Friday, 10 August 2012

A Private Matter

Given the massive medal tally that has characterised the 2012 London Olympics, one would imagine that the British talent for finding a cloud in every silver lining would be given a well deserved rest but, no.
Apparently too many medal winners are emerging from private schools. This, at least according to one hilarious letter in The Daily Mail, is because private educational establishments house their own yachting facilities, shooting ranges, equestrian centres etc. I was educated at a private school in Cardiff which, at the time, accepted boarders and I can assure you, dear reader, that the most exotic thing that we enjoyed was access to a swimming pool. Admittedly this was more than many state schools could manage, but given the fact that otherwise we would have had to be bussed to the Empire Pool in town, this ultimately represented a saving. The pool was, in any case, in a state of very poor repair and desperately needed a makeover, which could not be afforded, at least not during my 1972-1979 tenure.
Of course, I cannot speak for all private schools; perhaps riding to class in a golden coach and having to muck out the unicorns as punishment is, in fact, common in Eton and Marlborough. I doubt it, though.
The whole point is that, in most cases, at least, what being privately educated teaches you is a sense of discipline. Those who know me will confirm that I am built for comfort, not for speed, but as a boarder I was expected to play sport sometimes three times a day; after breakfast before assembly, during the lunch hour and after school for a further 50 minutes. Not being very good at it was no excuse.
During the winter we played lacrosse, hockey, netball and table tennis and if the weather was so foul that even our formidable Head of Games, Miss Bates, agreed that it would be lunacy to venture out, we were subjected to a peculiar form of torture known as Wet Games. Despite its somewhat Hustleresque connotations this involved congregating in the school hall in our games kit and learning ludicrously archaic dances like the Gay Gordons and Stripping the Willow. Believe it or not I actually didn't mind Wet Games, because it at least involved music, albeit not the kind of thing that I would normally listen to, being a Bowie and Prog Rock gal. In the case of waterlogged pitches we were prescribed a long walk over Llandaff Fields. Apart from these outdoor activities we were expected to take to the gym for PE once a week.
Due to my lousy attitude, disinclination to attack and inability to defend in both lacrosse and in hockey, I was generally stuck in goal where it was believed that my bulk would prove useful. This was problematic, since as a dedicated specs wearer I was unsure what to do about the eyewear. Should I take them off and be partially sighted or leave them on and risk getting broken glass in my eyes? In the end it was easier to leave them on and abandon my post when the opposing team loomed too near.
So, sport and me - not a good combo.
Summer was easier; cricket, tennis and rounders were kinder, since being exiled to the margins when fielding meant that I could, to quote Stephen Fry, spend my time making daisychains and reading Dornford Yates. The warmer weather also meant that the boarding houses could not help but be about 10 degrees warmer than their wintertime average of far-too-cold-to-sustain-human-life.
Yet, the emphasis on sport did not mean that we had superb equipment. One of my lasting memories about playing cricket, for instance, was that all of the shin pads were in a ridiculously poor condition and house matches were generally characterised by batters having to adopt a curious stance when running in order to hold them in place.
Fortunately music was deemed as important as sport and eventually I managed to persuade the Head of Music that my presence in the choir was more important than on the playing fields.
Admittedly, this was during the 1970s, but the whole point about playing sport at school is that, however lacking in talent an individual might be, it at least teaches the body to expect to have demands made upon it. The other point is that most (if not all) private schools subscribe to the concept of mens sana in corpore sana. Boris Johnson has revealed that, when at Eton, he was expected to undertake two hours of physical exercise per day, a custom which he has obviously decided to continue, with his enthusiasm for cycling and running.
While many will argue that some state schools have been forced to part with playing fields to balance the books, it is not necessary to have mountains of expensive equipment to improve state schools' chances of producing more Olympic contenders. So what CAN state schools do to help themselves?
1) Expect pupils to participate in some physical activity every day. "But I don't want to" does NOT constitute an excuse.
2) Come down hard on bad behaviour. If parents send children to school who haven't been taught to belt up when the teacher is speaking or that time-keeping is a valuable life skill, then react with actual punishments like doing various janitorial jobs around the school or keep them in late after school. It worked when I was a nipper!
3) Make them realise that nobody achieves anything without hard work and effort. I doubt that Jessica Ennis would have won gold if she'd spent every Saturday morning lying in bed until noon.
4) Stop imagining that life would be so much better if you were at private school. Being woken up at 6:45 by someone switching a bright, overhead light while ringing a bell when you're experiencing your first morning away from home is something that will change your life forever - and NOT in a good way.
5) Stop wasting money on pieces of modish and totally unnecessary technology and plough the money into sports equipment instead.
Ultimately, private school is a lot more about hair shirts than popping over to the stables to select one's polo pony for lunchtime games.
You want to be privately educated? You'd better be tough enough.