For those of us who work in independent schools, watching Boris Johnson move into Number 10 is like rubbernecking a car crash of Bill Viola-like slowness; it is a process you wish you could stop, but one that you cannot help but watch with a grim, resigned sense of its consequences.
We know that this collision is going to drag all those linked to him, however tenuously, into its sordid orbit, because blame spreads out and drags in. And into this posh pile-up will be pulled all fee-paying schools.
Any attempts by the sector to reposition itself as more accessible and progressive could be mangled by the Twitter and media pile-ons that are coming. The disasters that are lining up, the buried affairs and "trysts" being dug up by journalists right now, the diplomatic disasters being minuted in advance, the real and imagined outrages – all will fit neatly under one headline that captures social injustice, privilege and unplanned chaos in one bittersweet pun: Eton mess. Stick a hashtag in front of that and you’re good to go.
Because those five years at Eton College will be seen by many to be the chief reason Boris is prime minister and we’re in the state we’re in. For writers such as Robert Verkaik, author of Posh Boys, it is Eton, more than elections and referenda, that is to blame for our ills: Cameron, Boris, Rees-Mogg, the three Brexit stooges, the catastrophe gang. Eton is represented by its critics as not so much a school in Berkshire as the Bilderberg Group HQ, a place of Bond-like fiendishness, pulling the levers of power by producing an endless line of mendacious leaders. Some will imagine the head in his office, white cat sitting on his lap right now, both purring at the excellence of Project Boris. Perhaps there should be a regulatory body controlling the number of prime ministers the sector produces. They could call it OffToff.
It’s probably not needed, because there are enough critics of independent schools. And some of the most passionate critics of the sector are beneficiaries of an education they seek to change: David Kynaston and Francis Green, authors of The Engines of Privilege, went, respectively, to Wellington College and Lancing College; Professor Green’s brother sits in the House of Lords. Famously, Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle includes Wykehamist Seamus Milne, and Andrew Murray (Worth School): somebody so pukka that even Tatler was impressed.
There are many more, all falling over themselves to point out the iniquity of our divided school system. Why? Well, perhaps, like Sam Freedman (St Paul’s), former adviser to Michael Gove, it is simply down to guilt. Such an emotion shouldn’t drive reform, but in an age that constantly demands we check our privilege as much as our Fitbits, it does.
Haven’t we lost some perspective here? It’s easy to do so, particularly when you are involved in education every day of your life. Too often, too many teachers become infantilised, both in outlook and in argument, by being so closely involved in working with teenagers. You see this kidult behaviour on Twitter every day.
Education is important but it is not the single, defining experience in life: the truth is that schools contribute to an individual's development. In accepting this, we can find a better sense of balance and a desire to make that time really count. Of course, those critics of independent schools look beyond the formation of character, and see these schools’ existence as something symptomatic of deeper ills.
Fixating on school
Such beliefs about Eton’s shaping influence are touchingly naive about human nature and the power schools have over personality. Because, even without independent schools, the Borises of the world would still be born, would still rise to power – and the recklessness of their actions, and the lies they tell, would be no more or less palatable because they went to the local state school. The damage would be the same, but perhaps done in a different accent.
We will become a healthier society if we stop fixating on the schools people went to, and the choices that were made for them by others. Judge them on their actions. True accountability lies at the feet of the individual, not in a quad of a school that is, like all schools, trying to teach children, in the words of Boris’s former housemaster, the importance of the “network of obligation which binds everyone” together. Boris didn’t get it, but that isn’t Eton’s fault.
School shaming is wrong, irrespective of whether it is a state school or an independent school. It is people, not schools, who have created the mess we are in, and people, not institutions and systems, will have to get us out of it. But before that happens, we have to survive the oncoming head-on collision.
David James is deputy head (academic) of Bryanston School