My redoubtable mother-in-law, an Oxford law don, knew her own mind; and she scrupulously trained, without taking hostages, the minds of her students. Former pupils include eminent judges, and even (until recent Euro-ructions) one member of the Cabinet.
But to her family, this formidable lady was not beyond teasing. Her opening question of candidates at interview was unfailingly courteous yet always the same: 'so, may I ask you, what is law?' Amongst those who knew the lady best there was an enduring conviction that only one answer to this fruitful opener would really do, videlicet: 'Law is a set of rules, enabling individuals to relate, and societies to function.'
All schools have rules. Some schools have very long rules. Sometimes it seems that the older the school, and the more senior its pupils, the more rules it is likely to have accumulated. But I'm not always convinced that those schools possess the best of British bylaws.
Simple systems are usually good systems. Recently, my own school has been consulting about new admissions procedures. I entertained 21 Heads from local feeder schools in order to invite comment on our new system, the current procedures lacking, shall I say, a little of my mother in law's clarity. I begged from some of them a favour in return. Please would they send me their rules? Discerning readers will correctly guess my motive, for much of my time is spent in summarising documents which are too long. As Pascal had it, 'I apologise for the length of this letter, but I didn't have time to make it shorter'.
The first response came quickly. It was from an eminent choir school, of course – such institutions specialise in rising early and in crisp responses. 'What an interesting exercise,' the Headmaster wrote, 'but I am not sure that our rules are very helpful, in that we only have one (or is it two?): All boys should show good manners and common sense at all times. We do have a list of items that are forbidden, in order to comply with Independent School Standards Regulations 2014 and the confiscation policy, but I cannot imagine that you are very interested in that.' Indeed he read my mind.
'This is a school without rules (and some might say lawless)', the next school responded. 'We have, however, two guiding principles: (i) be kind; and (ii) try your hardest. And that is it.' In its pre-prep there were more extensive guidelines (just):
· We are gentle.
· We are kind and helpful.
· We listen.
· We are honest.
· We work hard.
· We look after property.
No respondent had more than 10 rules. The longest list advised: 'Listen to people when they are talking to you, look interested, look directly into their eyes, don't interrupt.' These 10 rules were a bit like Moses' 10 Commandments: they could be broken down into two essential injunctions. First, 'treat others as you would like them to treat you' – or, in scriptural terms, love your neighbour as yourself. Second, respect adults: 'Take your hands out of your pockets when talking to adults. Open doors for adults and let them go through first.' Not quite Honour the Lord thy God and none other, but commendably and humanly heading in that useful direction. 'Excuse me, sir, but is there any difference between the Headmaster and God?' a famous Eton Headmaster was reputedly once asked by a new boy. After a long pause came the reply: 'I can think of one small difference, but you need not let it trouble you whilst you are a pupil at Eton.' How pedantic and pettifogging we senior schools can look. Place litter in the bins provided. Walk on the left. No chewing gum. No laser pens. No climbing on roofs. No mobile phones in public, save after Chapel on Sunday morning. No drugs, other than those authorised by the school. And, for the avoidance of doubt, no firearms. I got through a lot of senior school rules before I found anything equal to the best prep schools. This was a rider which simply said: 'All boys must at all times behave sensibly and well.'
All this reinforces the historical truth that the basic intention of British education is not the acquisition of fact, but the learning of proper styles of behaviour. 'The object of all schools is not to ram Latin and Greek into boys, but to make them good English boys, good future citizens', as Tom Brown's Schooldays tells us. This is altogether distinctive, for, as educational historians point out, the English emphasis on the acquisition of character and morality is entirely distinct from the didactic continental tradition of France and Germany. The same applies to the emphasis of the great pioneering Victorian Headmaster, Edward Thring, on extra-curricular opportunity: 'I don't want stars or rockets: I want every boy here to have a chance of showing his little light to help the world.'
So Rule Britannia. Long live Britannia's Rules. And three resounding cheers for Britain's prep school Heads. They realise that the Gradgrindian pursuit of fact is a mistaken remnant of the past, a discredited aspect of the present, and must never become an all-ruling value of the future.