Britain’s cultural rendering of the education system is incredibly telling

From Flashman to 'Grange Hill' at 40, our depiction of education and schools in our popular culture says a lot about our society

We could never make our minds up about David Cameron. Was he Lord Snooty (he actually did wear a topper at Eton) who surrounded himself with ‘pals’ who had attended the same top people’s school?

Or was Cameron ‘Flashman’– the Rugby bully who roasts Tom Brown over a dormitory fire to make the brave little fellow part with his winning lottery ticket? Every Wednesday at PMQs ‘Dave’ would hold Corbyn’s rump to the flames. And Jezza? Leader of the Gasworks Gang.

And what of the Maybot who took over running Britain when Dave dropped the baton? Is she, as Private Eye mocks, the Headmistress of ‘St Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys)’? And what of her odds-on successor, ‘Beano Boris’– leader of the Bash Street Kids? A playground bullyboy?

Americans who come to Britain are amazed by the fact that in this country, ‘Where did you go to school?’ should be an important question.

Schools are incorrigibly violent places

Something else that amazes foreigners is the way in which top people until recently sent their little ones away to boarding schools as young as six. To be educated? Or indoctrinated?

Another amazing thing, for those of a reflective turn of mind, is how influential our unusual school system was in making our tiny island ‘Great Britain’ and, before the great wind of change blew it away, ruler of the largest Empire the world has ever known.

The great architect of the school system which created imperial Britain was the mid-Victorian  Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby. Schools are incorrigibly violent places. Arnold (‘the Doctor’) realised the value to the state of that violence if it was not suppressed  but educationally harnessed. Under his educational regime there would emerge the most ‘physical’ team game in our sports system. Along with its unique ‘rugby’ football, the most violent individual sport we have – boxing – was cultivated. Regimental pluck and heroism were inculcated into pupils before they entered the world. And took it over, knocking any country that stood in the way for six.

Thomas Arnold realised that the other thing that the upper classes need to stay upper, and make the country upper, was the aspirant middle class. Tom Brown, in Thomas Hughes’s fictional tribute to Arnold, is of ‘yeoman’ class, not blue-blooded. But it is the ‘Browns’, Hughes argues, who have covered a third of the globe imperial red. Hip Hip!

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The Empire’s gone. The UK doesn’t punch above its weight any more. Why, then, don’t we abolish public schools – why allow them to fiddle their books as ‘charities’ when what they do is cement an out-of-date class system? Nostalgia? Inertia? Fear of what would happen if we shook things up too much? Feebly we resolve to make the ‘best’ schools more ‘open’ and do the same with Oxbridge while we’re at it. In Lampedusa’s famous phrase, things must change so that they stay as they are.

The best literature and film about British schooling has been frankly oppositional, celebrating the rebel, the deviant, and the drop-out. George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series hilariously contradicts Tom Brownism. The great things that Britain has done (Fraser believed in them) had been achieved by those who resolutely did not toe the line like Tom Brown. Richmal Crompton, in a milder way, voiced her opposition to Tom Brown with her (Just) William Brown, who is a gangster, leader of the ‘Outlaws’. A little Al Capone. He will go on to great things.

The best film about British schools is If… by director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Sherwin. It’s set in the kind of ‘minor’ public school both men went to. In the film’s climax the sixth-form hero, Mick, and his gang shoot up the school, Columbine style. It’s not a massacre, it’s payback. Michael Moore would struggle to understand it.

The best novel/play/film about about top girls’ schools is Muriel Spark’s semi-autobiographical The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The hero, Sandy Stranger (unisex first name, second an allusion to Camus’ Outsider) is a sexual rebel, who deposes the ‘maverick’ teacher of the title. Both of them sleep with the art teacher, Teddy. Sandy, an anarchist, goes on to destroy her neo-fascistic teacher. The best TV series about school? Phil Redmond’s aggressively non-conformist, real-world Grange Hill. No question.

All of which brings us to the most successful novel/film series school story of all time: The Potteriad. JK Rowling’s epic starts with Harry Potter, a lower middle class abused child who is magically transported to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Witches, wizards and warlocks were, we should recall, not that long ago burned at the stake.

Rowling’s novels are many things but, at root, they are an assertion of what children are and how society’s educational institutions should best handle them. Her novel controverts that other supremely influential novel about schoolchildren, Lord of the Flies. In Golding’s novel, after being marooned on a desert island in a nuclear war, a company of children (mixed public school, grammar school, technical school) revert to savagery. It’s their nature. It’s human nature. Education cannot bring out the good in children – or at least most of them. It can only control their innate savagery ruthlessly.

Rowling’s view is optimistic. Children are primitive and so is their culture and their magical view of the world. There is bullying at Hogwarts and evil at the gates and, with puberty, the teenage confusion of sex. But the essence of the Rowling worldview is hope. Not just for Hogwarts but for humankind.

Given the choice, I’d rather believe in Rowling than Golding. Who wouldn’t?

John Sutherland’s new book Frankenstein’s Brain: Puzzles and Conundrums in Mary Shelley’s Monstrous Masterpiece is out on October 4 (Icon Books Ltd, £9.99)