LONDON LETTER

Are Snob Schools Bad For Britain?

Beverley Baxter October 1 1954
LONDON LETTER

Are Snob Schools Bad For Britain?

Beverley Baxter October 1 1954

Are Snob Schools Bad For Britain?

LONDON LETTER

Beverley Baxter

THE LONG summer recess was near at hand and the old Mother of Parliaments was tidying up a few odds and ends before closing the doors and Putting up the shutters.

We were discussing education, and some eyebrows were raised when a young Tory, Mr. John Eden, rose to address the House. This slight, handsome, rather wistful nephew of Anthony Eden had made his maiden speech only a fortnight before. Anthony Eden, in winding up that debate as Foreign Secretary, told the House that the most nervous moment he had had all day was when his nephew was making the speech.

By tradition the first oratorical effort of an MP is never barracked. Equally, by tradition, a new MP avoids controversy in his maiden effort. And finally, by tradition, the MP who speaks affer him always has to congratulate the fledgling and say, even if he does not mean it, that (he House will look forward to frequent interventions in debate from the honorable gentleman.

After that the new boy usually sits quietly for two or three months before opening his mouth again.

Consequently there was some surprise when less than a fortnight later young John Eden rose in his place again and caught the Speaker’s eye. What contribution could he make on the problems, the cost, and the technique of educating the nation’s boys and girls? And why did he want to speak again so soon?

Like a duellist John surveyed his adversaries on the socialist benches and calmly said: “Probably I suffer from a defect in the

eyes of the honorable gentlemen opposite. I was educated at what I believe to be the greatest independent school in this country, Eton College.”

This was a daring opening. Eton is the supreme snob school of England, although its defenders try to deny it. From the moment a boy arrives there he wears an Eton collar, a morning coat and a silk top hat. On Sunday small hoys can be seen strolling about the neighborhood with their headgear making them look like the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, and with their hands sunk in the pockets of their trousers. The dormitories in which the boys sleep are dark and almost airless, dating back pretty well to the Middle Ages.

Once a year they invade my own neighborhood when they play the annual two-day cricket match at Lords against the other great snob school of Harrow. Regardless of the weather the Harrow boys of all sizes and shapes are supposed to wear straw hats—or what are called “boaters.” The Etonians stick to toppers.

It is a great family festival. Fathers in morning coats and toppers bring their tall leggy daughters and younger sons, and even allow mother to share the glory. Until recently it was quite the thing to come by coach and park it inside the

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grounds until the match was over, when the horses would be harnessed again and the family would be driven home.

Winston Churchill did not go to Eton but chose Harrow, where he achieved no success at sport or learning. Nehru went to Harrow and returned to India determined to work for his country’s liberation from the British yoke. Stanley Baldwin was also a Harrovian, although he did not smoke a pipe until his later years.

Naturally the satirists have had their fling; and sometimes the most pointed darts came from old boys of the two schools. In Who’s Who, Osbert Sitwell, the famous poet and essayist, includes the item: “Educated during the holi-

days from Eton.”

In the days when the Liberals and the Tories dominated the political scene more than half the ministers were old Etonians. “It. is not a school,” said the great Lloyd George, “so much as a secret society.” Another critic declared that Eton was not so much a secret society as a trade union. But overwhelmingly the British parliament and the British diplomatic corps have been dominated by men who went to Eton or Harrow —and principally Eton.

Tadpoles Under Top Hats

It was not until Labour came to power in 1945 that the tradition waned for a time and Haileybury College and Winchester took Eton’s place because Clement Attlee went to the former and Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell to the latter. Actually Hugh Dalton, the first Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1945, went to Eton but the Tories hurriedly explained that he had belonged to the lowest form of schoolboy by being a day scholar and not living in.

But before your democratic breast bursts with indignation let us remember that Eton became the nursery of the nation’s leaders in politics and diplomacy in the years when Britain was a great expanding imperial power. She had to send men abroad who were incorruptible and, to use a colloquial phrase, would not let the side down, or in matters of sex go native. In other words they were taught team spirit when they were so young that they looked like tadpoles under their top hats.

There is much to be said for the team spirit and there is something to be said against it. The smaller boys at Eton are made to “fag.” In other words they run errands and tidy up for the lordly ones in the fifth and sixth forms. Many appointments in later life are made on the basis of “He was my fag at Eton.”

It was against this system that Rudyard Kipling hurled the words: “Some day we shall lose India because it will be ‘Stinky’s’ turn.” If that

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needs translation it means that a schoolboy loyalty could cause the prime minister to send out the wrong man as viceroy.

