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17 March 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Good manners and mediocre teachers

William Skidelsky, who went first to a comprehensive and then to Eton, thinks Bristol University is

By William Skidelsky

It is relatively common to switch from a private school to a sixth-form college, but much less normal to move in the opposite direction. At the age of 16, having previously attended a comprehensive school, I entered the sixth form of Eton College. When people hear this, they tend to assume that the experience must have been terrifically daunting. Because Eton is seen as fundamentally unlike other schools, it is assumed that those from ordinary backgrounds cannot hope to fit in there. At this point, I should mention that the state school I attended in Sussex wasn’t an inner-city comprehensive. My family background is middle class, as was that of most of my friends in Sussex. So, in going to Eton, I was hardly entering an alien world. Nevertheless, I did feel it to be a significant change, and one for which my previous education had not adequately prepared me.

When I arrived, what struck me most was how normal the people seemed. True, there were plenty of superficial differences: my fellow pupils wore more expensive clothes, spoke in posher accents and had more sophisticated manners than my old friends had. But in a more fundamental sense, the differences were not all that great.

One of the troubles with our segregated education system is that it encourages people to think of schools like Eton as inhabiting a different universe from their own. This also works the other way round: people who go to private schools think of state schools as unruly places where the pupils run amok and nothing remotely useful gets done. Because such attitudes are acquired relatively early, and most people’s subsequent experiences don’t force them to abandon them, they tend to persist into adulthood, and become the prevailing beliefs of society. Hence the passions aroused by Bristol University’s rejection of several public school candidates expected to get straight As at A-level. Commentators rail against ideological, “positive discrimination”-style campaigns waged by academics. Yet surely university selection cannot be based solely on exam results, given the vast discrepancies in people’s experiences of education?

In moving from a state school to a private school, I was probably lucky that it was Eton I went to, and not some other, less prestigious public school. Had I gone to Harrow or Marlborough, say, my experience might have been different. In comparison to those schools, Eton is a gentle, mild-mannered place. This has a lot to do with the charm of Etonians. Their manners are of a distinctive kind, and it is always easy to spot an Etonian, because of the almost theatrical ease with which he interacts with the world.

All these factors made my first few weeks at Eton much less problematic than I had expected. I was never laughed at or made to feel inferior. I wasn’t forced to undergo any humiliating initiation ceremonies. To begin with at least, nearly everyone I encountered went out of their way to be courteous and helpful.

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Nevertheless, as time went by, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned. In part this was because we all lived in such close proximity to one another. This tends to bring out the worst in people. The charm a person is capable of displaying to someone he doesn’t know well counts for a lot less if you have already seen him viciously laying into someone for no very good reason.

I also came to view Etonian manners in a different light. It increasingly seemed to me that Etonians use their charm as a defensive weapon, as a way to deal with a world in which they never feel entirely comfortable. Scratch the surface of their manners, and you realise that they are no more friendly than anyone else, and in many cases probably a lot less so.

The biggest factor in my disillusionment, however, was the teaching. Although a few of the masters were first-rate, a surprisingly large number were mediocre. Lessons often consisted of the teacher reading out notes, which the pupils would copy and then regurgitate in their essays. Sometimes these notes appeared to have been plagiarised from other sources; often, on completing a homework assignment, I would open a textbook and see exactly the same words that I had copied down earlier.

Some of the teachers should not have been allowed near any school in the first place. One history teacher, for example, had a stockpile of anecdotes that he repeated year after year. One concerned the time he had marked an A-level exam and been shocked by the incoherence of the female candidates’ responses. He would single out pupils with foreign-sounding names and mercilessly mock them for their “atrocious grammar”. On the other hand, those from aristocratic backgrounds would be showered with praise and awarded improbably high marks for their essays. No one took him particularly seriously, but the mere fact that he was tolerated said something interesting about the ethos of Eton.

For a long time it surprised me that the school produced such good examination results, given the modest quality of the teaching. But then I came to realise that getting good exam results actually has very little to do with genuine intellectual curiosity. What schools like Eton do well is teach their pupils how to write serviceable essays that will get them respectable results in timed exams. This, above all, is what you pay for when you send your child to a private school.

There were various other unpleasant sides to Eton life. Because the grounds of the school are not cordoned off from the surrounding towns and villages, sometimes on Friday or Saturday nights local gangs would congregate drunkenly outside and hurl abuse up at the boys in their houses. At this point, pupils would start to appear at their windows and retaliate with insults of their own. “Get off my land! Away from here, you oiks!”

Eton showed me that my comprehensive school may not have produced particularly good results, but its atmosphere was more tolerant and egalitarian; it did not attach so much importance to hierarchy and competition. Although it could be said this means that the school was not adequately preparing its pupils for life in the “real world”, I still would like to live in a society where such values were more to the fore.

For the most part, I do not regret having gone to Eton. In some respects, the experience has had tremendous advantages. Unlike most people, I now feel as if I have two identities, between which I can switch as circumstances require. When with public school friends, I can feel part of their club, and when with people from state schools, I also feel I can fit in. The usual partitions and barriers don’t apply so much to me. At the same time, however, I am relieved that it was just the two years I spent at Eton, and not the usual five. Deep down, I don’t really think of myself as an Old Etonian. When people ask me where I went to school, I usually tell them it was to a comprehensive in Sussex.