Rishi Sunak, our latest Prime Minister, but probably another short duration one, got himself into a testy Prime Minister’s Questions debate about public schools. Sunak attended Winchester. In it he talked about aspiration. He claimed that Keir Starmer was attacking aspiration, when Starmer was attacking Sunak’s schooling. I thought about that at some length. In the 1980’s when I had left school and was building a career in the City, I was very interested in ‘aspiration’.
It was the time of Tebbit ‘on yer bikism’, and the focus was on something called the ‘meritocracy’. I intended to be a part of the meritocracy, and by finding myself a job with the pre-eminent stockjobbing firm, I was well placed to do so. Mind you, I used to believe in trickle-down economics too, so not everything I believed in the 1980’s has survived my subsequent life experiences. Starmer must have had someone like me in mind, when he mocked Sunak for “trickledown education”.
What is ‘aspiration’? It is the hope, or ambition, of achieving something. Medically, it has another meaning. It is the action of drawing breath. That might be worth considering. Even the ambitious need to draw breath sometimes. Sunak may wish he had done so, as his ‘aspiration’ defence has been derided, for the perspective of someone hopelessly out of touch, and twisted to suggest that he was patronisingly and disparagingly suggesting that those who could not afford private education for their children, somehow lacked aspiration.
In the year (1981) before I left school, I loved, as did most of the country, the TV adaptation of Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited’. It is about many wonderful things, including faith, friendship, denial, rejection, addiction (ideas and substances) and so on, but the TV adaptation focused on the gilded lifestyles of the Oxford student class. Although it is not about private education, it was an advertisement for the refinement, social capital and networking that such an education might provide. Protagonist, Charles Ryder’s school is not named, but his creator went to Lancing College and in a subsequent short story about Ryder’s schooldays, he left enough clues to suggest that was where Ryder might have gone. I drank it in.
At that early ’80’s time, as has recurred many times since, the Oxbridge institutions were under attack for elitism. The new Prime Minister might have been to Somerville College at Oxford, but she was keener to recall schooldays at a girls’ school in Grantham as she personified aspiration and achievement. Oxbridge needed more state school pupils to be accepted. For reasons I still cannot quite appreciate, I was selected as part of an experiment, a small group of Essex comprehensive school kids who might want to attend.
We were put up in Oxford colleges (Jesus, for me) for a couple of nights, and invited to meet and interrogate some of Oxford’s finest minds, whilst spending a great deal of money in Blackwell’s on ‘reading lists’, including many books I bought but, embarrassingly, never read. I definitely had aspiration. Possibly not quite enough intellect. After a burst of intensity at my studies for a term, I realised that I might not get to the dreaming spires, and that if I went into the City, I might get to be independent and to benefit from a ‘university of life’ education. I slackened and went job hunting.
The City in the ’80’s was a curious place. It was still a place of traditions and hierarchies. Being a blue-button, as I was, was as much about deference, as it was about competence. Nonetheless times were changing. The Thatcherite Big Bang reforms as stock exchange chairman Nicholas Goodison wriggled away from the threat of ‘restrictive practices’ legislation, turned single capacity broking or jobbing, into dual capacity trading and paved the way for the advent of new capital inflows and US style ‘investment banking’. It lost many good things, but it brought with it, ambition, and a huge fillip in earnings power. I had lucked into the most exciting industry, with all the concomitant benefits that any 18 year old on the make, could have found.
It did not make me a stranger to aspiration, though. Much of mine was social. The City had a crude divide at the time of ‘East End barrow boy’ type traders and somewhat more sophisticated and elegant brokers, salespeople and merchant bankers. The divide was largely about which schools they had attended. Within a decade that division had merged and East Enders and Essex comprehensive schoolboys like me were affecting the dress codes (if not the accents) of their mainly privately educated peers in the non-trading roles. I loved the City, as a ‘blue’ on the market floor, before they took it away in ’87, and in the dynamic, nascent investment banks, finding homes in new offices built over now redundant old railways stations.
Above all, I loved the confidence that most of its workforce exuded. I lacked confidence. I watched my peers very keenly. The dress code was important. I looked forward to a time when I could buy a suit tailored for me, and not off the peg. I spent the modest profit on my first ‘PA deal’ on my first pair of Church’s shoes, and I noted which of the Jermyn Street shirtmakers my boss preferred (Turnbull and Asser), and quickly adopted double-cuffs and good cuff-links on a chain.
