This is an addition to my Oct 4th 2019 newsletter – the pick of the responses to my POSH! Newsletter about boarding schools, private education etc of Sept 20th 2019.
So many fascinating, thoughtful, disarmingly truthful and constructive responses here to what is clearly a subject that means a lot to a lot of people. Thank you all very much for your generosity in responding and for allowing me to share your responses…
This is great, thanks. Nice to have you veering off topic – and sorry to hear about your experiences at Boarding School.
I went at 15, a shock to the system to suddenly be with all these kids who had been away since 7… It was like they were speaking a language I did not understand – utterly bewildering. I never understood it.
Thanks also for the tip about Stiff Upper Lip – I will read it. Alex Renton is an interesting commentator. I read Wounded Leaders years ago – it’s very interesting.
There seems to be something bubbling away in all of this thinking – something like hope, so here’s hoping that Boris is the comic villain ending. You know what they say about studios if they start satirising a genre…
That said, my day a week job is with people who send their kids away to school as soon as possible. One of them was delighted as he could go to the Maldives outside of his holiday, but of course I am told the schools are “lovely and caring now, nothing like he had to go through” when he was sent away to school. The children are still the “lucky” ones…
I find it hard to be sympathetic to anyone whose school listing instantly puts their CV to the top of most piles, and whose old school chums networking rank solely in the professional class A. I understand the down, even the dark side of being sent away to school, but having a fucked-up psyche is a damn sight easier to deal with, with those kind of privileges, than without. Or is it? There’s a screenplay in this?!!
I’m obsessed with this topic. Two observations.
One. I’m Irish. I’ve been living in London for about 14 years. My first rented room was in Balham (before it was as gentrified as it is now). I was renting in an ex-council flat, on an estate that was still overwhelming council owned. It had a lot of problems that were very visible. But right across the road were lovely 4-5 bedroom detached houses owned by division two footballers and the like. What I could not – and can not to this day – understand was that the lads causing havoc on my side of the road would never, ever cross over to the other side of the road. There was an invisible marker down the centre of the street and everyone policed themselves. That internalising of class values is extraordinary. And very British. Mostly people don’t need to be told to stay in their lane.
Two. I freelance as an advertising copywriter. And in all my years of working in advertising agencies I have never, ever met a copywriter who wasn’t white. Heavily favouring public school boys. Advertising is one of those sectors (like law, journalism, etc.) that is overwhelmingly ran by those from the private school system. It’s telling that when a group people who have self-selected themselves as the ‘brightest and best’ are asked to hire writers that they only higher a certain type. Because public school values have shaped what competency looks like, sounds like and behaves like. It’s a posh, ‘clever’, ‘literate’ white man. With the usual toxic ‘charming’, understated superiority. Invariably, advertising people see themselves as daring, creative, bold – people who challenge the status quo. Not people who ‘say in their lane’. And yet.
I’d be amazed if the other groups of the ‘brightest and best’ that run theatre and TV don’t also have this archetype in their unconscious when they’re hiring writers. I’d be amazed if they don’t also stay in their lane.
So much to say in response to your email and I’m sure others will feel the same.
First, congratulations on having managed to become an very empathetic person (as shown in your work) with a happy family despite your early experiences! I know others who were traumatised by their time at boarding school and there are survivors’ support groups.
I have a different perspective as a woman educated in state schools (grammar school then FE College) who went to Oxford. Of course I don’t fit the Oxbridge/Brideshead Revisited stereotype and people are often surprised that I went to Oxford, especially as I still have a bit of a northern accent. Needless to say I met a lot of former public schoolboys there (mainly men, one or two women) and am very familiar with the mindset. Two of my exes were from public schools though not boarders, which makes a big difference emotionally. Still, the mindset is the same. Class differences were, I think, a factor in our break-ups – our families were certainly not compatible. I wrote a poem about one break-up in which this features.
