Detur Soli Deo Whatever

I should know better than to blog about private education by now. And yet, and yet, and yet…

I realise I’m late to this particular party, but this post over at the always wonderful Toaster in the Shower caught my eye. More specifically, it led me to this column by Arabella Weir in the Guardian, and I thought I’d chip in with my experience of private schooling. To summarise it, ‘My husband and I are sending our kids to their local state school, and you should feel guilty for not doing likewise, because it makes you a superior, secretly-racist middle-class snob’. There are a handful of decent points in there, which I’ll tackle in order, but to start with I think there’s a major irony going unnoticed here. By sending her kids to a state school when she could afford to do otherwise and then writing a column in a national newspaper excoriating private-school parents, isn’t Weir just as guilty of snobbery as the people she’s criticising? Political and educational considerations aside, there’s something in the column’s tone that strikes me as a kind of moralising bourgeois piety that sounds good around a table in Costa among the inevitable gaggle of ‘yummy mummies’, but isn’t good for much else. Frankly, choosing to send your children to a state school and then acting as if it makes you a saintly champion of social equality is about as repugnant to me as sending them to a private school and looking down your nose at the rest of the world, especially when you’re writing about it in the Guardian.

Now then. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not much of a fan of the public schools, but if you’re going to criticise them there are literally thousands of perfectly good reasons, without having to resort to anecdotes and fabrication. And yet:

When it was our turn to decide, my husband and I were in the happy financial position of being able to consider private schools. We did not contemplate that option for long. Neither of us was educated privately and most of the least socially and emotionally capable people I know went to posh schools.

I’m quite sure I’m not in the running for Mister Socially-and-Emotionally-Capable 2010, but all the same this seems to be to be a rather unfair generalisation, predicated on anecdata at that. God knows private schools can be isolating and repressive and so on and so forth, but I sense a classist undertone here. What Ms Weir’s getting at here isn’t even wrong, at least not entirely, but it’s the tone that bothers me, and the implication that private school will necessarily make your nice middle-class child (this is the Guardian, after all) into a Guy Burgess style emotionally-crippled alcoholic is about as accurate on the wider scale as me saying the local comp will turn little Tristram or Sebastian or whatever into a chain-smoking, baseball-cap-wearing moron who runs around stabbing people.

I think it is the Tristramness of the article that bothers me, really. It’s flaunting your choice of not using a privilege most people can’t afford in the first place, and still remaining nicely middle-class (‘Sending your child to a state school does not mean you have to give up your lifestyle’) along the way. ‘Oh, aren’t we good citizens, sending our children to school with the poor! They’re not as bad as they’re made out to be!’. I put it to the House that you, Ms Weir, will never live like common people. And, in addition, that you’ll never do what common people do.

Anyway, aside from all of this, the column’s mostly accurate, if tremendously irritating. The public schools are insular, conformist, horribly middle-England, and so on. But ultimately it’s an individual decision, and characterising your own or your childrens’ education as intrinsically better (morally or academically) than anyone else’s is snobbery, whichever end of the spectrum it’s coming from. In other words, send your kids where you want to, but don’t evangelise for it.

Oh, there was one more thing I wanted to address, from J’s post:

My aunt’s logic behind choosing a state school for her son – after his grandparents offered to pay for a private school – was that she felt the benefits of an independent school were outweighed by the risks of “having him turn into a bender”. I suspect this is not a unique viewpoint, although I wonder what Arabella Weir would think of it.

So, will private school turn your beloved child into a bender? Well, no*. Not unless he was headed that way anyway, in which case it could go one of two ways; a very stereotype-conforming closet case, or them finally snapping under the pressure and becoming incredibly gay. I’ve tried both, and all in all I prefer the second.

And, in fairness, there are advantages to a private education. Regrettably, there are still a great many spheres of life in which something like this will open doors. The quality of education’s good, too. But I still think my original criticisms stand. Basically, do what you want. Just don’t clutter up the Guardian’s op-ed section with your witterings about it. That’s what blogs are for.

* I give you no guarantee they won’t come out the other side having played the biscuit game (don’t ask) a few times, though. Especially if you pack them off to those dens of iniquity Wellington or Charterhouse. Oh, and they might end up getting buggered by the sons of the rich and famous, but these days they usually have to ask nicely first.

