Are public schools a blight on British society? (and sex at Newnham)
Last night I did a gig in an 'Intelligence Squared' debate -- on the question of whether public schools are a blight on British society. A wonderfully British subject, as you can see from the fact that more than 1300 people turned up to listen in Central Hall Westminster.
My own view is very clearly that public schools promote social division, snobbery and (if you like) flogging and fagging. In some ways, they are an emblem of all that is worst about British society. And yet, unless we are going to hand the whole of the education system to Ed Balls -- then maybe we need them. Indeed, if we don't have them, where are any kids going to be learning German in a few years time, let alone Latin.
To put it another way, if you were inventing British education all over again, you wouldn't invent this two tier system - but the solution isn't quite so simple as just decrying and abolishing public schools.
So I was a slightly off-message speaker against the motion -- against, that is, the idea that 'the public schools are a blight on British society'. If you think that society needs Latin or German, then you need public schools for a few more years at least . Just remember that in 60% of state schools, fewer than half the pupils ate still studying a modern language at age fourteen. (There's good material here.)
The odd thing is that all the speakers in this debate (both pro and anti) were classic public school products, even if they hadn't actually been there (me apart, I hasten to say!). It was a great display of (sometimes very funny) male rhetoric, including a marvellous rendition of the Harrow school song by Francis Wheen, an old Harrovian speaking against public schools.
But, dare I say it, even if it was all tremendously elegantly speechified (much more elegant than I managed), it was occasionally a little content-lite on every side. I kept thinking: what would I say to these boys if I had them in a supervision? I'd have said, 'come on ...lets actually look at this argument in a bit of detail.'
You can listen to it here ... please don't look at the video (though, by the way, my side won).
Anyway, while I was reflecting on the (impressive lets face it) blokeish rhetoric of the discussion, I fell to thinking about my own dear, single sex women's college.
How many times have I gone round to schools, saying that Newnham wasn't a nunnery? Well now our undergraduates have proved this pretty powerfully, and got themselves in the Mail in the process. Apparently the JCR president has sent an email round to all undergraduates, reminding them that loud bonking was very audible in the corridors....
Nunnery? Not like any nunnery I know.