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.