When my grandfather approached his 80th birthday, he asked about 20 of his former pupils at Stamford School to write about their time there. He collected their responses together in a book, which he then deposited in the school archive.
What was remarkable about this book was the fact that most of its contributors were considered – or considered themselves to be – ‘misfits’ when they were at school.
And that’s what made it such compelling reading.
First, they pulled no punches about a school system that,in their eyes, offered only a ‘one size fits all’ education designed to give them a passport to university, the armed forces, the law or the City. They told stories of housemasters who would beat their naked buttocks on the family hearthrug. They recalled endless hours spent rote learning or sitting in lessons that didn’t remotely interest them. But above all, they remembered a system that largely failed to regard them as individuals with their own interests, talent and potential.
And that’s why they were so fond of my grandfather. He nurtured them as individual human beings.
There was the day boy who lived on one of the town’s council estates. My grandfather gave him free tutorials and helped him into Oxford – and would cycle out to his house if he failed to turn up. There was the boy who left school and became a milkman, only to be helped and guided into an academic law career by grandfather some years later. And there were the many boys who suddenly developed an interest in art when grandfather decided to run evening art classes that – for the first time in the school’s history – were also open to girls from Stamford High School.
My grandfather retired in 1977. Eight years later I won a county scholarship and joined Stamford School as a day boy. Like many of the misfits who later wrote about their experiences for my grandfather, I came to resent the school’s inflexible system that was geared towards you getting the ‘right’ exams for a ‘respectable’ career.
I had no problem with that to begin with. Indeed, I was proud I had won a sought-after place and wanted to prove I was worthy of it. For the first two and half years at Stamford School, I worked hard and kept my nose clean. Then, when I was 13 my grandmother died of bowel cancer.
I loved her deeply and spent a lot of time with her. As her illness progressed, I became less and less motivated by my schoolwork. But instead of wondering why I wasn’t performing as I usually did, my schoolmasters spent their time sticking me in detention, giving me lines and trying to find out whether I was on drugs.
One Saturday morning (we went to school on Saturdays) I woke up and was told that my grandmother had died during the night. I went to school in a state of shock. I can still feel the raw numbness of that day, of moving from lesson to lesson as though my brain had been cauterised from my body. And I remember my history teacher flinging my exercise book at me and berating me for the poor quality of my work.
In my teenage mind, trust broke down between me and the school. Where I had hoped I was being educated as an individual, I realised I was just a cog in the machine – and if I didn’t work as intended I’d be hammered back into shape.
I never accepted that. Although I narrowly managed to avoid being expelled, I left the school as soon as I could – straight after my GCSEs – and went and did my A-Levels at the local FE college. There, whether you worked or not was your responsibility. And if you failed, it was your responsibility too. I thrived, won the A-Level Arts Prize and got an unconditional place at St Andrews University. Both at the college and at University I benefited from systems that didn’t demand uniformity, but instead encouraged you to find your own direction. They were life changing for me in the same way that my grandfather was life changing for the boys who didn’t ‘fit in’.
So why am I writing about this? It’s because of a message I received from a friend of mine this morning. He was in my year at school and has grown to become a man with a passionate left-wing worldview. He’s never quite accepted that I – his fellow school ‘misfit’ – have become a fully paid-up Conservative. After all, wasn’t I as angry as he was when our headmaster wrote to parents telling them to vote Tory, scaring them with tales of how Labour would abolish private schools? And surely being a Conservative means being a member of a party that wants to perpetuate the kind of straightjacketed education we both had to endure?
On the face of it, it does seem perverse. But I think that, in part at least, I became a Conservative because of the experience I had at school. It opened my eyes to that kind of dangerous thinking that mistakes uniformity for fairness and puts rules and regulations before humanity.
Let me give you one example. At the time I joined the Conservative Party, I was living in Hackney – an inner-city borough ruled by the Labour Party with a huge majority. In 2008, about 15 minutes’ walk from my house, a pensioner called John Wise lived in a squalid council flat near Clissold Park. Hackney Homes, the ALMO in charge of the borough’s social housing, had refurbished the flat next door to him and wanted him to move.
For whatever reason, John Wise refused to move. But remember this was a 77-year-old man and there “was evidence he did not look after himself”. He was vulnerable.
Any case like this needs to be treated sensitively and humanely. But because Mr Wise didn’t do what Hackney Homes insisted, police, bailiffs and council staff turned up with a court order and evicted him.
He was found alone, collapsed in the street, 20 minutes later – and died in hospital.
John Wise was another cog who was either unwilling or unable to be bashed into shape. It cost him his life.
That story resonated strongly with me at the time because it was an extreme example of where I felt one-size-fits-all treatment led to. Instead of treating John Wise as an individual, the council and its housing management company treated him as a problem that needed to be resolved.
And wherever I looked at the time, I saw in Labour politics the same tendency to put systems before individuals. Systems that gave single parents more money on benefits than they could realistically earn through work. Social care systems that focused more on procedure than individuals, leading to awful tragedies like the abusive deaths of Victoria Climbié and Baby P. Systems that failed bright children in our schools because of the focus on testing and targets.
I could go on. And I’d also be the first to admit that my own party, now it is in power, is making similar errors.
Yes, it makes sense on paper to free up housing with the spare room subsidy or ‘bedroom tax’. But these are people’s homes you are dealing with.
Yes, it makes sense to get more disabled people into work. But when targets take precedence over individuals, you will end up sanctioning vulnerable people.
Yes, it makes sense to reform wasteful public services, but cutting too much funding from health and policing will end up costing us more in the long term and it will ruin lives.
So why then, if I think like this, am I a Tory? It’s because I agree with the instinct behind much Conservative policy even if I sometime spit with anger at with the way it is put into practice. I believe that reducing the size of government can empower individuals. I believe that there is nothing shameful about raising standards in schools instead of creating the illusion of raised standards by letting examination standards slide. I believe giving social tenants the right to buy their own homes will help individuals aspire to creating a better life for themselves.
In other words, I believe in creating the conditions in which ‘misfits’ can find their niche and thrive.
I just wish we could avoid falling into the trap of trying to make it happen with inflexible systems that fail to take individual human difference into account. If you can’t hammer a cog back into the machine, then the machine isn’t working – and you end up damaging vulnerable people.
Instead you replace that system with something much more human – like my grandfather did at Stamford School all those years ago.
That’s the kind of Toryism I aspire to, even if we don’t always achieve it.