go viral throughout his school”.
The idea that young people must be prepared for a life of constant competition lies at the heart of Gove’s educational philosophy.
However, if we want our children to grow up to be happy adults we need to teach less competitiveness and more qualities such as compassion. Education should prepare them for life - not just to take their place as workers and consumers in the market.
Gove often speaks admiringly of the Singapore model of education, which is highly competitive and pressurised. It has not led to a happy society. In a 2012 opinion poll, "kiasu" was named as the characteristic that Singaporeans most perceived as existing in their own society. Kiasu means literally “fear of losing” and is variously translated as “competitive”, “self-centred”, “grasping” and “selfish.” Second, third and fourth characteristics in Singaporean society, identified in the poll, were “competitive”, “self-centred” and “material needs”. Fifth was kiasi – literally “fear of death” – an attitude of being overly timid and afraid, terrified of risk.
When the Singaporeans were asked what characteristics they would ideally like to see in Singapore, their first and third preferences related to healthcare. Their second, fourth and fifth choices were related to compassion - caring for the elderly, caring for the disadvantaged and compassion itself.
Gove’s vision is likely to produce children who become adults imbued either with the obnoxious kiasu or the pitiful kiasi. It is a deeply depressing thought that we are educating our children to become stressed, anxious and unhappy.
Gove could learn useful lessons from Finland which, like Singapore, is regularly near the top of world rankings. In Finland, formal education does not even start until children are seven - whereas Gove has announced proudly that five year olds in the UK will now be taught fractions as part of his application of “rigour” and “toughness”. For a significant number of children too much pressure too young will prove counter-productive and there is no particular benefit for the others in learning, often by rote, so young.
In Finland there are no private schools, no long school days like in Singapore and no exams until 18. A senior official from Finland’s education department has explained, making an explicit comparison with the emphasis on competition in the far inferior US schools system: - “The important thing (in Finland) is ensuring school is a place where students can discover who they are and what they can do… we are in education because we believe in cooperation and sharing. Cooperation is a core starting point for growth."
Our current political elite demonstrate the danger of an education based on competition and “oiling”. It is notable how David Cameron lacks the sense of noblesse oblige felt by former Tory leaders such as Harold Macmillan. He and his colleagues possess a striking lack of compassion for those in severe hardship in this country. This flows in great part from their self-serving belief – one pushed by Ayn Rand and then Margaret Thatcher – that competition in society means those on top deserve to be on top and those at the bottom deserve to be at the bottom.
Of course, Cameron and the rest do not recognise that competition in our society is grossly rigged in their favour and against the poor. Their lack of compassion is not only immoral but also dangerous - it is creating a fractured and unhappy society.
At Eton and the West London Free School they are teaching the virtues of “oiling” to their pupils. It would be better to teach our children less competitiveness and more compassion. We should also seek to instill a love of learning, an ability to think critically, self-respect and respect for others. We should teach our children to be decent people with proper values. We should not be teaching them to be successful rats in a rat race.