As I kept up my keen observations I envied the way some of these young men swanned about as if they owned the place, despite having as little experience as me. I assumed they must just be naturally bright and have an understanding of the business that I lacked. It took my years to realise that most of them had no great professional skills, but that they did have a powerful personal network, that gave them confidence. Someone always knew someone, who knew someone senior, who could help whatever needed to get done, to get done.
What has all this reminiscing got to do with Sunak? I think it is because it is in touch with aspiration. For my generation of aspirational City workers, much of that aspiration was social, rather than financial, although the need to pay for a different lifestyle was very plain. My path was eased by being a decent cricketer. Within weeks of my new career starting, I was selected to play for the Stock Exchange CC against the Bank of England CC at Roehampton. I opened the batting with MK Fosh, sometime of Essex CCC and of Cambridge University CC. Educated at Harrow. Before focusing on a City career he had made a first-class hundred. Fortunately in a winning score, we had a good partnership, both making 80’s. It meant I was rapidly accepted.
On the floor of the stock exchange was one distinguished broker, Marcus Colby, who had such a presence that meant he was treated as a sort of ‘Father of the House’. Mr. Colby loved cricket and the SECC. He had a beautiful Surrey home that backed on to his local cricket and tennis club, where he hosted a very generous President’s Day, featuring his club playing host to a Stock Exchange XI. He made it clear that he wanted me to play in this fixture and I did so for many years. Being someone, even though I was in my teens, who Mr. Colby would stop and talk to, meant that I could lose my ‘Essex boy’ identity and become something slightly different, in the eyes of my seniors.
The SECC was dominated by players from the private schools. In my first games only one other player was state educated – another Essex Schools XI product, like me, called Graham Spooner. The dressing room and after match bar conversation was dominated by chatter about The Cricketer Cup. I did not know what it was, and had to be told by Graham that we would never play in it because it was a competition for ‘Old Boys’ of these great schools.
I felt more than a pang of envy, and it will have been one of the moments when I swore to myself that any child of mine was going to have those doors open, not shut to him, or her. As I eavesdropped on the conversations and began to take advantage of the network that cricket was opening to me (playing-in as a MCC member, helped) I started to realise that this elusive confidence thing was something that could simply be purchased. It came through buying education for my offspring.
One of my best friends had been to a well-known North London private school and when we first met he had just bought a flat near Swiss Cottage. I recall being shown into it and on his small stereo system he was playing the latest recording of ‘Porgy and Bess’. I thought the whole thing oozed erudition, learning, sophistication and style and I felt more than a little inferiority. Shortly after, he invited me to ‘guest’ for his Old Boys XI, in a friendly, obviously, not a Cricketer Cup tie. I didn’t get many! It left an indelible impression, though.
I then had the good fortune to fall in love with someone who had similar views about what we needed to provide for our children. Neither of us had been educated privately, but we were both confident that somehow our state education had left us short of something. Not just quality of learning, although we both felt that keenly, but something intangible and indefinable, but somehow necessary. We aspired to have it. Sunak spoke of “opportunity, not resentment” and I think I would have concurred at the time.
This, of course, raises an important question. When I was able to pay for my children to be educated privately, and ultimately, at a very fine boarding school in Northamptonshire, was I doing it for them? I think I now accept that much of my motivation was not of the loving-parent type, but of trying to acquire something that I felt had been wrongly excluded from me. That Cricketer Cup selection! My motives were much more selfish than selfless.
With my psychoanalytic hat on I can see that there is something Oedipal about it. I had a desire to ‘kill’ my father. Obviously not literally. I love him. In the Freudian sense, though, I think that I did want to depose him. And just as I did not want to kill him in the conscious world, I did not want to sleep with my mother, but unconsciously, the idea of possessing her, is apparent. I was demonstrating that I was a better man than my father, that she could have me as the central male in her world, because my strengths allowed me to provide for children better. Look, my children will be better educated…
Why was that education so important? Why is it that parents like Sunak’s, sacrifice so much time, money, but critically, of themselves, to deliver this expensive product to the next generation? I grew up in Chelmsford. At the time it stood out in a country of shrinking grammar school education by still having two very fine single-sex grammar schools. However, I did not pass the entrance exam; the 11-plus. My parents had been to grammar schools, in London, and I think I absorbed their contempt for secondary education in Comprehensive schools.
