The public school myth of ‘character’

Born of an unlikely union between Toby Young and JK Rowling, a bizarre idea is now being taken quite seriously. It is that private education, of the traditional, preferably boarding-school type, represents a model of how modern education should be.

First there were the jolly japes of Hogwarts. Now, with the launch of his West London Free School, Young is invoking the example of public schools. His school aims to be the “Eton of the state sector”. Its curriculum emphasises what used to be known as “general attitude” – persistence, managing impulsiveness, finding humour and the like.

He has been supported by that champion of the caring side of private education, Anthony Seldon. “The left has tended to eschew character-building as a rightwing obsession,” Dr Seldon writes in The Guardian. “Young is right to put the emphasis on character. It puts the finger on what is going wrong in state schools.” As an example of character-building, Dr Seldon mentions, perhaps unwisely, something called “oiling”, popular at Eton, which helps develop “a mixture of ambition, self-confidence and bloody-mindedness”.

There has certainly been a good bit of oiling when it comes to promoting private education and trashing the state sector. Tony Blair, David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Nick Clegg are seen as representing the smooth effectiveness of the modern public-school product. State schools, on the other hand, are routinely portrayed as failing, mired in bureaucracy and ill-discipline, stifled by political correctness. Even comprehensives with good exam results tend to be on the receiving end of sneers; “factory schools”, Dr Seldon calls them.

A little perspective is needed in this debate. Public schools can be every bit as grim and hopeless as any state sector comprehensive, but in their own way. They can produce unhappy children. Even when character-building is successful, some of the characters which have been built – self-centred, obsessed with money and status, cosseted by unthinking privilege, lacking in empathy – are hardly those which contribute much to society.

It is as absurd to suggest that teachers in state schools fail to encourage the virtues of, say, persistence, managing impulsiveness or finding humour, as it is to suggest that public schools are run on a purer, higher ethic. The reason why private schools succeed where those in the state sector do not comes down to a simple matter which has absolutely nothing to do with educational philosophy. They are blessed with vast financial resources, the support of parents and the ability to impose discipline – and they select their pupils.

Of course it is important to help children emerge from education with a good personality as well as good grades, but that aim exists outside the little enclave of social advantage which is private education. I have spoken in classrooms to children of both sectors, and have no doubt that the most memorable sessions – where the discussion was most impassioned, engaged and unpredictable – was in comprehensives.

There is often a quiet sense of entitlement among the privately educated, a slightly numbed politeness, a natural assumption that good things will happen to them in the future as they have in the past. That may be part of the oiling process, and it is possible that those children will be among the leaders of the future, but I know which type of character-building I prefer.

The BBC’s taste for airbrushing history

There is something undeniably creepy about the BBC’s policy of tidying up its archive productions by removing what it deems to be undesirable elements. A performance by Jonathan King on an edition of Top of the Pops in 1976 has been quietly edited out of a rerun of the show on BBC4. The problem, presumably, was that 10 years ago King was convicted of having sex in the 1980s with underage teenage boys.

What is the rationale for this small-minded prissiness? Do BBC bowdlers fear that the moral health of the nation will be put at risk if King appears, singing “It Only Takes a Minute” under the stage name 100 Ton and a Feather? Or is there a vague fear that some feeble-minded moralist (or tabloid newspaper) might accuse it of somehow condoning the crime? It seems that the corporation is now so self-important that it sees itself as an extension of the law. King has been punished but the state broadcaster must add its own penalty.

Certainly, if the BBC’s new policy is to give musicians a retrospective morality test before allowing them on the screen, its censorship department is going to be busy. There will be no room for Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pete Townshend, Ike Turner and many others – and that’s before one has even reached jazz.

Lying makes you hot under the collar

Such is the speed of the technological revolution, and the erosion of privacy, that proposals which once would have caused huge concern now become part of everyday life almost unnoticed. At an unnamed British airport, a device will soon be introduced which, through thermal imaging, reveals whether the body temperature of someone being questioned has risen – a sign that a lie is being told. Its designer, Professor Hassan Ugail, has boasted, “In an interview, you can talk to a person, then just press a button and say: was he lying or not?”

Who could possibly have sponsored the research for this sinister new form of covert surveillance? You guessed it: the Home Office.

Independent, Tuesday, 6 September 2011