Posted on 22 March 2011, 10:19
I haven’t been inside a Public School since I left mine in 1975. But thirty six years on, I visited another one recently. And things have changed.
I was invited by Sutton Valence School to go and talk to a hundred pupils on National Book Day. The school is set in Kent, and I felt appropriately Dickensian as I hurtled down the M20 from London through the Garden of England – though he of course would have walked it. Like Van Gogh, Dickens was a phenomenal walker.
The school itself is just beyond Leeds Castle, and is not only very old – founded in 1576 – but also very cold. Chris, the teacher who kindly welcomed me, explained that they were set on the only hill in the county. And while this meant they could see France on a clear day, which is nice, it meant also there was always a wind. Even when the sun shone and the sky was blue, there was a wind; and in the winter, it was bitter.
But there was nothing bitter in my experiences after that. I was meeting with the young people in the library, which was heaven for all book aficionados. It was light, friendly and most important of all, had no computers in it apart from one for the librarian. This was a deliberate act. ‘We want it to be a place for books,’ said Chris, and it was just that. I hadn’t fully appreciated how invasive computer terminals are. Their absence is a powerful invitation to slow down and explore.
Chris was dressed as James Bond, but we shouldn’t think less of him for this. All the staff were dressed as characters from books, so I also met the Queen of Hearts, Mary Poppins and Heathcliffe from ‘Wuthering Heights’, though I confess my first thought was Joe Sugden from Emmerdale. It was also an honour to meet a convincing Father Brown who after five minutes of chat revealed himself to be the authentic school chaplain. When you dress up professionally, there’s a thin line between reality and make-believe.
So what’s changed? I think it’s the intimacy of the whole experience. In the old days, public schools were brutal courses in survival. I remember the shock as a small 13 year old of walking for the first time into my huge dormitory – a space I was to share with 40 others for the next five years. ‘The Lord of the flies’ comes to mind. As John McCarthy said of his harsh years as a hostage in Beirut, ‘Public School was the perfect preparation.’
But here in Sutton Valence was a different climate. There was an openness and trust between staff and pupils which was a million miles from the bleak relationships I knew. And a physical comfort that put my own front room to shame.
As parents pay upwards of Ł25000p.a. for boarding education these days, they’re clearly looking for a relational and homely return. My guess is they find it in the Garden of England.
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