But let us look at the system with appraising and unprejudiced eyes. A small island like Britain, administering vast continents and all shades and creeds of human beings, must train men who are dedicated to leadership. In effect Eton and Harrow say to their boys: “This is not the road to wealth. You will never be paid enough to be able to save any substantial sum. But you will have the power and the glory, and if you fail you will sink into obscurity. You must serve the state with integrity above everything else. What is more you must realize that genius springs from many sources— born sometimes in a herdman’s shed or in a Manchester slum. When genius appears, you—who have had every advantage—must serve under it, for genius cannot be denied.”

Thus you find the aristocratic Tory Party in the 19th century choosing Benjamin Disraeli, son of a Jewish man of letters with almost no social background, as their leader and prime minister. In later years they backed the Birmingham businessman, Neville Chamberlain, and the industrialist, Stanley Baldwin, for the same roles. And, conversely, they did their best to prevent the premiership of Winston Churchill, nephew of the Duke of Marlborough.

But what of the boy who goes to Eton or Harrow and is destined for nothing more than an ordinary life? What effect have these boarding schools upon him?

At a very tender age he is sent to a preparatory boarding school and, to a large extent, passes from the family circle. He comes home “for the hols” but his real world is the school. His parents take him to the pantomime at Christmas and then shove him back to school. The same thing is happening to his sisters. They have also gone to boarding schools where they play ground hockey to take their minds off the fact that they are females. In such circles the teen-ager, beloved of American films, is unknown. And, since I am an honest observer of the human comedy, let me admit that the English girl in her sports dress loses something essential as she swipes the ball with her hockey stick.

It is an undeniable fact that among those who can afford to send their children to private boarding schools the influence and the joys of family life are steadily reduced. A great pope once said: “Give me a child until it

is ten and after that I have no worries.” The boarding-school system of Britain is almost as powerful as the Church.

There are many dialects and accents in this rain-soaked island. Paradoxically the Scottish tongue is an asset but the Lancashire accent is not—except in industrial and music-hall circles.

On the other hand the out-and-out Cockney, the semi-Cockney and even the soft breathy Cockney accent is a social liability. This may seem tawdry but it is true. I am sorry to say that even in modern Britain the manner of speech is almost more important than its meaning.

Snobbery? In a way, yes. On the other hand there is a robust democracy which acclaims personality and achievement no matter from what source it springs. But then in any society the gifted man or talented woman can succeed. It is the ordinary decent little people who suffer from the system.

I have long been aware of the faults of the English public-school system —by a strange quirk these private schools are dubbed public. Yet if I had the power to end it I would hesitate and perhaps, in the end, I would ask for time to give it further | study.

But there is one factor which grows more powerful all the time, and is causing not only much worry but a ! great deal of hardship. I refer to that I old devil—finance.

To maintain a boy at a good public I school costs his parents from 400 to ¡ 450 pounds a year. The father cannot charge that outlay against his income tax. nor can he claim any rebate for . the taxes he has to pay to support the state schools. In fact we have the odd ! situation of parents subsidizing the j state schools by paying taxes and then j bv relieving the state of the cost of | educating their children.

Home Life Is Weakened

Taxation is so heavy in Britain that an expenditure of 450 pounds a year means either a very heavy outlay of available income or the sacrifice of capital. The area of hardship expands j all the time, and the chancellor of the j exchequer can only say, like Miss Otis, j that he regrets.

I think, myself, that the monastic | system of education as exemplified by j Harrow, Eton, Haileybury and Winj ehester, does harm by keeping young j gÿ-ls and young boys from the enjoyment and the stimulation of mixing With each other. Most of life’s joys and most of life’s tragedies come from t)re relation of the sexes.

It is a bad thing when the emotionalism of the young has its outlet in the companionship of one of the j same sex. God created male and female j and it was never intended that they I should be segregated for long periods ' at a time. If the French and the j Americans lean to one extreme, I think that the children of the better-off famij lies in Britain pay a heavy price for | the advantages of segregated schools.

Finally there is the undoubted fact that the influence of home life must j be weakened severely by the boardingschool system. In many cases that would be a good thing, but on the I other hand it is bad when a woman is .relegated to the role of a mere conduit pipe linking up the generations.

I APOLOGIZE to John Eden for I leaving him standing all this time. You may remember that at the beginj ning of this letter he had announced to the House of Commons that he had the disadvantage of having gone to Eton, which he regarded as the greatest independent school in Britain.

But a socialist MP who worked in the mines as a boy drew the biggest laugh.

“I am conscious,” said John Eden toward the end of his speech and then paused dangerously.

“Just,” said the miner MP, and even John joined in the laughter. ★