Your description of your car journey to school sounds like an opening scene. Just saying…
On the political front, the howling emotional void is apparent, as is the lack of understanding of ordinary people’s lives and how it feels to live on limited income. It concerns me that not only the politicians but also civil servants are drawn from this class, and I do feel that class divisions were a large factor in the Brexit vote. We haven’t solved it yet. Here’s to some solutions, which may include more class-based drama to get the conversations going.
PS Do you know Hugo Williams’ poems about boarding school? He was at Eton. One of my favourites is this very short poem, Lights Out.
We’re allowed to talk for ten minutes
about what has happened during the day,
then we have to go to sleep.
It doesn’t matter what we dream about.
I have German friend who teaches English in Germany and she uses it as teaching material to explain to the children what schools are like in England.
Look for Hugo Williams ‘Collected Poems’.
Thanks for this, it was a brave move and one I think is entirely justified given that today is hopefully the largest protest yet against climate change. Everything is connected. Brexit will bring climate annihilation, death to the NHS, the end of workers’ rights. I’ve just finished reading Vivienne Westwood’s diaries (“Get a Life!”) in which she repeatedly spells out the message of the need for climate revolution, that politicians are criminals and that we can no longer be complacent and let them get away with it. Your examination of the public school mentality ties in with this, it’s simply not possible to vote for policies that are so anti-human, anti-environment, pro-corporation unless you are a deeply damaged individual, who considers profit and power to be the only worthwhile goals. Let’s not forget the disproportionate number of both millionaires and criminal records within the Houses of Parliament – hardly representative of the population at large! Someone with the level of privilege that Boris Johnson has been raised with has absolutely no awareness of what life is like for the majority of UK citizens, and how badly the cuts have affected everyone, but the most vulnerable in particular. I could rant on and on about disability rights, the horrendous things happening in schools, how the removal of Legal Aid is allowing abusers to use the Family Court system as a further tool of abuse… but I’m sure you know all this already. I’ve reached a level where I’m angry with anyone who votes Conservative, for the damage they’re causing to this country; you have to be spectacularly ignorant, or spectacularly selfish to continue to vote for them.
Interestingly Finland have outlawed private schools, and have one of the best education systems in the world. Since watching a short video about it on YouTube, I’ve often wondered whether such a thing would be possible in the UK, and how such a policy would transform our society. One of Westwood’s principles is the need for Culture rather than consumption – I also believe that as artists/writers we need to take responsibility as to whether the work we’re creating is helping/hindering the problems that society is facing, are we merely portraying sexism, racism, elitism, capitalism etc, or are we trying to transform and transcend them?
Also, please don’t feel shame for your own education, you had no control over it. The important thing is to have questioned it and reached your own conclusions, and to have decided not to blindly continue with tradition. I’m a working class kid who went to private school (not boarding) through the now discontinued assisted place scheme, essentially a poor scholarship kid (seriously, even my underwear was secondhand!) surrounded by the privileged. It’s meant I’ve seen both sides of the fence, and interestingly now find it difficult to fit in anywhere. I think Finland have the right idea.
I’ll shut up now, but again, thanks for having the honesty and bravery to put this out. I attended your London weekend course several years ago, sadly personal circumstances have since put my writing on hold for the past few years. I’m hoping to get back to it, but age seems to count against you in TV/film/theatre rather than bringing the bonus of wisdom and experience!
Like you I come from that life – private school not boarding school, though many of my friends/relations did the boarding school / Oxbridge route and much as I love them, I wouldn’t trust a country to them.
It’s a big issue which I think stories are key to illuminating. In my opinion they get away with it because of the weight of centuries of feudal rule, institutions and traditions which are well past their sell by date. And I think to overcome this, stories are the way forward to break the unspoken narrative with ideas that challenge it.
Anyway, my rant is over too now – but its heartening to find some agreement, and yes I’m very strongly in agreement.
Thanks for the newsletter. It made for very interesting reading, and indeed I’m responding more or less in a stream of consciousness, as my thoughts are very confused. All I can say is, thanks a bundle for distracting me from the musical I’m desperately trying to write. Couldn’t leave it alone, though – clearly a problem you share.
