I keep meaning to write up my Frequently Asked Questions, but I never quite get round to finishing it. And there are always new questions being frequently asked. A very popular old chestnut however is “are you opposed to all private education?” and the answer of course is yes, yes I certainly am. It’s just on the whole that is not my specialist field of Stuff To Be Irate About.
My focus is on boarding education for a number of reasons,: Firstly, while it is a pretty daunting campaign it is not such a mountain to climb as attempting to take down the whole system of private education. Secondly, while I believe all private education to be unfair and unjust I don’t think it is actually cruel. Well, not to the kids who go there at least. To all the kids suffering lives of poverty and indignity because we live in such a repulsively unequal society it is pretty cruel, and more on that later, but to the pupils themselves the schooling is not actually cruel in the way that five-year olds living away from home is cruel and contrary to the rights of the child. And thirdly, I do believe there is something insidious about boarding schools which makes them contribute more to social injustice than any other kind. I have written about the fundamental flaw in rich kids not meeting poor ones here, or the ‘we don’t all get to be prefects’ phenomenon here . I also believe that they create a kind of fake poverty: uncomfortable beds, cold showers, crap food, all allow the public school boy to look at the big issue seller and say ‘I haven’t had it easy either you know’. And of course he hasn’t had it easy, but because his parents did want him to live at home, not because his porridge was lumpy. But of that would be too painful to acknowledge, so the big issue seller has to become a scrounger who should have made better choices in life.
But there are of course problems with focusing on only boarding schools. You can oppose boarding schools because you think they are cruel or you had a rubbish time there but still be desperate to make sure your kids do better in life than poorer people’s kids. If we discourage boarding we might be encouraging people to be slightly less barbaric to their own children but we are not forcing them to give a modicum more of shit about anybody elses’. And we are not going to get anywhere worth going unless we understand that success based on the wealth you were born with is not fair.
Now I would have thought that this was obvious to most people. I would have thought that the only opponents of elitism in education would be very rich greedy people. But this is of course not so. There are not that many rich greedy people. And influential though they are, in controlling newspapers, tellybox, universities etc there is not nearly enough of them to get away with a scam on the scale of the great general-public-shafting operation that is private education without a certain amount of co-operation from the non-rich folk. Something strange is going on. And to explore this phenomenon we are going to have to delve into the great cultural and political resource that is My Friend Kenzie’s Facebook page…
I had not been posting the articles relating to the excellent speech by Alan Bennett on the Boarding School Action page because they were not especially about Boarding School. But when the Independent ran a poll in which they interchanged ‘private’ and ‘public’ schools without explanation I thought I would post it to the BSA facebook page, as public schools are definitely our business. ( for the record 59% of people were saying they should be abolished,but of course we do no know whether the people taking the poll meant ‘public schools’ as the question asked or ‘private schools’ as the article described). It was then ‘shared’ by My Friend Kenzie, and ‘liked’ by me ( how did we survive in life before we leaned these binary modes of approval? I can scarecely eat a sandwich I enjoy these days without wanting to hit a ‘like’ button somewhere inside my head..) And even as I ‘liked’ it I thought, gosh, I wonder what Kenzie’s right wing friends are going to make of this?
My Friend Kenzie went to the same school as me and used to be my sister’s boyfriend. He is probably the person who introduced me to a lot of political ideas, and perhaps more importantly to the White Album, but for some reason of late he seems to have an awful lot of right-wing mates. Maybe its his line of work, he does something to do with greetings cards, and maybe one has to have a certain right-wing coldness to spend ones life thinking up endless variations of ‘from our cat on mother’s day’ or ‘to our boiler repair man from the gerbil on valentine’s day’…
Anyway one particular right-wing mate (RWM) came out in force and I was a bit taken aback. One of the arguments was on my Frequently Fielded Arguments list, which is ” you can’t go telling people how to bring up their kids’. (you can, if its harmful to their kids or harmful to other people’s kids surely?). Then there was the usual “politics of envy” attack (I am married to a toff ok? I have posh kids whether I like it or not, my daughter spelled plant ‘plarnt’ in her spelling book the other day, and every morning my son puts sugar on his rice crispies with a silver Harrow Rifle Association spoon. I am way to deeply into this to be envious of anyone). Suspecting I was going to be called a communist I made a pre-emptive and light-hearted reference to being a commie, (i didn’t mention I was a catholic though, one can only handle one form of online hate at a time), and was then subject to repeated and obscure jibes about turnip planting and gulags.
But yet still there was something deeply non-predictable about the whole argument. This was not some wealthy privileged man fighting for a crumbling tradition and way of life. He said he had neither money nor kids. Yet he was passionate about people’s right to ‘save up’ for their children and grandchildren’s education. There was some simple, pummelled-with-capitalism logic, you get what you pay for says RWM, if you want a nice tea you go to Marks and Spencer’s, not lidyl. The thing is, says I, anyone can pinch and scrape a bit here and there, have one or two fewer pints at the weekend and then splurge in M and S, but even if you eat jam sandwiches for a year you are not going to be able to fork out £30,000 on school fees if you only earn £20,000. So these are not advantages anyone can aspire to, they are nearly always circumstances a child must be born with.
Then the penny dropped. Or rather the Four Thousand Pounds dropped. This was a man who had been to private school for fees of £4000 per year, presumably in the seventies or eighties. Nowadays that would hardly get you a blazer and a skiing trip. He probably went to university for free as well, and so belongs to that strange in-between generation of people who don’t realise that social mobility was a relatively small window, and who like to unwind by being rude about Owen Jones. And like most of the uk, don’t realise just how unequal we have become. The public are vastly unaware of what tax distribution is really like, and if when asked where they fit in the financial scheme of things poorer people think they are richer than they are, and rich people always think they are poorer ( for statistics and lovely diagrams about all this see this excellent lecture ). In short, no-one has a clue just how much they are being shafted and by whom. And surely nothing is going to perpetuate that better than a divided education system.
So what can be done about it? I am not sure legislation is the answer. Or maybe I just don’t want it to be. I want people to be nicer, without them having to be told they have to be, or why they should be. I don’t want to have to get an economist to tell people that huge inequality and staggering poverty is not very helpful to anyone, or to point out that where inequality is greater, more children die. In the same way I don’t want to have to get a psychiatrist to tell them that looking after their children and cuddling them is a good idea. I want people to realise that children are important. Rich children who deserve families, poor children who deserve dignity and opportunities. But all of this tricky, because inherent in the call to Give More of A Shit About Other People is demand to Have Less Stuff, and that is never a popular message. Or one it is possible to promote without fielding quite a lot of jibes about turnip plantations.