Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Old Boys' Dinner

The old boys, some in their eighties, nearly choked on their chocolate cake. 17-year-old school prefects, invited by their headmaster to last week’s annual reunion of old and ancient pupils, gasped in disbelief. Meanwhile the rest of us stroked our black ties and stared down at our wineglasses in embarrassment. Could this man get any worse?

The former pupil turned entrepreneur, who had built an empire out of repairing the nation’s drains and plumbing, was crowning an after-dinner speech of relentless arrogance with a story of such breathtaking vulgarity, I couldn’t begin to hint at its substance, other than it involved an act of intimacy and a girl in a wheelchair. It was so horrendously inappropriate that one group of distinguished north east professionals, all hardened men of the world, stormed out in disgust. It was all quite scandalous and unprecedented, but at least it gave us plenty to gossip about over coffee. There’s an art to giving after dinner speeches and clearly a knowledge of emergency plumbing, even if it buys you your own helicopter, isn’t a much of a qualification.

School reunions generate mixed emotions. I went to my first a full 30 years after I’d left the institution and still found it daunting to push open the big oak doors of the main entrance – a gateway that had always been strictly reserved for teachers and governors. Inside, the massive pillared school hall, with its towering organ pipes and creaking pews where we’d crushed together during morning assembly, the smell of the wooden floors and the tall lockers around the walls, had stimulated feelings of both nostalgia and fear. The lockers from where the plumbing entrepreneur boasted he’d started his career by converting one into a sweet shop and sold overpriced Mars bars to fellow pupils bored with school meals, stood beneath an engraved roll of honour that ran the length of the hall. This was a list of boys who had achieved the only goal the school deemed worthy of honouring: a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge. They were the elite prizewinners in a nearsighted educational system that believed that only Oxbridge mattered, and anywhere else was merely second-class.

Neither the entrepreneur nor I were on that list - we both went to York. But nowadays the function and status of universities have changed beyond recognition, and so too must the focus of our secondary schools. At last week’s dinner, there was a senior prefect at my table who told me he was hoping to go to Oxford to read English Literature. Very commendable: and after that? He wanted a job in television.

I felt bad about putting him straight, but felt obliged to tell him that, despite the prospect of joining the elite band of heroes around the school hall (if indeed they are still carving names in the wood), and possibly learning the art of after-dinner speaking, if he really wanted a career in media, he should instead head off to Bournemouth, which has a first rate media school. Even an Oxford degree would be poor competition against the smart showreels of graduates who will have already have acquired the skills of editing, shooting and scriptwriting that our demanding industry requires. We like people who arrive ready equipped to offer cheap, trained labour. The days of extended training courses on the job are long gone.

In our day a university degree was merely the next rung above A Levels before we were thrown out into the real world to choose a career. Sure, there's a lot to be said for the contacts and bonhomie to be derived from a few years at our finest academic institutions, but nowadays there's a more important consideration: employment. And now, thanks to student loans, the choice of university course is something all our children must consider much earlier, particularly as they, not us, are being asked to pay for it. As the customer, not pupil, they’ll demand value for money in the form of a guaranteed job, not a piece of paper with a grade or a fond memory of the student bar. This week’s cuts in subsidy signal a turning point not just for universities but for our entire education system. The old school will never be the same again.


Unknown said...

I think school reunions should be illegal. I spent almost the whole of mine (10 years after leaving) trying to remember if I had said anything horrible to the women politely chatting to me? Yours sounded really cringeworthy.
I wonder if my father in law's name is carved into the wall anywhere? He would have been there about 30 years before you!

Tom Gutteridge said...

Actually, the terrible speech notwithstanding, I had an enjoyable evening with old (and some not quite so old) school friends. It was reassuring to see that not one of them had changed in the slightest over the 40 years. Rounder, greyer perhaps (certainly in my case), but our reasons for befriending each other in 1963 had not faded over the years, like the pipes of the school organ.

Incidentally, I told the Oxford-bound senior prefect, who seemed incredibly bright and I'm confident will make his grades, that the one prerequisite for admission to the television industry was a list of relevant work experiences, whether at university (which you automatically get at a good media college) or, even better, in a real production company. He really should have been trying to make tea at the local BBC office every school holiday since he started wearing long trousers. But he's trying to start a school radio station, and that's a pretty good start, provided he doesn't start soliciting old boys for funds.

Another old boy has written to tell me that the carving of names in the school hall was stopped when Oxbridge stopped awarded scholarship places in around 1980. So that's progress, then.

Accountant (ON) said...

But did the size of the cheque make up for all this?

Tom Gutteridge said...

Sorry, Accountant (ON) - I can't work out the "cheque" reference.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

I've offered wondered about men chat about amongst themselves. About what is correct and what is not?

How reassuring that it all sounds like an all women or all girl crowd. It all depends on the audience - whether or not they will accept it.

I was once courted by a banker who was funny and very intelligent. Yet I could never accept some of his outrageous (and non-PC) jokes. It went one level too far!

Your description of the reunion sounds spot on.

Accountant (ON) said...

"Size of cheque" presumes that there was a plumber's gift to the RGS Bursary Campaign. Sorry if I speak in riddles.

awindram said...

I think the media industry's habit of wanting recent graduates to work as interns for no money or for next to nothing has more to do with it. Perhaps the best advice to anyone wanting to break into that industry would be to make sure you have parents who live in London and who will graciously allow you to live at home rent free.

Tom Gutteridge said...

Interns can't work for no money - it's against our industry code of conduct. If you aren't being paid you're not an intern, you're just doing work experience. It's a great way of getting into the industry - possibly the best way. It's the way we get to know you, and for you to find out if you actually want to work for us.

At my company we do allow graduates to get work experience without pay but, like all ethical production companies, we restrict this to a maximum of two weeks. After that, an internship is always paid. I don't think this is unreasonable: sadly our strike rate of actually finding a work experience person who is worth paying for is pretty low.

Any prospective intern with a bit of drive (the most important prerequisite for a career in media) can always find a friend with a floor or a sofa for a few weeks: you don't need rich parents. You need determination and ingenuity - both at work and in finding a lifestyle to help you survive while you make your way up the ladder.

Take Patrick, for example. He came to us for two weeks in 2008. He stayed in a hostel (surrounded by homeless and vagrants) in Newcastle. After two weeks we offered him a formal traineeship - with pay. That became a full researcher post within six months.

Two years later Patrick is still with us - as a producer. He's just landed us a major corporate contract, which he's producing himself. He's even earned himself a shareholding in the business: a pretty good start for a 25-year-old. And I don't think he begrudges that two weeks unpaid work experience one little bit.

awindram said...

I don't want to appear overly antagonist so I'll leave this as my last comment on this topic. I found this blog as I've been looking at various expat blogs and was interested to see one by a man from the North East who went to CA and then came back - also being from the North East and being stuck in CA I was (and am) interested to read your blog and thoughts. I have, however, possibly chosen a bad topic to comment on.

I'm glad to hear that there's an industry code of ethics on this issue, but it appears to be a very recent innovation by Skillset. My experiences were very different though I should caveat that it was film development rather than TV and was 6 to 8 years ago. While I'm sure that you personally have always acted responsibly when it comes to work experience and internships, I'm sure you'd acknowledge that others in the industry haven't always had recent graduates best interests at heart.