I feel a great deal of ambiguity on this subject, because on the one hand I think you and certain others are making vast sweeping generalisations about a group of people who, if they weren’t (predominantly) “posh” you wouldn’t dare speak of with such absence of qualification and nuance. Are ALL people who went to boarding school emotional cripples (my phrase, not yours, but I think it’s the point you’re making)? That surely can’t be so. You wouldn’t be pilloried for saying it to the world, though. The phrase “fish in a barrel” comes to mind.
And yet, I can’t help thinking that you’re not far wrong, either. In contrast to yourself, I was lucky enough just to be a dayboy at a boarding school, but that, requiring me to be there (at the “big school”, at least) for 12 hours a day, was more than enough.
Without question I was unhappy, but maybe I’d’ve been equally unhappy at a state school – I’m pretty sure I’d’ve got more of the shit kicked out of me.
The point, of course, is that nobody should get any shit kicked out of them at any school, and that speaks to the need not just to rein in the automatic privilege afforded private school people (yes, and Oxbridge too, damn right), but also to raise state school standards in every respect. I’ve oft dreamed of a situation where state education had so much investment in terms of money, security (crucial) and support both from government and from parents that in time the private schools would wither on the vine and beg to be absorbed into the state system. Unfortunately there seems no chance of that happening soon – here in Brighton, the local toff school is expanding in every direction; they never stop building – a sign, I assume, that they’re on the up and up and up and up. The same is true of Eastbourne College, where I served my time.
There seems, for all our mystification, to be no end to the aspiration for the services of these institutions – sigh – and indeed, I wonder, if in some fantasy world money was no object for anyone, whether the take-up would be limited to the aristocracy and the upper middle classes?
Your quote from Evelyn Waugh is very much on the money, and yet that bit about the “gay intimacy of the slums”, I like to think that was meant ironically (it is after all a very funny book, and his humour was not designed for puritans). I’m pretty sure that there were plenty who would gladly have swapped the gay intimacy of the slums for boarding school (or even prison). There are those, as you will know, who’d complain that you and I seek to deny for others the advantages that we had as kids – though I would say in response (as per the para above) that, on the contrary, I want to see those privileges extended to every child in the country.
Vote for me!
Coming back to the thing about Curtis and Johnson, another useful study is Stephen Fry. He noted in his autobiography that he was not at all bothered about being sent away to boarding school at a very young age – I’m paraphrasing from long-distance memory, but I do recall he made a point of saying that. Of course, he may have said a lot more since about whether he thinks that separation from his parents contributed to the severe mental health problems he’s endured in adulthood. I don’t know – though I do know that plenty of people without a boarding school background suffer mental health problems. And yet I also know that I think it a really bad idea, in principle, to send your kids away from home. I ponder why people bother having kids, if they can’t wait to get them off their hands. There again (key phrase here), I don’t think my dad was that bothered about being sent away from home; I think what bothered him to the end of his days was the emotional coldness that existed in his home long before that ever happened. Again the question: why did my grandparents bother having kids? Perhaps cos it was what you did if you got married – and, if you could afford it, what you did was put them in the hands of a nanny for several years and then send them off to boarding school.
I do, for sure, think it sick and twisted to send your kids away – and, had I any of my own, I wouldn’t be wasting my money getting them out of my sight for years on end. But instead I’d probably devote myself to the middle-class sport of trying to gerrymander my kids into an upmarket state school.
I do, in the final analysis, think that at the very least, IF you’re gonna send your kids away, you should be legally prohibited from doing it at primary school level. Whether it should be allowed at all is perhaps a bigger issue.
In any case, I could go on about this all day. I won’t, cos I’ve got stuff to do and so have you.
Thanks for the thought food, anyway.
