Brighton College and a Comedy of Manners

Argus title : Head should teach them manners on the buses

Headmaster Richard Cairns has introduced lessons in good manners at Brighton College. He wants his students to improve their social skills.

He told the Argus this week: “Good manners and understanding of etiquette at formal dinners is a deal breaker in the business world. It’s as important as exam grades or degrees.

“A report was published not long ago saying employers were put off by the number of undergraduates not equipped for it.”

As a consequence of Mr Cairn’s concerns, Brighton College students are learning to iron shirts, break bread rolls instead of cutting them, fold napkins into fans, choose the right cutlery at formal dinners, dance and – in the case of girls only – apply make up with discretion. I must confess that when I read this I had an immediate and startling vision of Brighton College boys strolling back from rugby, poorly exfoliated, caked with slap and smeared lipstick – all because they’d been denied tuition in “subtle” make up techniques.

I should not tease Mr Cairns. It’s important for young people to learn good manners, and useful life skills such as ironing and food preparation and I’m pleased that he expects boys as well as girls to do so. However, his initiative seems to be less focussed on good manners than rigid notions of etiquette.

He seems to want his young charges, many of whom are the children of newly affluent middle class parents, to fashion themselves in the image of those with inherited wealth. However, the basis of good manners is surely respect and concern for other people – not learning the minutiae of the rules which govern upper middle class or aristocratic life.

In 2004, Anthony Seldon, the former Headteacher of Brighton College and the then incoming Chair of Governors Lord Skidelsky were widely criticized for suggesting many parents struggled to pay the fees – and implying they were not quite out of the top drawer.

In an interview with a national newspaper, Dr Seldon described the majority of college parents as “people who struggle hard to find the fees.” He added: “I’d like to redefine the school but we’re constrained by the quality of intake and we can’t afford to be more selective than we are,” adding: “We’re not Charterhouse or Tonbridge.”

Dr Seldon’s comments were echoed by Lord Skidelsky, who said: “The problem is that we’re not attracting enough of the brightest and best. We’re limited by the catchment area.

“The parents are mainly small business people and professionals. They tend not to have lots of books in their homes or a wide cultural life.

“I’d like it to be a more distinguished school but we don’t want to alienate our current market.”

I remember thinking at the time that these comments, if accurately reported, sounded not just snobbish, but also stunningly rude. After all, the parents in question were forking out something in the region of £12,500 each year in fees (it’s now £14,500) which presumably paid Dr Seldon’s wages.

I have no doubt that Dr Seldon, who is now Headmaster at Wellington College, knows which fork to use and how to respond to a formal dinner invitation (though in practice even in this day and age it’s usually wives who do so), but it is questionable whether, on this particular occasion, he showed the slightest grasp of good manners.
Mr Cairns doesn’t insult his charges, but he does cheerfully acknowledge their ignorance of conventional etiquette. He says: “They don’t know that they can’t just take their jacket off as soon as they sit down and they can’t get up and go to the loo whenever. They don’t know that they should break bread not cut it and that they should talk to the people on their left during their first course and their right during their main course.”
He intends to invite pupils to dinner at his house, issuing formal invitations to each student. He says he will expect a correctly drafted reply and adds: “Obviously no one will be turned away at my door but in the wider world any host of a formal dinner will expect a correctly written response. Most of the students don’t know that you write an RSVP in the third person not the first person.” I imagine they have that in common with most of the population of Brighton.
The real question is whether it matters. Certainly it is helpful, in our class-divided society to be able to mix easily and politely in all circles – and to be able to adapt quickly to different social situations. However, I doubt that the world would come crashing down if a promising employee replied to a formal dinner invitation in the first person or needed to visit the loo during dinner.

What really does matter is that people treat each other well and with respect. So if Mr Cairns wants his young students to acquire better manners he would do well to teach them how to conduct themselves towards ordinary people in the outside world.

He might start with their conduct in public, on pavements and in public transport. Some Brighton College students are very polite, but more than once I have seen College boys walking in groups along Eastern Road, obliging other people to stand back for them or even to step off the pavement.

On the overcrowded buses which serve Eastern Road, senior College boys frequently sit sideways over two seats so that they can speak to friends who are similarly taking up more than their entitled space – thus obliging other passengers to stand or walk further down the bus.

To add insult to injury, many block the passageway by spreading bags and legs across it, rarely moving or apologising when other passengers are forced to struggle past. In the course of many journeys on that route I do not think I ever saw a Brighton College boy give up his seat for another passenger.

Brighton College students are, I am sure, no worse than those from other schools. However the fact that the school is beginning classes in good manners provides it with a unique opportunity to improve matters. And the idea might catch on in other schools.

Mr Cairns could teach his charges that consideration is due to everyone and that there are conventions which govern conduct and polite communication in even the humblest of settings.

It’s certainly useful to understand social niceties, not least because it helps young people cope in a notoriously class-divided society and can assist them in communication with different cultures and an older generation. However, there is little to be gained from obsessing about what the upper classes do and do not do. Firstly, they are apt – often out of pure devilment – to change the rules and secondly, they are frequently appallingly ill-mannered.

When the mother of Kate Middleton, Prince William’s girlfriend, was ridiculed for using the word “toilet” rather than lavatory or loo, acres of newsprint were expended on her so called “gaffe”.

The use of such language was, journalists said, a true indicator of the lower middle class origins of the person concerned – a bit like using the word “serviette” instead of “napkin”. But these words hurt no-one.

The language which does injure is that of insult and arrogant put-down, which is all too efficiently taught in British public schools. We have only to think of the manner in which Prince William’s friends are reported to have sneered at Kate Middleton’s mother’s former occupation as an air hostess. Or Sussex Conservative M.P. Nicholas Soames’ famous put-down of the former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party John Prestcott, a former steward on a cross channel ferry. “Mine’s a G&T (gin and tonic), Giovanni.” Soames shouted, to general mirth amongst fellow parliamentarians. It was a clever intervention, but cruel and therefore deeply ill-mannered.

There may be few “deals” to be done on buses and hardly any influential people to impress there. However, the test of genuine good manners is surely not how people relate to the rich, but how they conduct themselves towards those with less or no wealth, influence or power.

Brighton College would do well to remember that.

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