Today’s toffs: tough, violent, amoral?

A spate of assaults by pupils from public schools has shattered many class illusions. Is the ferocity endemic?

A teacher’s car was set on fire. There were fights between gangs using knives and bicycle chains as weapons. The headmaster had both his legs broken. And on the morning before a maths exam — at the London comprehensive where I was educated — several boys were arrested for attempted murder. For a long time I assumed that this kind of criminal violence was normal. Normal, that is, in educational establishments for the “lower” classes. But at private schools — so I reckoned — brutality and violence must be entirely unknown. Otherwise why would parents pay for it?

If that was ever true, it’s not any more. Yesterday it was reported that the headmaster of Lord Wandsworth College, a £20,000-a-year boarding school in Long Sutton, Hampshire, has suspended 10 per cent of his upper-sixth after spotting pictures on Facebook of them fighting and damaging property at a private party in a country house hotel. Worse, in recent weeks, three former boys from City of London Freemen’s School were convicted after an horrific assault. Seven pupils at Uppingham were expelled after a 16-year-old lower sixth-former was attacked. And at Stowe two teenagers were arrested after a knife fight in a dormitory when a midnight water fight got out of hand. Annual fees, at all three schools, amount to more than £24,000.

The City of London Freemen’s boys — Alexander Cole-Ezen, Josh Barrett, and Michael Hall, all 19 — left two former prep school friends covered in blood after butting, kneeing, punching and kicking them in a drunken row in August last year. Cole-Ezen took a run-up to kick one victim in the head, captured on CCTV at Waterloo Station after a birthday party. Their victims were left battered with swollen heads and necks; one suffered a broken nose.

In court Cole-Ezen admitted to assault occasioning actual bodily harm and affray and indicated that he was “utterly ashamed and remorseful”; he presented a bag packed in readiness to be sent to a young offenders’ institution. His friends admitted affray. Judge Lindsay Burn, in sentencing them, said that it was obvious that they had had “far too much” to drink but that because they pleaded guilty, had good character and had not used a weapon it was not necessary to send them to jail. Cole-Ezen was given a suspended sentence and 200 hours community work while Barrett and Hall were ordered to do 150 hours unpaid work.

On the internet, responses to the sentencing showed a widespread belief that the boys had got off lightly. On one website, nearly 700 readers indicated agreement with the comment that if they “had come from a comprehensive school they would be in prison now”.

Many boys from my comprehensive have been to prison since I knew them — possibly some of the girls, too. Would they have got off if they’d gone to a private school? It’s impossible to say without considering each case. Charles Falk is a barrister who deals with violent crime of this kind regularly. He declines to comment on the City of London Freemen’s boys’ case, but points out that judges are obliged to weigh aggravating and mitigating factors, in each case, before sentencing. Falk says that people from privileged backgrounds will often have good references and supportive friends and family able to help to rehabilitate them. “If they also show remorse judges must take this into consideration. But in my experience judges bend over backwards not to show bias.”

He may be right. But the recent wave of highly educated thuggery raises other questions. Is this a new development, the result of watching too many violent films, perhaps, or playing too many brutal video games? Or is it something that has always gone on, but was more likely to have been hushed up in the days before CCTV? And, even granting that these incidents were unacceptable, is it unrealistic, perhaps unreasonable, to expect teenaged boys to avoid physical violence totally?

Plainly, my own youthful assumptions about the gentle atmosphere at private schools was misplaced. This became clear after I read about Flashman, the notorious bully at 19th-century Rugby School, and watched the film If. . . . with its depiction of a savage insurrection at a public school. More importantly, I’ve got to know many people who were educated at independent schools and come to see that boys will be boys wherever they are educated.

Two of my relatives — my wife’s brother and her sister’s husband — were contemporaries at one of the older public schools. One remembered a snowball fight between his house and another that got out of hand — rather like the recent water fight at Stowe. “It started friendly but escalated,” he says, “with bigger kids from each house getting involved. The snowballs were packed harder, the range got shorter . . . then we dispensed with the snowballs and started punching each other.”

