What will Brexit bring? Hopefully not too much economic downturn and perhaps something of an educational upturn. Tim Hands reflects on rising fees, rising standards, and changing climates.
Sometimes I wish you could copyright an educational idea, even though I've only ever had two of them. The first was 20 years ago, in Portsmouth. There was a thriving junior school, seemingly always growing in numbers. But unlike any other school I'd been in, the adults who picked the children up at the end of the day were grandparents, not parents. Both parents, I speculated, were busy at work, essentially earning the fees, whilst the grandparents did the afternoon school run, made the afternoon tea and, in one case, I always suspected, managed some of the homework too. They loved it; and the school, which in return loved them, saw every benefit in enticing them to love it even more.
Hence the inaugural Portsmouth Grandparents Day, a chance to have a tour of the school, watch your grandchild in the band, and experience their lessons. At the end of the afternoon, I seem to remember, we gave them a ride along the seafront in an open top bus. When the imitators got going, which they swiftly did, that last bit of it was satisfyingly hard to imitate.
20 years on, presenting the prizes for a famous prep school, in a splendid church situated just round the corner from the Houses of Parliament, my focus shifted a generation, from the grandparents to the parents themselves. Not only were they almost all there, but they were also more than unusually grateful to the school and proud of it. There wasn't a grandparent in sight.
I was starting to speculate on what had altered when something unique happened. A young lad came up wearing academic dress – a gown and rather colourful hood. Age 13, he not only had Grade 8 with distinction on two instruments, but had just gained his Performance Diploma on the third. I asked him what pieces he had had to learn: they were of course stupendously demanding. Nor was he the only top class musician at this all-round school. The enterprising and dedicated Headmaster had hired a professional orchestra with which no less than three of the boys had played a significant concerto the previous week.
I began to realise why the parents were so happy. Yes, the fees are way higher than they were 20 years ago, but so are the standards. Investments pay off. At every Prizegiving one goes to, the standards seem to be rising and rising and the parents are understandably delighted.
Is it worth the money? Brexit serves to focus the mind. Basically (and at the risk of sounding like a latter-day Flanders and Swann) there are two kinds of education – the British and the rest. And, to me, the best is not the rest. Continental education has been based predominantly on intellectual acquisition; English education has traditionally been based on the broad development of character.
However gloomy one may be about Brexit and its possible financial effect, there is good reason to feel a lot more resilient about Brexit and British education. For if Brexit may in part arise from a Little Englandism which is not to everyone's taste, its desirable side-effect may be to encourage us to be more distinctive and to take pride in our own individuality. This would mean increasing the focus on what parents like, and grandparents like, and what children need.
The Duke of Wellington (perhaps not the most ardent European) once went aboard a man of war at Devonport. The deck was polished; the brass gleamed. 'Here I see much shining metal,' he commented, 'but few shining faces.' British education seeks lastingly shining faces, and, as this Prizegiving showed me, it often very plentifully succeeds. It seeks to give children confidence; and, by every method it can, it seeks to teach life skills not just mind skills in order to give children self-esteem. As the visionary Edward Thring of Uppingham put it: 'I don't want stars or rockets: I want every boy here to have his chance of showing his little light to help the world.' Every pupil must be given the chance, within the broadest of extracurricular programmes, of finding something which would raise their self-esteem, 'something by which they can attain distinction, and by doing so restore the balance of self-respect.'
So what will Brexit bring? Hopefully not too much economic downturn; and, indeed – perhaps – something of an educational upturn. For it may encourage us to be even prouder of our traditions, and to maximise their attractiveness and impact. Is it also possible that this will further enhance the value and desirability of British education? I for one hope so.
Once upon a time, Britain had an empire. It educated that empire's administrators at home, and then shipped them off overseas. That empire, with its varying rights and wrongs, no longer exists. Instead, we have a global educational community with its centres of distinction disproportionately represented within the English-speaking world. One thing for which English speakers remain well known is the quality of the education they provide.
Accordingly, our schools contain many pupils from overseas, seeking out the best of British traditions. And that phenomenon is only likely to grow. The ironic effect of Brexit may well be that we become educationally more cosmopolitan.
Leaving the Prizegiving I walked past the House of Commons with a little more spring in my stride. Exit Brexit. Bring on the new educational era.