Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





My primary education






 My own experience shows some of the damage that can be done by a privileged and expensive education. I was at school a long time ago, but, as you will see, many of the lessons I learnt are still taught today.

As a young child I was taught at home by my sister's governess, and then we both went to a small independent day school where there were a dozen girls and three boys and life was fairly pleasant. A few weeks before my ninth birthday, I was sent to Connaught House, a boarding school for boys.

My mother, as I learnt later, had not wanted to send me to a boarding school so young, but the social pressure was too strong for her. Little boys of our class were sent to boarding schools. She hated seeing me off on the school train as much as I hated going. After the train had gone, she told me later, there would be many weeping mothers left on the platform.

For those of us on the train, even when we were eight years old, it was considered weedy to be homesick. If you couldn't help crying, it was best to hide, or to wait until after lights out in the dormitory.

It seems extraordinary that parents imposed such misery on themselves and on their own children, but it was considered to be inevitable. Middle-class parents were obliged to sacrifice their sons on the altar of the prep-school so as to make sure that they were properly prepared for an after-life in a public school. As a reward their boys were to be transformed into something wonderful respectable conformists with the right accent who could play football and cricket and knew a few words of Latin. What is even more extraordinary is that it is still happening today.

I remember homesickness as a physical sensation. People talk of a 'sinking feeling' when something seems to be going wrong. Homesickness is a sinking feeling that lasts for days on end. When you are eight years old, the three months of a school term seem like eternity. Being sent back to school was like being condemned to death.

The feeling did not last, but it would keep returning. It was worst at the beginnings of terms and after half-term breaks, but it might come back at any time, particularly at night.

Nick Duffell, a psychotherapist, has worked for more than ten years with what he calls 'boarding school survivors' and has written a book about their experiences called The Making of Them. It shows that my distress was comparatively minor.

When I arrived at Connaught House I was bewildered. Bewilderment is one of the techniques used in wartime to extract information from prisoners. When you have no idea what to expect, when you do not know what is true and what is invention, you lose your sense of identity and become malleable.

When you are eight years old, surrounded by noisy boys, almost all older than you, doing things you do not understand, the safest thing to do is to imitate them. When a bell rings and everyone goes indoors, you follow them. When there is silence for grace before meals, you keep quiet. When the boys snap their ties at each other's bare legs, or roll up their handkerchiefs into hard little coshes and bash each other, you practise the same skills.

We accepted everything that happened to us, because that was the way things were, and we couldn't imagine any alternative.

As soon as anything became routine it stopped being bewildering. Why did we all have to dress exactly the same? Why did Mr. Chadwick put his hand down inside some people's beds when he was doing lights out? Why was the headmaster's sitting-room so comfortable when our rooms only had desks in them? Such questions did not bother us.

We were all afraid of failure. In the classroom I was generally successful, but I experienced failure outside it. I was no good at games. When teams were picked I was always one of the last to be chosen. At cricket I was always at the end of the batting order and I used to field at long stop. When we played soccer no one ever passed the ball to me.

Caning was still the usual punishment. The first time I was caned I had to stand up close to the end of one of the long school dining-tables. I was nine years old, so it was about waist-height. I had to bend over the table, resting my face on the polished wood and holding on to either side with my hands. As far as I remember I got three strokes of the cane, and they hurt more than anything that I could remember. This was in spite of the fact that they were deliberately restrained; they did not break my skin or even leave a bruise.

What was extraordinary about my beatings was that I was extremely well-intentioned and never wanted to be any trouble to anyone. I had never been punished at home, as far as I can remember, in spite of occasional tantrums and occasions when I resisted physically to being taken upstairs when it was time to have my bath. Punishment had simply not been part of my life, and without punishment I had generally behaved well.

I was of course frightened of the teachers and the bigger boys, but that was not all. I was also frightened of my contemporaries. It was terribly important not to be an outsider. We lived together all day, and we slept in dormitories. There was no escape from the constant pressure to conform. Every inadequacy was exposed to public comment. We did not see the resultant mockery and ostracism as bullying, we accepted it as a natural consequence.

It was not only the values upheld by the staff that became ingrained, it was also the values of the subculture. The staff preached obedience, and there was a rule that you must not speak in the dormitories after lights out. All the boys talked after lights out. If there was anyone who didn't talk because he wanted to obey the rule he was regarded as a goody-goody and a coward. If the staff caught you talking, they beat you, and that was that. It was not taken particularly seriously by either party.

The concept of goody-goodiness as something to be avoided at all costs overrode most other moral considerations for most of the boys. This did not mean that they had to spend their time breaking rules, but that if there was a rule most people broke, you must break it too, if there was a teacher who could not keep order in his class, you must contribute to the chaos, if a boy was unpopular you must shun him.

In spite of all this Connaught House was, by comparison with many other prep-schools at that time, a gentle and friendly place.

In this comparatively gentle and friendly place we also suffered from frequent boredom. Boredom sounds like a pretty minor form of suffering. 'I'm bored,' people say, when they can't think of anything they want to do. School boredom, though, classroom boredom, homework boredom, is in a different category.

School boredom is a kind of imprisonment. You are imprisoned in school anyway, but boredom in lessons puts you in a cell within a cell. It is not just that you have to be there, that you have to sit quietly, that you get punished if you talk or fidget or pass notes. Even your mind is invaded. Think about this, you are told. Don't dare look out of the window. Copy this out. Answer these questions. Learn this by heart. Mensa, mensa, mensam, mensae, mensae, mensa.

We were of course afraid of being beaten, but that was not the only fear. We were afraid of wrath, afraid of mockery, afraid of making fools of ourselves, afraid of dropping a few places in the weekly form order, afraid of being made to attempt something in public that we could not do, afraid of being shown up as somehow different.

Adults fear these things too, but on the whole they manage to avoid them. For children in school they are a part of everyday experience.

After five years I had finally grown used to the strange world of the prep-school, and even felt quite at home after a few days into a new term. Then I had to leave it all and go on to Eton.