voices from the past

Schooldays as a boarder at Ascham Prep School and Eastbourne College Public School

By Peter Birchall who was at Ascham from 1951-56, and at Pennell House 1956-60

I was sent to Ascham at the age of eight by my parents who lived in Rio de
Janeiro, as my father, an Englishman, felt that a British education would be the
best for me and my brother Stephen who was three years older than me. At the time I
suppose there was little alternative as there were no British or international schools
in Brazil. I was not completely foreign to boarding schools as I had attended for one
year St George’s College in Buenos Aires where my father was stationed at the time
until the Peronist regime expelled all British nationals.

However, to be left in England after my parents returned to Brazil was a sad experience as I missed the love of my parents, the sun and friendliness of the Brazilians, my daily escapades to Ipanema beach with my old-fashioned surf board and my friends. Headmaster Mr Collis was a kind person and a gentleman but of course he and his wife and the matrons were no substitute for my parents. My father had arranged guardians who managed a small hotel in Forest Row where I spent my winter holidays and other short holidays. They were wonderful Guardians who did everything possible to give me a family life while I was with them.

After the first week at Ascham I settled down well, made good friends and enjoyed
their comradeship. However, I found it difficult to adapt to the discipline that was imposed on us and soon obtained a reputation of being something of a rebel. I believe I was given six of the best (as they called it in those days – or a whacking) by the headmaster. I had never been hit so hard in my life till then, although my mother often kept me in line with a firm spanking. I refused to shake hands with the person that had just whacked me after being congratulated for “taking it well”. I was determined not to cry or massage my bottom until out of sight of Mr Collis. My parents were advised by mail of my non-British attitude. “Well taken young man” were not the words I was looking for.

As time went by things improved and I very much enjoyed sports. I was what might be said to be a good sportsman, playing soccer and rugby for the 1st teams, winning the games cup for rugby and receiving several medals for gym, boxing, shooting and swimming. I still remember being introduced to Rocky Marciano as part of the boxing team. I also enjoyed being in the choir and school plays. Saturday night films were also fun.

I was no great scholar but arrived at Ascham speaking Portuguese and Spanish well, so found modern languages easy to learn; French and Latin were no problem. I was once again reprimanded, for having postcards of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte
Bardot and Diana Dors in the inside of my tuck box, the only private item we were
supposed to possess. Other boys preferred photos of tanks, sports cars and other things children are supposed to relate to. Sunday letter writing was not personal as we were literally told what to write. How I wanted to let my parents know that I missed and loved them.

I do remember the very pretty matrons, one who looked like Grace Kelly that I
think married Mr Luard, and another dark haired, very sweet young lady who was
dating Mr Kirk-Greene. As I was no favourite with the teachers I had only one or two
whom I respected. In particular Brian Luard who once also gave me a good whacking
for fooling around at night after lights-out. I never repeated truancies when he was
on duty. He was a strict but very fair man who encouraged me more than any other
teacher in my studies but principally for rugby. I still remember him watching a 1st
XV match on College Field when I scored a try and looked up to see him clap. This gesture of his was very encouraging.

Tuck day was also special, as was our little patch for gardening. I recall having many good games on the grass tennis court. I still have fond memories of my friends who invited me to their homes in Eastbourne on Sundays or out with their parents. My very best friend Tim Oakshott, invited me practically twice a month and I still remember his wonderful parents and the delicious Sunday roasts. His
mother, a wonderful kind Irish lady, treated me as a family member.

Escapades to the beach after midnight gave us a sense of adventure and of trying things forbidden. Although I personally was not bullied it seemed to be accepted at both Ascham and at the College. Prefects turned a blind eye.

So as you can read there were some very happy moments and some less happy ones.
I scraped through common entrance and joined my brother Stephen at Pennell.
Stephen was the big brother who tried to protect me and counsel me when I arrived. I must have caused him some distress. Apparently once again I was the first boy to be beaten after two weeks at College for, can you believe it, whistling from our study rooms at some girls who were going past in the street. This time the whacking was
from a house prefect aged seventeen; thank heavens that it has been abolished. It was as if some of these prefects enjoyed giving corporal punishment as they used to reinforce the gym shoes with weights and lead.

The dormitory at Pennell was a disgrace with holes in the windows so that at night
in winter even blankets did not keep the cold out. The food was atrocious and I have never touched porridge or spotted dick ever again. Meat and vegetables were overcooked and the food was definitely not healthy. Today I can modestly claim to be
a gourmet and to have eaten in the best restaurants in the world.

