Hothousing? Why private schools may be less pushy than you think

In an article in the Times, 05/03/12, Robert Crampton argues that independent schools have changed from the inaccurate, outdated image that most people hold and that we should acknowledge that they may well be doing something right.

Richard Harman, the headmaster of Uppingham school and, from next year, chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, says pushy parents and teachers pressurising pupils to achieve perfect grades to get into elite universities are misguided. He thinks such hothousing could cause long-term damage and is, in any event, a poor preparation for the inevitable stresses and setbacks of adult life. Better, he says, that children learn early on to develop the resilience that comes with handling failure.

Most of us — about 93 per cent of the British population — who didn’t go to private school have an image of them that, if it was ever accurate, is now woefully out of date. We think of Flashman, bullying, toffs, snobs, a narrow focus on rugby, rowing and Latin, braying voices, the old-boy network. We think of exam factories charged with coaching the sons and daughters of the old rich, or coating the children of the aspirational new rich with a veneer of culture. I shared this view, broadly, until about a decade ago.

Around that time, as I met more and more people who’d been to private school, it began to dawn on me that these places weren’t like that. Many had, rather, become the guardians of a liberal education ethos that was being eroded in state schools obsessed with chasing a higher place on the league table. I realised that if you send your children private, you’re buying privilege all right, but not necessarily the marginal privilege of an extra A star; more likely, the immensely more valuable privilege of a child enabled to develop whatever talent they have.

It has been noted that former private school pupils — Lily Allen, Chris Martin, Florence Welch, Pixie Lott, Radiohead, Keane etc — are taking over the music business. Just as they are prevalent in acting — Damian Lewis, Dominic West, Jude Law, Eddie Redmayne. And sport: 37 per cent of British medal winners at the 2012 games were privately educated, as were most of the England cricket team. A generation ago it was Mike Brearley and David Gower and that was it.

Same goes for politics, literature, comedy, business. Many youngsters starting restaurants and breweries and bakeries where I live in East London benefited from private school. Yes, it’s partly about money and facilities, connections and confidence. But it’s also about having been educated in an environment where the piece of paper at the end wasn’t the only thing that mattered. These schools have changed, and we should acknowledge that they may well be doing something right.

Instead, of course, almost everything said in public discourse about private schools — including often by those who attended them — is disparaging. I’ve lost count of the number of politicians, actors, comedians and sportsmen I’ve interviewed who were ashamed — or at least knew they had to pretend to be ashamed — of having attended such reactionary establishments. Or rather, what they know are considered as such, and actually know are anything but.

Click here to read the article © The Times.