In 1959, a 10-year-old Prince Charles was attending Cheam boarding school, 50 miles west of London.
He was the first member of the British royal family to be educated outside of a palace.
His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, directed that he be treated no differently from the other boys, according to the April 18, 1959, Post article, “Making a Man Out of Charlie” by Graham Fisher. So he accustomed himself to the hard beds, the unheated dormitory, and the school food.
He endured the cricket matches, where his ineptitude was on display. He also suffered the traditional bullying found in English boarding schools. A quiet boy, Charles put up with the teasing and pushing, but there were occasional flashes of defiance. (The Post article details an episode during milk break one day, when a school mate made a reference to the first King Charles. “Fine lot you are. Look at that other Charles. Had his rotten head cut off.” Charles put down his milk before replying, “Try cutting off my head and I’ll show you.”)
The prince’s education, as described by Fisher, would have interested American readers. Since 1957, they’d developed a new concern over their children’s education. That year, Russia’s launch of its Sputnik satellite caused panic in the U.S. The country hadn’t fully recovered from the shock of learning that Russia had developed its own atomic bomb in 1949. Now they’d become the first nation in space. Americans worried that the U.S. was losing its technological edge.
Congress passed the National Defense Education Act to create a workforce that would “meet the national defense needs of the United States.” It spent a billion dollars to improve education in science and technology.
Searching for better educational models, some Americans looked to Great Britain. In another 1959 Post article, “Be a Sensible Boy,” American educator Serena Blodgett wasn’t alone in her opinion that “British children read, wrote and understood English better than their slightly older counterparts” in an American school. In the year she spent teaching at Winton House Preparatory School in London, she was impressed by the focus on learning and manners.
The well-behaved students entered classrooms and hung up their school caps before sitting at their desks. And all stood at attention when the headmaster approached. They were studious and would quietly endure freezing cold classrooms.
The school’s whole purpose, she wrote, was “to teach a boy to master as much academic materials as he was able, to require the self-discipline which leads to the good manners and poise characteristic of a self-respecting member of society.”
But in passing, she mentions “the headmaster customarily meted out the school’s traditional form of discipline, caning.” To her mind, being whipped by a cane was simply part of the prep school experience. “Caning broke no spirits at Winton House.”
In September of the same year that Charles started at Cheam, author Muriel Beadle gave a more critical view of English schools in the article “Are British Schools Better Than Ours?” She had recently returned to the U.S. after spending a year in Britain where her son attended a school near Oxford.
What she saw was a divided educational system. “The English educate their bright 20% of pupils apart from the average majority, in separates schools; whereas Americans keep all children together.”
In Britain, most 11-to-15-year-olds attended schools “which tend to stigmatize them as second-rate, which may freeze them in the social class they were born to, and which sometimes nips whatever youthful enthusiasm for learning they had when they started formal schooling.”
She came to a new appreciation of the egalitarian school system in the states. “American public schools play a unique role in unifying the diverse people of this vast and restless nation,” she wrote. “We speak essentially alike. And is it really so bad to give all children equal status, if in so doing we preserve their self-respect?”
Ms. Beadle was glad her son was back in an American high school. While his career and interests would eventually separate him from his youthful friends, he would always share the high school experience with the adults he’d meet. “’When I was in high school’ means pretty much the same thing to all Americans.”
British teachers tended to be more authoritarian in the classroom. “This sounds great to some American parents — ‘the schools are too easy on kids these days’ — until they experience it firsthand.” Beadle writes of students slapped, struck, and knocked to the floor, in addition to receiving withering sarcasm from seasoned educators.
You wouldn’t find in the English classroom “the courteous attention which American teachers accord to each child — even, sometimes, beyond a reasonable point.”
But she wasn’t blind to the strengths of Britain’s schools. For one thing, they were much better at teaching English composition. Students were taught to organize ideas into coherent patterns, with topic sentences and appropriate conclusions. Also the imposition of school uniforms made life easier for both parents and children.
And there was the British attitude that intelligence was not considered odd. There was no talk of “eggheads” and “teachers’ pets.” Students who did well in class were admired and tended to be popular.
But the American classroom had one over-riding advantage, she believed. Britons believed that children should be governed, not led. In a British school, the headmaster — no matter how much pupils liked him — was an authority figure, and students wanted to get the better of him. American students generally thought of themselves as a team with the teacher as leader instead of boss.
When Prince Charles came home to the castle for the holidays, the Queen recognized that he dreaded returning to Cheam. She knew the school was “a misery” to Charles, according to a Vanity Fair article, but thought that his struggles were the result of the prince being “a slow developer.” Prince Philip, his father, who had done well in preparatory schools, firmly believed the adversity was good for Charles. “School should be an spartan and disciplined experience,” he said.
Charles, himself, hated his time there. When it came his turn to select a school for his boys, he chose a very different direction: Ludgrove School in Middlesex. Its founder thought prep schools should be pleasant rather than repressive. The school has two mantras: “Be the best you can” and “Be kind.”
Author’s Note: No two schools are alike and it would be unfair to leave a grim impression of British schools of the 1950s. I am indebted to the staff — long gone, alas — of Modern School for Boys in Purley, Surrey. They showed far more patience than I thought wise, even then.
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