Hi Philip – hope you’re well. I too have long been interested in how public/private schools affect people, and how they then continue to act in life. I went to a fairly tough comprehensive, but my mum and dad stopped my pocket money at 13 as I was then legally able to work (that always sounds more brutal than it was!). I got a paper round, but also worked every weekend, and sometimes after school at Winchester College. I cleaned the boys’ dorms, took bread, Marmite etc. and hot drinks to them in their studies (bizarrely called ’toys’), laid tables, cleaned windows, swept the corridors, cleaned the loos, peeled vegetables for their dinner and served them from the dining hall hatch and in the dining hall.
It was quite a strange experience as I was the same age as most of them, yet I was serving them. This made for an odd relationship with the boys, who I mostly felt sorry for, despite them being in a more privileged position. Some of them were absolutely vile to deal with, and others seems to view me with something close to awe! (no idea why). It also gave me quite a chip on my shoulder that I carried around for many years – but now I can see (obviously) that the boys had no choice in whether they went there or not.
I remember the annual cricket match vs. Eton – I had to do extra cleaning, and was told in no uncertain terms to keep out of the way when the Eton boys and parents arrived as I wasn’t to be seen by anyone. I had to resist the urge to streak across the pitch.
It was always quite telling when the boys came into town on their afternoon of freedom. They were easy to spot, and used to wear an approximation of what me and my friends would wear as we hung around up to no good. We used to laugh at them – but all the girls went for them anyway (not that that bothered me).
I sometimes wish I’d gone to Winchester College like them as I think they were imbued with a confidence that meant they felt they could do anything in life. I think that’s such an amazing gift to give a child. I didn’t ever have that kind of encouragement, and I can see the effects in the time it took me to give myself ‘permission’ to write and the self-doubt I still have.
I still think that the public school boys currently running us are vile, but I think they have a choice in how they act, and for them I suspect it’s the easiest option for them to continue in life thinking they’re ’special’.
The video of Crispin Odey guffawing away as he wanks on about ’the morning has gold in its mouth’ after making multi-millions from Brexit makes me want to projectile vomit.
This was a really interesting read. It’s so funny you raise the issue of boarding schools because they’re so alien to a person like me – in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union as a whole – boarding schools were not “a thing”. In fact the only rare instance in which a child would be sent to a “boarding school” or an “away from home school” is if that child was perhaps mentally handicapped or required special medical attention (even in such instance if you send your kid to a boarding school it was considered that you basically abandoned your child). I’m not arguing for or against boarding schools at all of course. It’s just something that is very culturally specific I think. But I do wonder why (as you put it) you’d voluntarily separate yourself from your kids.
It’s so interesting that a boarding school is considered to be a superior form of education in some elite circles in the UK. I’m certain that’s why your parents probably sent you to Harrow – they were just doing the best they could for you and they thought it would give you a better start in life.
Anyway v interesting and thanks for sharing! I thought this article was also quite informative
Thanks for your email – I always enjoy these updates but today’s made me stop in my tracks.
I completely agree with your sentiments & have always found it such an odd peculiarity of the British upper classes – sanctioned child abuse dressed up as privilege. I recently wrote a project where the second episode is told from the point of view of a powerful man who abuses a younger woman. It was a stretch for me to fully inhabit the mindset of someone who feels so entitled that they can justify taking whatever they please from someone so much more vulnerable. I read a lot of books to help; including books by people who had abused. One piece of the jigsaw puzzle that really helped however, was understanding the trauma this character
suffered from being sent away to boarding school age 7 and the necessity of learning to shut off emotion and empathy in those formative years that had since become an unconscious habit. Heartbreaking.
Thanks so much for this, I found it really interesting to read and it’s a topic I’m most interested in. It reminded me to read stiff upper lip, which I bought a while ago and is on my ‘waiting to read’ list.
In my family, my grandmother was sent to a kind of boarding school (it was actually an institution for children without fathers, after her father died in what must have been the 1930’s) This left a legacy which I’ve explored a lot in therapy – my grandmother just didn’t have any warmth or empathy and my mother became an alcoholic, I think as a direct result really of the terrible parenting, and in turn was a dreadful parent to me.