The political mood of my household was conservative and comprehensive education had become widespread thanks to the then Labour Education Secretary, Anthony Crosland, in 1965, the year after I was born. I think I grew up feeling a sense of failure; that going to a Comprehensive school in Chelmsford marked one out as educationally second-class. Paying for secondary education would not visit that stigma on any child of mine.
Was it worth it? Was my ‘aspiration’ rewarded? Well, in many respects, it was. My children attended a prep school in north Essex and then went off to board. I was happy that I was buying a superior education. That is very difficult to measure, but it certainly bought a broader education. The boarding environment gives scope for more things to be fitted into and around a timetable. I definitely introduced my children to facilities that a state school can rarely provide. I believed that it gave them a better environment for learning about, and appreciating the Arts, as well as access to exceptional sporting facilities and extraordinary science and language laboratories.
The dreadful system of legislation in South Africa that was Apartheid, comes from an Afrikaans word that means ‘apartness’. I think that when my children first attended prep school I was aware of ‘apartness’ in the school drive. The cars were all large and usually fancy German brands. I don’t doubt that I welcomed it. I had a sense of inclusion to a world that I felt had once excluded me, because my parents did not have a great deal of wealth. I was rewarding my aspiration. And yet, even then, as I preened and adorned myself in some sort of ‘superiority cloak’, all my inner arrogance was being tested. I was an imposter, and actually did I want my children growing up feeling superior because of their parents’ spending power?
Would I do it again? This is the most difficult question. My children all are living with partners now, one is about to marry and I hope I might one day have grandchildren to think of. The subject of education is something that is periodically discussed. My sense is that in today’s world, I would probably turn away from the private system. I think that the state system offers a breadth of education that I used to not appreciate, namely how all members of society are more alike than different, to echo Jo Cox. It is not just the quality of the theatre that the school has, or the newness of the cricket pavilion, or the fact that the swimming pool meets Olympic standards, it is the opportunity to learn from playground peers that differences are to be celebrated as much as similarities. Learning is not just a classroom activity.
That all sounds a little virtuous, and some of my pals would mock me (again) for being a bit ‘wokey’, so it is only right that I think if I rewind to the period when my eldest was approaching prep school age, I recognise that I would almost certainly be pushing her into the private system. This time, though, I can see it was about satisfying my needs more than her’s. I wanted to feel that slightly exclusive social network.
I probably wanted to inhale a sense of social superiority, that preening confidence that I had observed when I first worked in the City. Wants are very powerful. Freud’s earliest brilliant work on Dreams is about understanding that the core of each dream is a ‘wish fulfilment’. Whilst, I can see I was meeting something inside me, and I suspect I would still need to for my younger self, that is no longer how I feel about life, as I approach grandparental age.
In a debate at the weekend with my brother’s partner, the subject of what we want for our children came up. Happiness was one suggestion, and we went on to become quite philosophical. I think it might be something less abstract. Certainly for me, it was about giving something to them that I had not had. Was I ‘killing’ my father, unconsciously? I am not sure, but I can see that aspiration was not just economic, and was not all selfless love for my offspring. My then-wife and I had great aspirations for the children. We felt that our job was to help them fulfil their potential and giving them the ‘best’ education was one of the critical requirements in allowing them to do so. We were from a generation, often because of high earnings from my industry, that was typically a first-generation private school parent. Classically “nouves”, compared with the ever diminishing representation of ‘old money’. Were our aspirations healthy? I think, for the most part, yes.
The public school row, of course, is not really about Sunak’s parents’ aspiration, or about mine. It is about the Daily Mail’s attempt to confect some sort of ‘class war’ and it is about the more significant issue of the charitable status of our best known private schools. It might be somewhat hypocritical to take an anti-charitable status position having benefited for my family, but my sense is that status is becoming indefensible and I shall be surprised if it survives.
My conclusions are that aspiration is no bad thing for a parent; indeed I think, in different forms, it is more common than uncommon for new parents. Channelling it into private education is something I might detour from nowadays, but I have a strong nineteenth century liberal view of the rights of the individual. I do believe that once one has earned, and been taxed, that spending money should absolutely be at the discretion of the earner. If that means paying for education, it is to be welcomed and whilst I am aware my convictions have shifted, I am glad that I was able to satisfy my needs as an ‘aspirational parent’.