About Alexander Caldwell-Kelly

Aspiring advocate. Sometime writer. Dubious husband. Inveterate smoker. Pretentious youth. Occasional Englishman. Unconvincing Scotsman.
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10 Responses to Detur Soli Deo Whatever

  1. Puer Alleyniens says:

    I still find myself whistling the DC school song from time to time. Think I still know half the words as well.

    Brainwashing, I calls it. It’s like Scientology, but slightly more urbane.

  2. J. Wibble says:

    I think it is the Tristramness of the article that bothers me, really. It’s flaunting your choice of not using a privilege most people can’t afford in the first place

    Spot on. There are people who make great sacrifices to send their child to a private school, in the face of the alternative, and people who would love to have the luxury of choice – either in terms of being able to afford it or living in an area where any sane person would willingly send them to the local state school. It’s entirely up to you where you want to send your children to school, but don’t pretend the decision you make makes you better than anyone else, and remember that not everyone is lucky enough to be able to make that decision.

    The public schools are insular, conformist, horribly middle-England, and so on

    This I disagree with. I’m not denying that there are private schools like that – perhaps that’s the distinction, as “public schools” creates a very different mental image from the private schools I’m familiar with – but I would argue that there is a separate class system even within the independent sector. The clientele of a school charging £10,000 a year or less is likely to be radically different to those charging £27,000 a year or more.

    • Alex says:

      You make a fair point. My bad – my own experience is based on a (being generous) second-flight public school, but one with a lot more pretensions than, say, Bristol Grammar, I suspect. To ungeneralise, when I said ‘private school’ in the post I meant the sort of schools that make up what used to be called the Headmasters’ Conference.

      • Irrelevant says:

        Your own experience is based on your own experience. I’ve read most of your blog posts and I’ve actually enjoyed/agreed/understood most of those I’ve read. You need to stop carrying your own personal baggage from experience with you and treating it as what everyone experiences (whether they’re switched on enough to realise it or not) though man. All these things about ‘the College’ having pretensions and what not. They don’t force them onto anyone there, and I think the best thing about that school and the teachers there is that you could easily make of them what you wanted. You had IRTB so of course you know this! It’s not like we were ever forced to listen to/act upon what idiots like SRNG thought.

      • Alex says:

        Thanks for the comment. OK, I concede I’m being somewhat unfair. Just because I had issues with the place doesn’t mean everyone did. And obviously it wasn’t all bad, and in fact a lot of it was great (IRTB included, of course), something which I’ve neglected to mention in the past.
        But come on, I think ‘pretentious’ is a fair accusation to level at Dulwich (and at me, but this is my blog and I’ll cry use double standards if I want to) – I mean, did you ever read The Alleynian?
        Anyway, just because you’re not forced to accept it (and in hindsight I think it was probably a lot harder to be any kind of a nonconformist than you’re making it out to be) doesn’t mean it’s not there.
        Oh, and you’re quite right about me needing to give up the emotional baggage. But hey, it’s one of those bendy educational things. Working on it.

      • Irrelevant says:

        I thought I’d get an e-mail alerting me to your comment, hence the delay in a reply, sorry about that.
        I do agree with you about pretense actually, and I think that had I read your post maybe 2/3 years ago I wouldn’t have disagreed with you on this topic like i do now. The last year at the school definitely saw a somewhat bizarre change in everyone (myself definitely included). There was an odd togetherness and acceptance (or maybe unity in spite of difference) amongst our year that at one stage I didn’t think I would ever have seen at the College. I think that if you’d have seen and felt that then maybe you’d have had a different opinion of the place and the people. For me I realised that not everyone was the charicature that I had them down as (yes, even ‘the Football Crew’). I’m just sorry it took us all (again, definitely myself included) so long to grow up.

  3. Kapitano says:

    I went to a privately owned all-boys school. A hotbed of thirteen year old boys fondling each other in empty classrooms between lessons, then pretending to have girlfriends and calling each other queer.

    Then I went to a publicly funded all-boys school. A hotbed of fifteen year old boys doing exactly the same thing.

    Though not so much with me, because I never bothered pretending to be straight. Odd that.

    Anyway, you’re quite right about the Gruniad article. Just another social climbing type who’s only skill is in claiming the moral high ground in any decision they take – whatever they decide, they need everyone to know it makes them superior.

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