March 27, 2003
Philip Hensher on Westminster School

Natalie Solent links to a delightful article by Philip Hensher earlier this week for independent.co.uk about Westminster School, which is a literal stone's throw from my flat, although they seem nice enough boys and I'm never tempted actually to throw stones. Hensher had written an earlier article attacking private education, and so now he's taking a close look at what he criticised, the way you do, so that he can say yes to the question about whether he's ever looked at one of these places close up.

So he made his day trip, and he captures all manner of things very well. In lots of ways he's impressed. However, he does capture the ghastly confidence of privileged boys of that age particularly well:

I had lunch with some of the Queen's Scholars, whose fees are partly, and in some cases entirely paid on their behalf. None of the ones I met was from a noticeably different social class from any other boy, and their manners, over a spectacularly repulsive sausage in a bun (I went away and had lunch in Soho afterwards) were exactly the same. They took me to task in a grand way over my original article, and when I was not to be goaded, moved on to other columns of mine they had found on the internet, to them, no doubt, just as inexcusable. The words "Let us move on, now, Dr Hensher, to what you wrote in November last year about the Brighton pier" were never actually uttered, but it was a close thing.

Bored, I took charge and asked them what they were going to university to study. One boy was going to Oxford to do English with Russian. "I don't know whether it's changed," I said sociably, "but in my time, you were handed an Anglo-Saxon grammar and a copy of Alfred's letter – King Alfred, you know, to some dull bishop – and told to come back next week with an accurate translation. Rather terrifying, actually." "I expect," the boy said generously, "that if one has some knowledge of languages, it is rather less terrifying." I made no response. It would have been easy to suggest that there was no reason to think my grasp of three European languages had been any less than his own. I also wondered whether, when I was 18, I would have so confidently talked down to a visiting novelist of some small celebrity and critical regard old enough to be his father. I would have it no other way; I wish I had, in fact, had something of that confidence. But by money and social class I was barred, and in some ways still am barred, from that certainty.

One of the relentless messages of these places is that you are indeed privileged. You are getting a superb education. All others are far less fortunate. Those who go to less grand fee-paying schools are inevitably less superior persons. And Heaven help those who go to state schools. I know what this is like, because for a decade this was my world also.

But it's hard to imagine how any school system could ever be completely otherwise. Suppose, as Hensher recommends, that all social classes were forced into each other's company, by the illegalisation of fee-paying schools, or by their incorporation into the top reaches of the state system, with the cleverest poor children being shoehorned into what are now the poshest fee-paying schools, and the dumb hooray-Henry or nice-but-dim Tim types elbowed aside into bog-standard comprehensives or the like, to make way. What you would get would be John Hughes high school movies, riddled with class warfare. There'd just be different miseries and different humiliations, different triumphs and different varieties of arrogance.

A prison is still a prison. If you have to go to one of these things, and when there you are the object of an industrial process that is done to you rather than the subject of a life that is done by you, you'll take it out on others. There'll be class warfare, and pecking order savageries.

Even if, as I favour, you release the boys (the boys especially) from prison and let them run their own lives, they'll probably find new ways to be insufferable. Allow them to be film directors, futures traders, ditch diggers and private detectives at fourteen, and they'll still find ways to piss off the likes of Philip Hensher. If you fancy yourself as a mini star in middle-age world, teenage boys who don't know you and don't especially want to know you are going to get under your skin, politely or rudely, but one way or another, no matter how the education system is configured. You'd still have verbal dog fights with the younger dogs, and do sneaky things like letting them have the last word on the day without fighting back, but then writing your last word in The Independent. Not the least of the pleasures of this piece is what a ruthlessly revealing self-portrait Hensher supplies. Simply, he takes himself more seriously than they all do, teachers and boys alike. It's a genteel dog fight from the moment he sets foot in the place, starting with them getting his name wrong, and him getting huffy about that.

As for what he thinks should be done about it all, Hensher doesn't just exaggerate how much social melting would go on in his big nationalised educational pot. He also forgets how much worse all schools would become if (a) present Sovietisation trends continue in the state ssystem, and if (b) schools which are presently semi-independent of the official national system such as Westminster get much more completely swallowed up in the same mess as well, as he recommends. What Hensher is arguing for is a system that he hopes would be equally better for all, but would actually be unequally worse. It wouldn't achieve equality of happiness; just more and unequal misery.

However, my basic point is that Hensher's is a good piece. He went to a particular place and recorded what he actually saw and heard, and how he felt about it. I don't share his policy prejudices. Nevertheless this is real stuff, not waffle based on phoney statistics such as you so often get in the national education media pages nowadays. I recommend the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:33 PM
Category: The private sector
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