When I had children I was determined to break the cycle and that was when I really started to look into and to try to understand what had happened in the past and learn a bit about child development.
I feel very strongly that boarding school is a bad idea. My own children are teens now and need that daily opportunity to vent things and to be heard and also to have a hug.
I just wanted to say thank you for writing this week’s newsletter, it’s a fascinating read and well worth going off topic for. I’ve long been of the opinion that the argument that private education is damaging to the privately educated themselves is the missing link in this discussion.
I only know a handful of privately educated people, having gone to state school myself, but there is a pattern I’ve noticed nevertheless that I think may well be true more widely. Of the four privately educated people I’ve known well (most of whom I met whilst doing my PhD) three of them are now in low-skilled, minimum wage work, and all three of them have a very low opinion about their usefulness to society and their chances of succeeding in more competitive fields.
I think they suffered a massive blow to their confidence when they left the private school bubble and discovered how much of what they’d been told wasn’t true: that they’re not necessarily smarter or better educated than the rest of the country, it’s just that they’d been given opportunities that most people won’t ever be given. I think the shock of finding that out damaged their self-esteem quite profoundly. The sad thing is that, in the case of my friends at least, they’re all wonderful, talented people with a lot to offer, but are now very sceptical and cynical about their talents.
I think giving vastly greater opportunities to a small number of kids at the expense of others is obviously bad for the kids who don’t get the opportunities. But for the kids who do manage to maintain their empathy through the experience, discovering that you’re one of the ones who has benefited unfairly would also be very damaging.
I was sorry to hear you feel “ashamed to admit” you went to boarding school. This might sound a bit trite coming from a complete stranger, but none of us are responsible for the choices our parents made for us. It was beyond your control and nothing to be ashamed of.
Your usual newsletter was well worth interrupting for that fascinating piece on boarding school education. Unlike you, I didn’t experience the joys of boarding school but as the parent of a child with complex needs it got me thinking. Faced with the possibility of my child going into care, I have always resisted, and seeing your quote by Richard Curtis (“it may be the most important 10 minutes of their day”) I feel vindicated that whatever other struggles my child will continue to face, not being brought up in a loving family isn’t one of them. However you managed to shake off your ‘programming’ congratulations for having done so. From one parent to another, I certainly think you made the right decision in rejecting a system that may have damaged them had you not had the insight to see through it.
Like you I was at a public school from 8 to 18. I ran away once and was expelled twice.
At about sixteen, I was put in charge of the house play competition as a sort of punishment for being arty. I read all the 1950s one-acters in the school library and decided I could do better myself. I also realised that, for 30 minutes, the whole school and the staff would have to sit and listen to whatever we performed. I and two others wrote a piece that (we thought) passionately denounced the unfair system we were living under. I’m not sure it was very coherent, but the boys knew exactly what was going on, and roared their approval. I thought that at the end of it the headmaster would be phoning my parents to take me away, but in fact the old actor from the village who’d been asked to come in and judge the contest said we were brilliant and gave us the cup.
That audience included a future MP and a director of BP, as well as a well-known poet. But it also included several who not long afterwards were drug addicts and drop-outs. For every public school pupil that went on to have a successful public life, there is another who was utterly broken by that childhood. And very few us of came out of it without needing a lot of mending and relearning.
You are hereby indulged by going off-topic in the latest Newsletter! As you know education is for me, in many ways, a catalyst to explore the dramatic and the injustices which are fundamental in our society. The play I submitted for last year’s Channel 4 Competition, “On the Toolz”, portrayed a privileged and privately educated young man, rejecting his parents’ values by signing up for an apprenticeship at the local HE College and refusing to follow the path for which they had so carefully planned for him from birth. The subsequent fallout, juxtaposed with the story of another young man of the same age and life stage, but from another social class, considers the real limits of social mobility and how no politician ever truly tackles the shocking fudge that is the education of young people in this country. It makes me furious to see the hypocrisy of those public figures who, on one hand, advocate equality, but then send their own for privileged schooling – smaller class sizes together with a carefully chosen curriculum being the reasons often given when challenged (never enough though in my world!). They want the best for their children they say, but then, who doesn’t? While the system exists in its current form there will never be a significant change.
