Door to social graces slammed shut in comprehensives

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Brighton College is a private school that has said to its pupils: you don't need a truckload of GCSEs to succeed in life. What you really need are good manners and social etiquette. So students study less subjects in order to learn the art of fine dining, how to tie a bow tie and, of course, ballroom dancing. This is the real hidden curriculum, the rituals to give many of its students an advantage and confidence as they prepare to be Masters of the Universe.

Contrast this with the last comprehensive where I taught. Boys would stand in corridors, or in the playground, eating their chips and burgers while kicking a football. When I asked about the children being made to sit at the dining table, I was told by senior management that the boys are not used to eating at a table and that there was no time for fancy lunch breaks.

Brighton College has seen that social etiquette is of equal importance to exams. Yet, in other schools, the old-style class consciousness wafts around our playgrounds like mustard gas, choking any civility and good manners. Why is it that the left considers social graces quaint, Eurocentric and not cool? It suggests that if you're a working class hero then that makes you boorish, brutish and nasty.

The real tradition of working class Britain is rooted in pride and self-respect - a culture where women scrubbed their doorsteps, those from the Caribbean turned their front rooms into sacred shrines and Sunday dinner was a ritual never missed.

One female teacher tells me romance is dead, especially in schools. When she needs books moving, she always asks the boys to help. Why? Because they are boys. When a boy holds the door open for her, she always responds with something over the top like, 'Well, thank you, sir', to show just how pleased she is.

It is all the more pleasing when a boy, rather than a girl, helps her. This is something she cannot admit to anyone, for fear of having her PC morality tarnished. She believes such behaviour to be charming and to be expected. Or at least it would be in a Jane Austen novel. My exasperated teacher says: "Is the 21st century dead to romance? Or is it just today's future generations? I, for one, am lost with all this modern talk of men and women being the same. I don't think we are. Nothing makes me smile more than a gentleman, whatever his age, who opens the door for me."

What the left has forgotten is that "manners maketh a man". In fact, the middle class understands this more than anyone. I often ask parents who send their children to academically mediocre private schools why they pay such high fees. They tell me in Clinton-speak: "It's the socialisation, stupid!' Too many of our comprehensives are spaces where children and teachers are cynical about social etiquette. The consequences are more serious than not knowing what to do with a fish knife. A minority may turn barbarous, their knives no longer implements for fine dining, but weapons to stab others from different postcodes.


Dr Tony Sewell, Chief executive of the charity Generating Genius.

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