Series:
Back to school

Lessons that last beyond the classroom

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Justin Webb

Justin Webb presents Radio 4’s Today programme and was previously the BBC’s North America Editor

September 2, 2019

This week, children across the country will be heading back to school; we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, each writer shares some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.

 

The craziest day?

I would choose the one that began with an assembly during which the chemistry master waved what he claimed was a loaded pistol. Lessons were suspended and fifth formers smoked cannabis and snogged in their hide-out overlooking the playground. The afternoon before had seen a concerted attack on a female biology teacher with Bunsen burners attached to taps and used as water cannon. I had not witnessed it because I had been suspended from the subject for suggesting insolently, in a mock O level, that the alimentary canal went from London to Liverpool and had recently been upgraded by the London to Liverpool Alimentary Canal Society.

Mr Hope, with his pistol, restored some order but Sidcot School in the summer of 1976 was not a place for the faint-hearted or the academically ambitious.

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Idiots online sometimes discover that I went to a fee-paying boarding school and write triumphant messages suggesting that I have no ability to question Tory Privilege or American Imperialism and so on, because I had such a privileged upbringing myself. The better-read of them genuinely imagine the earlier chapters of A Dance To the Music of Time: tuck boxes and wall games and fags fixing your toast.

We didn’t even have hot water. There were cockroaches in the showers that we’d douse with lighter fluid and set alight. The latrines were unheated. At meals older, stronger children took the best food. Best being a relative term: I became a vegetarian to avoid the poisonous semi-cooked sausages on which most of the school lived. When I try now to make my kids eat food marginally beyond the sell-by date they raise their eyes to the sky and mouth ‘Daddy went to boarding school’.

And yes, I did yearn for privilege: for a home that hadn’t been poisoned by mental illness, for tea and telly with Mum and Dad and a bed that wasn’t metal in a dormitory with dozens of other boys. For a life in a nice comprehensive like my wife’s former school, where all the children of the teachers at the local university formed their own cosy group and holidayed in a camper van before gliding effortlessly off to top universities. But it wasn’t to be.

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Lessons learned? Well, not the formal ones, as I have hinted. But oh so many more, so various, and so lacking from other more conventional establishments.

The first is the importance of camaraderie. At Sidcot, 360 pupils of both sexes jammed together in a collection of sheds by the A38 just south of Bristol; we cared deeply about each other. Often it was hatred. I still remember the names of some tormentors – like the psychopathic brothers whose home was rumoured to be in the Ascension Islands, who attacked younger boys with impunity for most of the decade.

But I remember, too, the intensity of the bonding – friendship is too weak a word – of kids thrown together parentless at 11, staying cooped up in the Cotswolds through thick and thin ’til leaving at 18. I remember the tears I shed the night I took a call to say my granny had died. I remember going back into prep. Carrying on. Boarding school is total immersion. There is nowhere to hide.  And when things go well, they’re intensified too: the speech competition that I would win every summer (nobody else cared) made me feel like, well, world king – a master manipulator of men, a cross between Lawrence Oliver and JFK.

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You find your place in that world and although it doesn’t have to be your place in future worlds, it helps that you know how society works and how you can fit in. Jonathan Aitken boasted that prison would be no problem for him after boarding school and he was right – not because of the hardship but because of the camaraderie and the ability of anyone who goes to boarding school to find their place, their level, their role in the organism.

It changes you. Or more precisely, it changes your brain. A growing body of neuroscience research suggests that differences in what psychologists call ‘cultural self-construal’ can result in differences in brain activation. As Bruce Hood puts it in his enthralling book Possessed: “Brain activation differs between individuals from independent and collectivist cultures when it comes to a number of tasks.”

Bingo! This is why I don’t care when other family members steal my stuff. Hood’s book doesn’t mention school but hey: Sidcot in the 1970s was the epitome of collectivism. We were all in it together. We owned nothing. So Hood would say our brains were more attuned to the collective. This absolutely allows for vertical competition – boarding schools are full of tall poppies. But their success is geared to, mixed with, the functioning of the whole body; the sense of community is not just foisted on you by lusty singing of the school song, it is actually in your head, in your brain.

This is a good thing, on balance. It allows you to understand intuitively that society does, actually, exist. And however accomplished you are, nothing of you is outside the whole.

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Silence laced with boredom was another gift. Every week the whole school would troop into Quaker meeting. An entire hour would be spent alone with your thoughts. Even when some elderly Quaker (it was the village meeting too) took to her feet and revealed that she had been shopping that week and lost the butter before getting it home and you were waiting for the line ‘life’s a lot like that’ – even then the boredom was only marginally assuaged. It hung in the air like the dust revealed in sunlight that streamed through the windows. Nowhere to hide from the intensity of it all. The impact of this on me has been wholly positive. I am at home in silence. I have never listened to a podcast. Not even the life changing work of Giles Fraser. I seek no soundtrack, no clutter. I am self-contained. It began in Meeting.

Another lesson from the Quakers of 1970s Sidcot: when a school talks the talk about inclusion, how about walking the walk too? Sidcot took a proportion of pupils (and paid for them as they did for me) who had been expelled from all other schools. Some of them were genuinely troubled. Sometimes disruptive. But we lived with it. We lived with them. In fact, it was only in later life that I realised who they were, why their name tags were scrawled with sharpie rather than daintily printed, why they seemed to have nowhere to go in the holidays, why they left suddenly.

Social inclusion is actually that: it must mean inclusion of all of us with each other and a realisation that (when it’s done properly and funded well) all will benefit. How many modern private schools, how many state schools, desperate for results, bullied by parents wanting calm classrooms, properly cater for troubled pupils? We know the answer. It is in the news. The Quakers, for all the ghastly faults of Sidcot, knew what was right.

I suppose we have to talk about exams. And actually here I owe the Quakers a grudging vote of thanks. I was allowed to be useless. For much of my life I resented this. I wished I had been pushed. I did nothing but play table tennis and smoke Players No6 in my O level year. But the school stuck with me and when I announced that I wanted to take three A levels and go to university they rallied round.

This flexibility is the privilege of which those correspondents I mentioned at the start like to object and in that one area they have a point. All schools need to be places where we grow up. Not places where we achieve qualifications.

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My daughter is taking GCSEs this year and is being told that the difference between a 9 and an 8 matters because Michael Gove, who changed the system, thinks it reveals a truth about ability. Seriously? I admire the American system (in which my children started school while I was based there for the BBC), where you learn nothing much until you go to college. Nor are you judged and graded in public exams until you leave school. Grow up I say. Then think about other stuff. It worked (just about) for me.

I should say in fairness (and in case the Quakers employ lawyers) that nothing I have said about my school is true of the establishment in the modern age. Sidcot is by all accounts a thriving place, with good results and cheerful pupils.

The past is another country etc, and there is no country farther away (thank God) than that inhabited by children in the 1970s – at Quaker schools or any other school. I would love to say it didn’t do me any harm but, frankly, it did. And some good as well. That’s school. That’s life.