Damian Hinds wants everyone to mimic public school children, but class assimilation is a superficial solution
It really does take a special kind of inattention to observe public life today and conclude that what we need is more public school swagger. Our politics is currently dominated by men who are so convinced of their own swag it’s dangerous. We know where politics as a debating society with no real-world consequences leads: Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are exemplary only in their callous recklessness. Still, here we have the education secretary, Damian Hinds (I know no one knows who he is or what he does, as Brexit has vacuumed all policy into its void), suggesting that state school pupils should practise debating and public speaking to compete against Old Etonians in the workplace.
“Public school confidence” is something he wants to “call time” on, so that all kinds of everyone can hold their own. Wow. This is hardly an unfamiliar idea, is it? That one can achieve privilege through class mimicry instead of, er … having actual privilege. In order to be taken seriously one must adhere to the mores of those who have effortlessly risen to the top because of their special education.
Public school confidence is not some hard-won quality, it is a purchase. Confidence and contacts are the social lubricants by which individuals signal to their own and work their way through any organisation.
A public school education means smaller class sizes, good teachers and access to a world of extracurricular activities that state schools can no longer afford. Art, drama and music are now largely extracurricular thanks to the narrowing of the national curriculum. Those CV-bulking activities that signal “well-roundedness” rather than well-heeledness remain the preserve of the elite. This elite preserves itself via a segregated system while it worries earnestly about the social mobility. It is tortured, senseless stuff. What Hinds recommends, therefore, is that all schools have confidence-building activities so that pupils can build all-purpose “resilience” and “character”. I don’t know what he thinks most teachers are trying to do …
All that is happening here is that attributes such as “character” individualise lack of opportunity. You want to compete with Eton? Then you must change your personality to act like them: go rock climbing, get a Duke of Edinburgh award and go around furiously debating the hypotheticals.
It goes without saying that more should be offered by state schools, but then we also need to respect and pay our burned-out teachers who are to provide all these extras. At least, I suppose, Hinds recognises that class is conveyed not simply through educational achievement but this unspoken world of social capital, cultural reference and team sports. If you don’t come from such a world, one characterised by the ease and expansiveness of public school people, often spoken about in terms of the odd notion of charm, then one is overwhelmed by one’s own sense of otherness: you don’t fit in. You are an impostor and they will sniff it out.
I remember my unease being physical when I first encountered these people. I felt unclean and unequal. A working-class person should remodel herself in her master’s image? This was not an option for me. Nor is a surrender to the idea that these people just are superior, that their way of doing things is better, that loudly debating and refusing to give ground is better than listening, that reciting facts about battles is the same as thinking. Just no.
One can take on the emotional labour of trying to be something you are not, or refuse it. Neither is particularly easy, but all of the escape routes have closed over the last few years. There is a huge and dull passivity around class from the Tories and policies such as Hinds’ have nothing to do with real change. They are cost-free and completely meaningless, some sort of PR for his department. One of his recent “ideas” was to help solve our dire literacy rates by getting shop assistants in Clarks or WH Smith to engage more with children. This is to support their language skills. Disadvantaged families have low literacy rates. His solution is to bring in more private companies to finance literacy projects.
The link between disadvantage and literacy is serious and this tinkering at the edges is puff not policy. Again this is all about money and access. Rather we operate as a teacher said to me, like the Tour de France: a few people pull away from everyone else and the rest are all bunched up behind.
Class assimilation is always the rightwing solution to inequality. It is deeply superficial. Poshness isn’t a lesson to be learned by lowly state school pupils so that they may pass as good enough because they are imbued with the confidence that “money can’t buy”. The whole point of the public school system is that money does buy it.