The study rooms were dark and dingy. The boaters we had to wear on Sundays looked ridiculous on us. Even on Saturdays, if we were not invited by friends to their homes, we were not allowed in coffee shops, cinemas and many other places. Fortunately
we found ways to get around these rules.

Pennell was situated not far from a very exclusive finishing school for international
girls and it was a pleasure to watch them pass by in their modern haute couture clothes. The cookery school girls (“Cookers” as we called them) brought a little sanity to our lives, as did the Danish girls who helped with housekeeping duties. Meetings were arranged on weekends with these young ladies.

I felt that at those times some teachers and some prefects looked for students who were not following the rules as if they actually enjoyed it. When I became a house prefect I promised myself that I would never beat another boy for whatever
reason and that I would never humiliate younger boys by shouting down the corridor
“fag, fag”. Just imagine if this still existed in today’s age. I also did not enjoy
playing soldiers every Thursday afternoon. I tried the army cadets and then naval cadets where I at least learnt the ropes of sailing. Once again what I really enjoyed about the College were my very Under Fourteens, Junior Colts, Colts and
then First XV, hockey, soccer on the Pennell yard, escapades to pubs and cinemas.

As at Ascham, teachers were impartial to me as I was to them, with the exception of
Robin Harrison who despite all my imperfections treated me fairly, and I enjoyed
geography lessons with him. Despite my size he was always positive and encouraging
on the rugby field as were the other members of the 1959 1st XV of which I was the youngest. I thrived with team sports and the team spirit they created
I also enjoyed French with Mr Kirk-Greene and said to myself that I would have a Jag like his one day. A very talented teacher.

In a nutshell these were my experiences at Eastbourne. However I believe that Eastbourne College gave me the discipline I needed in later life as I went on to the Ecole Hotelière de Lausanne in Switzerland, attended Columbia University in New York and IMI in Geneva, later fulfilling a very successful career in the international hotel field, managing hotels in sixteen different countries.

To conclude, schooldays were not the happiest days of my life but I thank Eastbourne
College for preparing me for life and I admit that I was not the easiest boy to handle. Life would be very boring if we all fitted the mould. Eastbourne College has had some extraordinary students and personalities so they must be doing something right. I congratulate the College and other public schools for the changes they have made over the years.

In my case the happiest days of my life were with my family and living and working in seventeen countries around the world, experiencing different cultures. I believe there were other boys at Eastbourne College in the 1950s and 60s who may agree with some of my findings and feelings for boarding schools in those years.

This account of boarding school life in the 1950s is reproduced with the kind permission of Peter Birchall, and is based on a longer version in The Old Eastbournian magazine, 2013 – http://www.eastbourniansociety.org .

Getting to grips with Gove…

Here Simon Partridge explores the recent debates surrounding Gove and elite education:

Michael Gove MP – Radical Petit-Bourgeois

In his recent article in the New Statesman [14-20 February 2014], of all places, the Coalition Education Minister nails his colours firmly to the mast, which the NS on the front cover says “lays down the gauntlet to Tristram Hunt”. The challenge is now unmistakable and explicit. What are we on the “progressive” side of British politics to make of Gove?

I don’t find that an easy question to answer but I’m going to have a go. Once again it seems the left [as broadly defined] has been outflanked, à la Thatcher, by a radical from petit-bourgeois origins [Gove was adopted at 4 months old by an Aberdeen fish processor [described as Labour-sympathetic on Wiki] who did well for himself, and Gove ended up in a private co-ed day school, the prestigious Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen]. Gove is both intelligent and articulate and it will not be enough to dismiss or ridicule him.

Perhaps aware of Hunt’s background as an academic historian, Gove starts his piece with a historical survey of “public schools” [no mention of prep schools in the article] going back to the foundation of Winchester in 1382! Gove is evidently an “enthusiastic admirer of the education these [public] schools provide”, praising the Kynastons’ article as “demonstrating, beyond challenge, the[ir] wonderfully liberating education”. He conveniently omits the lengthy authoritarian, sadistic and games-dominated ethos in most public schools, which wasn’t really challenged until the 1980s. As Churchill put it in 1930: “boys were flogged until they bled freely, while the rest sat quaking, listening to their screams”. How liberating! However, Gove does criticise such schools as being the “preserve of the wealthy” – hardly surprising when they cost some £30,000+ per annum.

