Monday, September 21, 2009

Old school ties

There was a time when the public school ethos was rather dismissive of "trade" and the institutions themselves would have hautily rejected any idea that they were businesses. No more; now the places are busily turning themselves into franchises and opening branches — in many places replicating the full public school experience down to the silly uniforms and school songs across the Far East.

Since Harrow first took the plunge back in 1998 by opening a branch in Thailand, other English public schools have either followed suit or been seriously tempted. The famous Harrovian boaters may have looked out of place in downtown Bangkok but, educationally, the model worked.

Many East Asian countries are, rather like the schools themselves, endlessly fascinating to outsiders, but much stereotyped - in some cases even rather unfairly. So in that spirit, one might observe that it is unclear whether that part of the world really needs more institutions that love hierarchies, deference, arcane and bizarre rituals, cruelty and recherché sexual habits.

But there is another curious aspect to it; as the Telegraph article linked to notes, that while these institutions might be widely admired by the super-wealthy, the English education system as a whole is not widely regarded as a great model for everyone else to follow.

In this there is a curious parallel with the American health care system. I can't claim to have followed every twist in the current debate there, but I have noted that many defenders of the status quo in the US cite the fact that wealthy foreigners are often willing to pay for the best facilities America can offer proves the superiority of their own system.

I'm not sure many people in Britain would use a similar logic to resist changes to the educational system - we can all the absurdity of that logic, right? And yet a great many people who can spot the unfairness in the American health system from their vantage point on the other side of the Atlantic are quite happy to encourage a divisive and inequitable education system back home.

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Blogger Vincent said...

This is my opportunity at last to express admiration for your book Swinesend which in its satire yet flatters its subject with all the affection and mixed emotions that nostalgia offers.

Nevertheless your post puzzles me for its ambiguity - perhaps as ambiguous as your affection for the public-school system.

When you say "the education system" are you referring to the comprehensive schools and the supporting systems within primary and tertiary education? I refer to the system which chooses as its natural enemies not illiteracy, ignorance and philistinism, but class, elitism and "inequality".

You say that the English education system as a whole is not widely regarded as a great model for everyone else to follow. I don't know about that, for in the ex-colonies, such as Jamaica for example, the old-fashioned teaching standards, such as might be found in the grammar schools, were revered for decades after they were abandoned in the UK - and maybe still are.

I don't see a divisive and inequitable education system in UK, but several different systems, including one which works very well but can only be patronised by the wealthy because the State has moved in a different direction. It doesn't surprise me that certain public schools have spawned overseas branches; but I don't believe that the East Asian countries you refer to have embraced them on account of "hierarchies, deference, arcane and bizarre rituals, cruelty and recherché sexual habits".

Of course only the rich can afford them, but the schools are favoured for certain old-fashioned values and academic excellence.

I cannot see any parallel with the American health care system, whose defenders are motivated by vested financial interest and an instinctive aversion to anything socialistic.

5:26 pm  
Blogger bill said...

Hello Vincent, and thank you for your kind words.

As for the point of my post, apart from the opportunity of lobbing a few barbs in various directions, I was perhaps somewhat ambiguous because I don't really have a grand solution for the problems of the English education system.

And I do mean the whole system - private and state-run - which is utterly dysfunctional.

Too often public schools are not bastions of scholarship and intellectual elitism (which I wouldn't have a problem with per se) but exam factories that spoon feed the children of the wealthy to pass exams that are almost worthless.

This can promote both an incurious mindset and utterly undeserved sense of self worth.

What's worse is the utterly pathetic nature of the state system combined with the tax breaks that public schools enjoy allows mediocrity to flourish. If you throw in the tangential, but related fact that a child's chances of getting a decent education from the state sector seem far too dependent on parental income and social standing; well, there's your parallel with the US health system - albeit I don't think a more socialistic approach will answer in this case.

As I say, I don't really claim to have the answer: but I am pretty sure that developing a system that will see rich thickos are okay, but leaves the intelligent poor to flounder isn't one that's working.

Perhaps recent moves to make public schools justify their charitable status by acting as, well, charities and not private businesses will help.

11:13 pm  
Blogger Vincent said...

Amen to your last two paragraphs in particular.

8:24 am  

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