Several years ago, I watched a fly-on-the wall television documentary that followed public school pupils through their daily school experience and I remember desperately wishing that just one element could be transferred to the state system: the opportunities that were offered to these pupils to gain, and to practice, reasoning skills.
As I watched the programme, I was fascinated at the contrast between state and public education and it was not in the academic content that the contrast was to be found – it was to be found in the interactions between staff and pupils that offered the pupils the experience to think, reason and debate.
My experience in state schools is often that the emphasis is often on “control” as if allowing a pupil to respond to an accusation or challenge or a wrong judgement was clearly insolence. But here, in this public school, the pupils were allowed to politely debate with teachers on decisions those teachers had made. Far from creating havoc and a focus on “rights”, this debate appeared to fulfill its ambition and the pupils responded with an awareness of their responsibilities. The ethos seemed to be that of “young men and women learning how to deal with life in a real and practical way”.
The one instance that stood out as an example of how these young public school pupils were equipped with this most useful skill of all, and is often the exact opposite of the school experience of many children, was the “smoking incident”.
The camera focused on a boy, aged about 13, who had been summoned to the Head’s office because he had been caught smoking on the school roof terrace. He was invited to sit down by the Head, with a courtesy one imagines the Head would extend to any visitor, and the charge was put to him, if my memory serves me, thus: “You have been caught smoking in school and you know the punishment for this – you are to be fined £27. The head then asked the boy if he had anything to say and he replied “Yes, I admit I did smoke in school, for which I apologise Headmaster, but I would wish very much to contest the fine if I may. I fully accept the charge but I would like to highlight that the fine for smoking in school is £27 but the fine for smoking in the school grounds is £12 and I was, technically, smoking in the school grounds rather than within the school building Headmaster and I would therefore respectfully ask if the fine could be reviewed and perhaps reduced to the £12 which is in keeping with the rules”.
The Head listened while the pupil gave this speech and then asked the pupil to sit outside while he, the Head, thought it over.
Some minutes later, the Head called the boy back in: “I have been thinking about your response and your case is a reasonable one. The fine is reduced to £12 and I must warn you that I do not wish a repeat of this behaviour”. The pupil stood up, thanked the Headmaster and asked for permission to leave.
That scene answered a question that always puzzled me: where do middle class boys get the ability to reason, discuss and appropriately challenge? For many it is in the home, of course, but for some it seems to be built into the school as a vital part of the curriculum.
I doubt, should someone later in his life emotionally wound or accidentally or purposefully “show disrespect” to this 13 year old that his first response would be to lose his temper and lash out. This 13 year old boy had the fines preparation for life: learning how to reason, the forum to experience it and the confidence to practise it.
If we compare the similarities between some state schools and the shared belief of many parents that “if you let a child challenge a decision – you are losing control” then I would ask another question: where do we think the ability to reason and discuss, to challenge appropriately, to show self-discipline will come from if they are never given an opportunity to experience and practice it?”