He then observes, surely rightly, that, “We have one of the most stratified and segregated education systems in the developed world, perpetuating inequality and holding our nation back…we are clearly wasting talent on an unforgiveable scale.” While one can ask a follow-up question “talent for what?”, I find it hard to question the sentiment from a progressive viewpoint. And to add vigour to his argument Gove gives it the force of “moral imperative”, revealing his belief in a “meritocratic society”. It seems to me we have strayed rather far from a traditional Toryism in which “people knew their place” and elite hierarchies were not necessarily frowned on.

As the radical, even revolutionary visionary, Gove puts it: “As matters rest, children from poorer homes are being denied the opportunity to fulfil themselves, and to contribute to our national renaissance. So matters cannot be allowed to rest.” [my emphasis]

Gove then embarks on an exercise in practical political reform, drawing lessons he says “from the history of previous attempts to make opportunity more equal in Britain”. The answer in his view is not “abolition” but the spreading of the “public school model” without “diluting their character”. For Gove the academies and free school programme initiated by Blair and Adonis have given “state schools the independence over character, curricula and governance long enjoyed by public

schools”, but with the advantage, so he claims, of being democratic, inclusive, comprehensive.

Gove says that via this programme 16 formerly fee-paying schools have entered the state system since 2010 [since there are 2,500+ private schools this leaves a long way to go], and has provided opportunities for some public schools to create models of themselves in the state sector, naming Eton, Brighton College and Westminster. On this very slim basis Gove claims the “Berlin Wall between state and private schools is crumbling”. It appears that Gove’s rhetoric has got the better of the reality on the ground.

Unless Gove grasps the basic inequality of resources in our education system whereby the private sector spends two, three or more times [for boarding public schools] per pupil, Gove’s bold dream of “making English education truly democratic” will remain largely a figment of his imagination. The danger here is that the lack of resources – which in the state sector can only come from taxation – will lead to a sort of backdoor privatisation of the state-system. Antony Seldon, head master of Wellington, has already argued that wealthier parents in the state sector should, subject to a means test, pay fees. While some of those managing “free schools” are arguing that they should be able to make profits, and thereby, presumably, draw in private capital [this has happened in Sweden where a chain of 14 schools went bust in May 2013 leaving some 10,000 students without schooling – http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/may/31/free-schools-education ].

However, whether by design or accident [the law of unintended consequences], the Gove reforms might well threaten some or many of the weaker prep schools. His rhetoric of equality between the private and the state sectors will probably unsettle them, as will his talk of “reactionaries in the private sector”, unwilling to co-operate with the state sector.

Is Gove’s radical rhetoric worth a row of beans? Quite frankly I’m not sure, but one thing I am pretty certain about, is that the no one in Miliband’s Labour party [with the possible exception of Barry Sheerman] – so far – has given serious, public thought as to how the now undeniable hegemony of private sector education [and more specifically the public schools educating less than 1%] in our national life can be effectively challenged. For me, motivated by a desire to put an end to the unnecessary traumas of early boarding [and also a desire for a more equitable and fulfilling society], I would rather explore the possibilities which Gove’s ambitious rhetoric has opened up, than demonise Gove and dismiss him out of hand. Evidently, those who have the best interests of children at heart will need to make alternative policy proposals, including the abolition of early boarding.

Simon Partridge

February 2014

What would a socially just education look like?

here is a very helpful and interesting answer from Professor Diane Reay

“Most of the contemporary debate on making the educational system more equitable focuses on social mobility. But social mobility is a red herring. Currently we don’t have it – or very little of it. And the focus on social mobility neglects the fact that given the current high levels of inequality, social mobility is primarily about recycling inequality rather that tackling it.” full thinkpiece here

polarised britain…

Here Danny Dorling asks whether the British education system polarises people. apparently next week he is going to investigate whether bears shit in the woods! Seriously, some wise words here:  “We have an educational system that is designed to polarise people, one that creates an elite who can easily come to have little respect for the majority of the population, who think that they should earn extraordinarily more than everyone else, and defines the jobs of others as so low-skilled that it apparently justifies many living in relative poverty” There is also an engagement with the psychological implications: “Recently released findings from psychology suggest that many of [those educated in the top 1% of schools] may be naturally inclined to be more selfish. It is not so much their fault that they find it hard to understand others’ feelings. It is our fault for not controlling the greed of a few and for so long swallowing their shallow arguments as to why they deserve so much“. full article here