The other violence he recalls was town versus gown. “That was much more prevalent. There were local oiks — as we used to call them — who wanted a pop at the public schoolboys.” Did it ever work the other way round? “Why would we want to fight with them? What would be the point?”

One of my friends is the bullfighter-philosopher Alexander Fiske-Harrison, who was in Warre House at Eton a few years after David Cameron. Had he ever spotted rough stuff in the hallowed precincts? “In terms of serious incidents, I would have to stretch my mind, which is remarkable in a school of 1,250 fighting-fit males,” he says. “No one was stabbed, shot or murdered in my time.”

He and my public school-educated relatives contend that violent urges were channeled into sport. They all played rugby, but far rougher than that, Fiske-Harrison says, was Eton’s wall game and field game. A part of the field game he recalls was known as the ram. “One team would gather in its goal fronted by one man — it was always me in my final year — and the other team would assemble five or six larger lads into a line or train facing them. They would get into a running-on-the-spot rhythm, chanting ‘left foot up, right foot up, left foot, right foot’, and then they would charge, shoulder down, into that one man to smash him — and the ball at his feet — across the goal line.”

Eton has since banned the ram, just as it banned biting people in the wall game in the last century. Quite right too, you might think. But some wonder if children are protected too much from physical outrage — a trend that has also led state-school teachers of even very young children to be trained not to hug them if they get hurt because such physical contact might be “inappropriate”.

“There is a real tension in this area,” says the father of three boys at my daughter’s school. “We’re told by the school that it’s a caring, sharing world and that you need to tell teachers or parents if you are bullied or in trouble. But in the well, not the good old days exactly if someone punched you you’d whack them back. You would use the same force to deal with it yourself, rather than tell the teacher.”

If he tells his boys to do the same, his wife goes mad. “I let her have her point. I probably agree with her. But I wonder whether, in polite society — if not perhaps in tough estates — children have lost any sense that they can stand up for themselves. The default is to tell a parent or teacher, like calling ChildLine. I’m not saying that is wrong, but sometimes if someone is being a prat the best thing to do is whack back. But that’s so heretical, you can’t say it.”

The housemaster at a boarding school in the Home Counties, who prefers to remain anonymous, doubts that the single-whack solution has ever been as effective as this father’s memory suggests. “In my experience, it doesn’t usually stop it. Usually you have to do it again at some stage. If a kid said to me, ‘Look, sir, I whacked him — sorry — but I haven’t had a problem since’, I would still say that is unacceptable. It doesn’t get to the root of the issue, and if they had done it in the street they might have got a criminal record for the rest of their lives. Why should that be different in the safety of the school?”

This housemaster knows very well how valuable sport can be. “If you have poor weather, as we had in January, the whole house is on edge. We had three weeks without kicking a ball. The truth is that occasionally boys will get fed up with each other and have a scrap. We don’t just say, you have to stop that. We sit down and give them tools to deal with those situations.”

He is not convinced when people tell him that schools were better in the old days. “Is violence on the increase? I suspect it’s worse, but I’m not sure that there is more of it. Perhaps it was covered up better in the past. In boarding schools, at any rate, a lot went on that was unacceptable.”

That point is confirmed by Fiske-Harrison, who, by his own account, was a provoking so-and-so at Eton. The story he tells contains a hint of something that others say more explicitly: that, unlike many of their counterparts in state schools, privately educated children have too much to lose.

Once, in the corridor, an older boy taunted him, then happened to turn round as Fiske-Harrison gestured rudely back. “He came back down the corridor, knocking me off my feet and wrenched my arm around into a half-nelson, telling me to apologise or he’d break my arm. I told him to break it. He said he was going to and wrenched harder. I said, ‘go on’. And he couldn’t.

“He knew he couldn’t and I knew he couldn’t because he’d be expelled and his life would be ruined. The system worked. He had to walk off back down the corridor, defeated. At Eton, people always have one eye on the future.”

1733 words. First published 18 July 2010. © Times Newspapers Ltd.