Some time ago I remember reading about a rather radical idea which seemed to me to make eminent sense: that every secondary school in the country (of all types) should be offered ONE place at an Oxbridge college. If you consider the ramifications of how that would affect social mobility, given that in every school, there will always be one child who is capable of benefiting from truly excellent learning (and of course it needn’t stop at Oxbridge either) the recruitment of undergraduates from the missing 3,000 secondary schools would be solved very swiftly…. The former education Minister, Andrew Adonis, suggested that special Oxbridge colleges could be established for state school children to attend, an idea that seems rather misguided to me, given that inclusion should be at the heart of any educational reform.
I have no experience of Boarding Schools other than reading Enid Blyton as a child! I desperately wanted to go and begged my parents to send me to Malory Towers. Deaf ears, and probably just as well. As a parent, I’m with Richard Curtis!
I had a reaction to reading this so wanted to respond / weigh-in. To pack a child off to boarding school at a formative age, and not think it will have an emotional effect, you’d have to be mad. I’ve met a few boarding school kids or grown-up ex-boarding school kids, and in the main, I think I could tell them apart from non-borders.
What I find a troubling trend nowadays is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s coming from an intention of too much parental attention and love. That is, giving the child everything it wants. I see many parents let their children dictate what food they eat, whether it has any nutrition content or not, to the point of many households being tantamount to restaurants come supper time. The same kids aren’t admonished when they’re anti-social with other kids (stealing another child’s toy, for example). At most they will be “reasoned with.”
It’s interesting that this upbringing also produces entitled adults, but for a different reason. Making them the centre of the universe didn’t teach them to be empathetic to other people. Or that we are all equal and equally valid. So too much love can deny this lesson of empathy, and, as you point out, not enough love can produce a defence mechanism that leads to lower than normal empathy.
Fictional character’s really come alive when they have flaws. It might be interesting to have two characters come head to head, both lacking empathy, but for different reasons, and everything else being equal — class, race, etc.
Thanks very much for your (& Kat Roberts) post last Friday about boarding schools. I felt compelled to write, as it’s a subject close to my heart.
Like you, and others, I was sent away. In my case, at age 11. My brother, at age 8. One of the ironies is that my Dad’s company (the British Council) was willing to pay boarding fees but not day fees – even though we only lived a mile away from the school. To this day, I still don’t know to what extent my parents coaxed my brother to go, to lessen the financial strain or if it was genuinely his choice, and he really wanted to go.
I see a deep wounded-ness in my brother – who is very out of touch with taking care of his own emotional needs, and I also recognise it in myself to an extent. Again, another irony, as a writer, is that in those years at boarding school I lived a lot in my imagination, inventing worlds and living in them, because my reality was so unbearable. I was also quite depressed during that time, but I’m grateful that unlike the Boris Johnsons of this world, I did not shut down on my own vulnerability – even though the depression numbed me out of it to an extent.
The experience of boarding and abandonment came back to me in my late 20s, when I had to get through a lot of anger towards my parents for their choice to send me away. I can’t undo that past, but I would never in a million years send my own kids to boarding school.
One final irony. When I began making theatre shows in 2000, my Canadian director noted how the performer/writers she worked with who were most effective at following through on their own creative projects were those privately educated or at boarding school. I think Kat’ s right – it can lead to high-performing individuals. In my case, applying myself to write something is never really a problem. It’s learning how to live ‘outside prison’ – to have fun, connect deeply with others, relax… that I still struggle with.
The theme there’s in The Storm – the script I’m submitting for C4 now – that I’ve worked on all this year. I suppose as part of searching for ‘my voice’ as a writer it was perhaps inevitable that I’d end up touching on those experiences in some way, albeit from a fictional perspective.