It’s not what you know but who you know, as the old phrase goes, and it’s an annoying fact that in modern-day Britain the old boys’ network is as strong as ever. But what are the people like who attempt to form the hearts and minds of these old boys when they are still schoolboys?
Two books which give a little insight into the policies, prodecdures and the very general ethos of two of Britian’s ‘great public schools’ are The Old Boys’Network by the late John Rae, Headmaster of Westminster School in the 70s and 80s; and the more recently published An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education by the former Head of Eton, Tony Little.
Rae’s book is an slection of diary entries written when he was head of one Britain’s most prestigious schools, Westminster in Central London, hard by Westminster Abbey. Personally speaking, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of Head Teachers, whether they are worknig in the state or private sectors. They always strike me as being- by and large- a melancholy mixture of salesperson, chief constable and chief exectutive. If you rund a boarding school, then add prison warder to the list. Pedagogy is the last thing they seem to be concerned about.
While a lot of Rae’s book is concerned with promoting and developing his School and maintaining discipline (mainly through cracking down on illegal drug use in Westminster) to his credit he did actually balance leadership duties with some actual classroom teaching. How many secondary school heads could one say of this today? Most of them give one the impression that they are Heads precisely BECAUSE they couldn’t wait to get out the classroom. Rae, by contrast, gives me the impression that he was a very good teacher first and foremost, and it was teaching and learning that concerned him most. Everything stemmed from that.
Rae it seems to me was also somewhat out of step with the private school ethos of the time. When it comes down to it, private schools are businesses: If they don’t attract enough fee paying parents then they fold. He was an opponent of the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ a Thatcherite policy that gave financial assistance to parents who wanted their children to goto a fee paying school. This opposition it seems made him unpopular with many of his colleagues in the Headmaster’s conference.
That said, while he was something of a political liberal, he defended to the hilt the right of public schools to exist. In one passage that sticks in my mind, he describes going to a meeting where he defended schools of Westminster’s ilk, by saying that the only sure fire way to cut the public schools down to size was for state schools to get better.
Of course this is easier said than done. One could be the Head of the best performing state school in the country. But would that give one licence to, when presented with a child of middling ability who failed to get into the Oxford College of his choice, then phone round other Colleges until a place was found? Would it also give one licence to, when a boy tells you he quite fancies a career in political journalism, pop round for tea with the editor of The Times with the young man to discuss such a career? Both things Rae did, and both were thanks to the status of Westminster as a school and the old boys’ network.
Was he wrong for doing these things? I say not. But is it wrong that such a state of affairs exitsted then and still existed now? Of course it bloody well is. Several times in the book Rae acknowledges the contradiction between wanting to do his best by the children in his care, while knowing that it is merely reenforcing the old boys’ network.
An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (despite the rather pompous title which is no fault of Little’s, the book being published as part of a series of “Intelligent Person’s” guides) is a decent read. Now while I see Eton as one of the very bastions of cronyism in this country, Little has some commonsense ideas about education. While one could take issue with some of what he says, the passages dealing with the practical changes he’d like to make to the general education system in this country in particular make for very interesting reading. It’s rather sad that some of them- like students applying for university AFTER they have their A Level results- are sensible ideas of the kind that Governments neither deabte not propose.
Indeed, the last two (Coalition and Conservative) adminsitrations have been notably guilty of imposing wholesale changes to curriculum and school administration, and fallen into the trap of overloading teachers and pupils with too much, too soon. Perhaps it is the fact that by and large they remain largely aloof from all this meddling and attempts to reinvent the pedagogical wheel, that ensures the strongest fee-paying schools are able to focus squarely on securing the best advantages for their pupils. Largely untouched, they can concentrate on doing what they are paid to do: grinding out the results and greasing the wheels of the Old Boys’ Network.