Classroom Class War

As my town is right on the train line, the easiest and first day-trip to somewhere other than London I took on one of my days off was to Windsor, to try some traditionally touristy stuff. And Windsor Castle was indeed wonderful and exactly what one thinks of when they think of great tourist experiences in England. You could see elements of the development of the castle over time, plenty of great renaissance and neoclassical art, and St. George’s hall, featuring the heraldry of every member of the Order of the Garter on the walls and ceiling, is enough to give a nerd like me a sore neck for the rest of the week (heraldry, along with its close cousin vexillology, have long been mildly guilty and incredibly nerdy indulgences of mine). It’s enough to make you think that the royal family are worth keeping alive for, as monarchists endlessly parrot, “tradition and tourism”, rather than sending them all to the guillotine. Of course, the role they play within the governance of the United Kingdom (and by proxy in Australia, Canada and New Zealand) along with all of the taxpayers’ money which they receive, should have been eliminated decades if not centuries ago – I have been an outspoken republican since the failed referendum of 1999, and the painfully ubiquitous coverage of this week’s royal wedding has hardly put me in the most charitable state of mind regarding the outdated institution.

So, in a relatively good mood and with several hours of daylight left on a nice spring day, I felt that while I was in the area I should take a walk down and across the river toward Eton. This was a bad idea. A terrible idea, in fact.

People living outside of the United Kingdom have probably heard of Eton at some point. It’s an exclusive and absurdly expensive boys’ “public” (which, in Australian terms, means “private”) school which has educated most of the men in the royal family and, to date, nineteen prime ministers. It’s the sort of place where a family would need to sell two generations into slavery just to get a single boy from the third generation into it (presuming they’re not already in the capitalist wage-slavery trap which captures so many in the deregulated neoliberal farce that is post-Thatcherite Britain). Last week at an Antipodean meet-up in Soho I got into a conversation with a couple of New Zealanders about class and class consciousness in the motherland as opposed to the colonies. I’d initially assumed that it was because in England, there were several layers of history, all involving strict class hierarchies, which weighed upon the national consciousness and manifested themselves in more open discussion of class than in the Antipodean colonies, founded during the bourgeois industrial period. But when I got here I discovered that there’s really just that much more class difference than in Australia or New Zealand and someone would have to be truly blind (or willingly delusional) to not recognise that there is such a thing as class and class conflict in English society.

All of this was weighing on my mind when I walked down the road toward Eton College, with a mind to take a stroll around, perhaps see if I recognised some of the buildings which had appeared in a number of films, or at the very least see some half-decent architecture. But the closer I got to the school, the worse it got – the uniform store had penguin suits in it, for crying out loud. And when I could see the entrance I realised I basically couldn’t go in there, not without feeling even more like an entity of complete anger than I was.

I can’t recall ever feeling so ill, so physically revolted at anything other than torture. How? How the hell can such a place continue to justify its existence? How, in a country where thousands of children are poorly educated or simply uneducated, can a school offer the finest of education but only to the children of millionaires? How, when brilliant and driven children are forced to make do with a sub-standard state school system facing imminent funding cuts while their parents search in vain for any decent schools offering scholarships, can a school justify offering the finest education in the country to any lazy deadshit whose father can pay? How, when school staff are being cut nationwide in the name of ‘efficiency’ can a school employ enough people to fill a small town just to serve some young toffs? How can a country claim to endeavour toward, in Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, “equality of opportunity”, when he himself was educated at Eton because he came from a rich family and would almost certainly not have made it to the leadership of the Conservative party had he not been (one of Cameron’s most prominent potential challengers for the leadership of the Conservative party and current Mayor of London – until last year, the most powerful Tory in the United Kingdom – Boris Johnson, also came through the school)? How can a country where I saw more homeless people in my first night in London than I’d previously seen in my life can anyone explain a school where the uniform includes a freaking top hat and penguin suit?

Windsor Castle, I think, didn’t inspire the same feelings in me because it was, in terms of active class conflict, ‘dead’ – it is today essentially a harmless emblem of the past and at worst an overly-large mansion of some family of toffs who are at least charitable enough to let the commoners take a look around for a few quid (although I did find it rather amusing that a part of the outermost wall now forms the wall of a gated community by the name of Private Chapter Mews). But how can a place like Eton be allowed to exist in a modern and supposedly fair and equal country?

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3 Responses to Classroom Class War

  1. Erin says:

    Im happy you liked Windsor Castle, it was one of my favourite Tourist things i did. St Georges Chapel is fantastic. But didn’t you know Eton is famous for its Penguin suit school uniform…. I hope you go and stand on the road as the wedding procession goes past for me 🙂

  2. michael says:

    I understand and agree with your point that there should be a better education for all. For years I have been advocating this.
    Penguin suits aside, teachers, parents and many students will with education, no different to any other commodity appreciate (read pay for) something better (perceived or real).
    Teachers pay by giving more time effort and hopefully educational experience and no doubt are paid in return,
    Sadly too many good teachers fall out of their profession due to the lack of respect, indeed abuse given them by students. If I was an unappreciated top quality teacher why would I not move to a school that paid me more and gave me students who seek quality education (and parents who supported this)?
    Can both Eaton and a well funded government education model work?
    Rather than put Eaton down – promote more effort (funding) for government funding of education.

    • Simon says:

      Sure. So where’s the money for state schools going to come from? Neoliberalism – a major feature of which is a taxation system both low and regressive, thus allowing entrenched wealth like this – has ruined the British economy’s ability to bounce back from a recession. And even if that weren’t the case, David Cameron has demonstrated his passion for cutting funding from the already troubled state school system in the name of ‘efficiencies’ (not that he needs to worry, he attended Eton and has recently publicly affirmed that entrenched wealth and neoptism are a-okay by him). The only way that Britain will have enough money to bring up the state system would be to cut places like Eton and the people who can afford to send their children there down to size.

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