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Primary Education News
News Boarding school for inner-city kids: never mind the 'sexual volcano' | Michael Moran
John Cherry's racially charged remarks miss the point. I know from my own experience how great such an opportunity can be
It's a curiously British phenomenon that, when we meet new people, there's often a sort of Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen race to the bottom where we compete to have had the roughest upbringing. I don't intend to bore you with the details but I generally win those competitions. I'm not the kind of person that you might expect to have had a private school education. But I did. Almost.
Woolverstone Hall was a boarding school established in 1951. Sited a few miles outside Ipswich, it was run by the Inner London Education Authority as a small, highly selective grammar school. A substantial number of the teachers, at least during my time there, had been educated at Oxford or Cambridge and we were encouraged to believe that we could aspire to something similar.
Fees were payable on a sliding scale. At the top end, there were a few pupils whose parents could afford the full whack. Somewhere in the middle there were boys whose parents were serving in the armed forces overseas. It wasn't necessarily practical to educate those kids in far-flung army bases so they were parked in Woolverstone. Then there were a fair number of lads like me. Singled out by their primary school teachers or, as in my case, social workers for special treatment, we were lifted out of our natural milieu and dropped into this imaginary Eton to see what we did.
What we did, by and large, was thrive. Taking an unscientific sample from my immediate contemporaries there, I shared a dormitory with someone who is now a top pharmaceutical company executive, a comedian you've heard of, an actor you've heard of, a couple of lads who had a number one record and a rugby player you may well have heard of, if you like rugby. I can't compare that sample with the educational outcomes of my brother's friends. They didn't attend Woolverstone. They didn't attend schools much at all. But I've got a feeling that, if you discount makeweights like me, Woolverstone's system produced a disproportionate percentage of winners. It was by no means an idyll. My memories of being held down and having pepper poured into my eyes are markedly more vivid than my recollection of Latin grammar. Nevertheless, my feeling about that place is that it was a life-saving James Bond ejector seat from the cliff-bound DB5 of my childhood.
So you can imagine, especially as I began life in Brixton, that I took particular interest in the story that broke over the weekend about the Durand Academy's plan to establish an extension in Stedham, West Sussex. The standout quote of that furore came from John Cherry, a county councillor for Midhurst; "If the children are not allowed out of the site then it will make them want to escape into the forest – it will be a sexual volcano."
Well, that situation and mine can't be assumed to be identical, but they are at least comparable. We weren't a sexual volcano. We cared more about progressive rock and toast than we did about sex. When we "escaped into the forest" there was a fair bit of smoking and cider-drinking but that was about the limit of our vulcanicity.
Once a year, a coach load of girls from the local girls' grammar attended our annual school disco. I met my first girlfriend there, a nice, well-brought up young lady whose parents deplored me on sight. In retrospect, I can't say I blamed them. Despite the (comparatively recent) popularity of romantic love as a notion we still see marriage as a sort of societal compact that we hope will improve the social standing of our offspring. And I wasn't about to do that.
But if one or two unsuitable, and usually short-term, romantic matches arise, is that worth the fuss we've seen over Stedham? There's a not-so-subtle undercurrent in Cherry's words that reveals a racial element to the Nimbyism. We were a surprisingly monocultural bunch. There were two or at most three kids from an ethnic minority in each class of 60. I don't see that our impact on the local community would have been substantially altered if the ratio had been reversed. We were annoying little shits from time to time, I'll concede, but that's teenage boys for you.
If the young lads from the rougher parts of town who are being offered a better outcome are predominantly black or Asian then that's the kind of patronising, intrusive nanny-state social engineering that I can get right behind. That educational experience was a game-changer for me. It's very difficult to imagine quite where I'd have ended up if I hadn't been offered it. And if anyone's asking me, which they're not, I think chances like that should be given to a lot more young people. Only then will they get invited to the kind of cocktail parties where they can win the "race to the bottom" game. And every kid deserves to be a winner at something.