The Cambridge Union Society's Press Officer, Oliver Jackson, as the product of a succession of British private schools, discourses on the arguments around the system that educated him.
The Cambridge Union Society, as is its wont, held a debate last Thursday. The motion under discussion was "This House would send its children to private school" and it was roundly defeated, with 320 Nays to 246 Ayes and 143 Abstentions. One thing particularly stands out with those results; totalled up they come to 709 votes. The Union's full capacity is 800 people and it seems likely, given the number of people who attend but typically don't vote at these debates, that there were nigh on 800 people in the building last night (I would declare it over 800 people but seeing as that is the legal limit set on the number of people allowed in the building such a statement could get me into a bit of trouble with the authorities!).
Regardless, this utterly extraordinary turnout is in contrast to many previous debates (where turnout has been as low as 100) and some other events where we've been lucky to have 30 people in the room, such as the time that the Slovakian prime minister flew over to speak. What is therefore clear is that the subject of private vs. state education is one that a lot of people, especially students, care enough about to give up a Thursday evening in order to listen to of a load of people that they have never heard of or met before argue about it. The Union has held a debate on the subject every other year for practically the last decade (at least) and yet the topic never seems to get old. However, last Thursday's debate differed markedly from the usual argy-bargy Conservative toff versus Socialist Worker discussion in that it wasn't discussing banning or abolishing private schools but whether, on a personal level, the speakers and the audience present would send their own children to private school.
So why do people care about this so much? Why are there not more feelings of apathy and disillusion like there are for so may other topics worthy of debate?
Firstly, this motion tugs at the heartstrings - these are your (mostly hypothetical, for a student audience at least) children. The decisions that you make for them will change their lives. Secondly, it addresses an issue that everybody in the audience was familiar with. Everybody in this country is legally obliged to stay in full-time education until the age of 16, and there are noises to increase that limit to 18. Of course, the audience last Thursday were nearly all Cambridge students - the overwhelming majority, if not everybody, would have been in full-time education until the age of 18. Thus the debaters of this motion could count on an informed and knowledgeable audience, a luxury that is definitely not the case when discussing a more esoteric motion such as Euthanasia, or the Israel-Palestine problem. Thirdly, it gives people a chance to challenge or conform to a stereotype. And everybody loves a good stereotype.
So what is the stereotype? Well, at this point I could get a bit more personal. I could explain my own circumstances and why it is that I spent nine years of my life in private schools. I could even hazard a guess as to why my parents chose that life for me. I'm also aware that, through my (thoroughly enjoyable, I feel bound to point out) experiences in these private schools, I am an object of derision, scorn and occasionally even hate for a proportion of the population of this country (thankfully a minority, but a decent proportion nonetheless). But I would rather stay away from all that. It doesn't lead to a good discussion and just ends up with lots of people extrapolating from their own personal experience to the whole of the UK's population, an inductive effort that goes just a bit too far.
The salient point here that I am trying to make is that it doesn't matter who is making an argument if that argument stands up to scrutiny or, to put it another way, 'it doesn't matter who says it if it's good'. This is true whether the argument is over private schools, economics, foreign policy, or who's going to win the Olympic gold in the Modern Pentathlon. All too often a public figure (let's say, Nick Clegg, for example) sticks their head up above the parapet to tentatively voice an opinion only to be shot down again, not because what they said didn't stand up to scrutiny, but because they had the temerity to put forward an informed statement or opinion on something that, for whatever reason, they hadn't had any direct experience of.
This is patently ridiculous. While I accept that if commenting on a private school education it helps to have an experience of that schooling (likewise for a state school, or in fact any other topic under the sun) it is physically not possible for a single human being to have experienced everything there is in this world. I do not hold back from conversing on Manchester United's chances of winning the Premier League this year depite never having seen them play, let alone played for them (one day dreams will come true...), and yet I will freely admit that I do my best to avoid conversation about the state of the UK's education system not because my view isn't informed or valid (but I suppose that's fairly subjective anyway) but because I am aware that people will judge what I say based on what they know of my background and not on the content of my words.
Reading that last bit back it seems that this did suddenly get a little bit personal. For that I can only apologise. However, if there is one thing that you take away from reading this article please let it be this, namely that in future discussions you judge a point on its own merits and not on the situation of the person making it. Of course you have to consider motivations, incentives and the like when taking part in a debate but please, in the interest of free and frank discussion about absolutely anything and everything that anyone could care to name (private schools and state schools as well as absolutely every single other topic under the sun), don't let it get personal.
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