State schools should teach public schools about character

Yesterday, Tony Little, the headmaster of my old school Eton College, gave evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Social Mobility at a special summit on ‘character and resilience’. These traits have been outlined by the Committee as the ‘missing link’ in social mobility. And supposedly, public schools like Eton and Wellington are particularly good at teaching character, and their ethos need to be disseminated to the poor struggling comprehensive school system.

Mr Little outlined some of the ways that Eton fosters resilience among its pupils, including:

* A range of school societies where students are charged with booking high-profile speakers.

* Tutorials – including those with pupils of different ages – where students develop speaking and debating skills.

* Developing stronger, more trusting relationships between teachers and students by encouraging staff to do more sport, music and other extra-curricular activities with pupils.

I agree that Eton teaches these skills. I was in charge of one of its many societies, and learned to be quite brazen in inviting people to speak at events, which stood me in good stead with the London Philosophy Club, where we are equally brazen at inviting famous speakers. The journalist Robert Peston has noted that it only seems to be private schools that invite famous people to speak, so he set up an organisation to change that. The weekly tutorials at Eton also helped me learn to express myself, articulate ideas, and debate. These proved to be useful life skills. But they’re not exactly character or resilience. They’re networking skills.

With regard to ‘character and resilience’, it’s harder to say for sure that public school alumni are more resilient. After all, they have much less to be resilient about. They live in environments that are safe and supportive, where they are encouraged to think of themselves as special, and are offered generous facilities to explore their talents. It is no exaggeration to say Eton is a bubble, weirdly isolated from the outside world. As George Orwell put it, to go there is venture into an Eden upon which time does not impinge. The only lower-income people you meet are there to pick up your clothes or serve you food. This is not necessarily the best preparation for the outside world (or, indeed, for politics).

Some Etonians never really get over school. This is particularly true of popular boys - classroom comedians, actors or jocks - who will never again feel the enormous sense of self-importance that comes from the hero-worship of 1200 other boys. The rest of life is, inevitably, an anti-climax. The literary critic Cyril Connelly noted this in his book Enemies of Promise: “Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over .... Once again romanticism with its death wish is to blame, for it lays an emphasis on childhood, on a fall from grace which is not compensated for by any doctrine of future redemption.”

Of course, the only thing worse than a public schoolboy boasting about their education is a public schoolboy complaining about their education. I am extremely grateful to my parents for making considerable sacrifices so that my brother and I could receive a world-class education. Eton was and is an amazing school for budding writers, not least because it gives you the expectation of success - you look up at the walls in one of the school’s libraries, and think of all the great writers who went to the school before you, or great actors, or scientists, or politicians. But firstly, that’s impossible to replicate at every other school. It costs a lot of money to give each child that sense of entitlement. And secondly, those high expectations of success can be crippling too. I had to drastically scale down my ego and my expectations in the years after school. And I also had to cope with the realisation that 93% of the country hadn’t gone to private school and were often suspicious of those who did, suspecting, quite rightly, that they'd had it easy. For some public school kids, the realisation that the world will not simply hand them success is a shock from which they do not recover. They drift listlessly into drugs, the Conservative party or private banking.

To make matters more difficult, the drugs I'd taken at school left me with emotional problems at university. Drugs are the hidden curse of many private schools (particularly boarding schools, where young people escape the tedium into inner worlds). Sadly, drugs are a problem for young people at both state and private schools. But private schools are certainly no better at protecting their wards than state schools. When emotional problems hit me, I did not ‘bounce back’. I buried my wounds out of a toxic sense of shame at my emotional weakness, and guilt at having blown my life-chances. It took me several years to get better.

I was finally helped in my recovery by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Stoic philosophy - a philosophy which was developed by Epictetus, a slave in the Roman Empire. When Epictetus was eventually freed, he set up a school which taught character and resilience to the Roman elite. When all those rich Roman families wanted to teach their children how to be resilient, they sent them to a person who had learnt to survive at the very bottom of society. Likewise, when George Orwell wanted to learn resilience, he learnt it not from the posh kids at his school, but from the outcasts on the streets.

What impresses me today are people who have managed to flourish not because of a privileged background, but despite the lack of it. We should be learning character from the young people who got into trouble with drugs or the law, and who managed to get themselves out of it; from the young people who didn’t listen to their headmasters when they were told that no one from their school goes to top universities; from the young people who took care of their families when their fathers or mothers weren’t around to do so. State schools could teach public schools a great deal about what character really means. As Bill Murray famously puts it in Rushmore: 'They can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it.'

PS Good to hear that Eton is going to sponsor a state academy. More on that here.