Aidan Smith: Fascinated by ‘Colditz in kilts’ schools

The dilemma of how and where to educate children looms large for the family of Aidan Smith

Gordonstoun was famously loathed by Prince Charles but comes out looking timid in a new programme. Picture: Neil Hanna

Come to Gordonstoun, said the invitation, which was a nice surprise, but the more I thought about it, the more I reckoned it must have been that garden dibber I made in woodwork which had so impressed the fine educational establishment. Or my C pass at O-grade in statistics, a sort of substitute maths for nincompoops, or my C pass in modern studies, a sort of history lite.

Or my brilliant dissection of a dead mouse in biology or my best work in art, a triptych of a PJ Proby concert describing the moment of contrived spontaneity when the excitable warbler split his trousers.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Or my captaincy of the first XV rugby team for a season of heavy defeats including 0-88 which took some doing in the era of three points for a try.

Obviously Gordonstoun wanted me to talk to the pupils and inspire them. To tell them: “This is the level you should be aiming for - and hurtling right past.” Alternatively, they may just have wanted me to plug the fly-on-the-blackboard TV series about the school and by extension plug the school.

As you may have guessed, I wasn’t privately educated. I went to a state school whose dreaming breezeblock mounds - no spires - lasted barely 30 years before the wrecking-ball finished the job begun by the Doc Martens of the 1970s Clockwork Orange-apeing bovver-boys.

I took my laddie, then just a babe, to see the demolition and told him: “One day, son, this will all be yours.” Now eight, he’s eventually headed for the new building. That is, unless we go private and cause my own father to birl in his grave.

I’m no clearer on what to do for my children than the next Scot whose feelings about his state education are a strange concoction - evocative of being left alone in the chemistry labs - of pride, gratitude and luck. Luck, because my seat of learning was good back then, not yet merged with another school, the teachers’ strike hadn’t yet killed extra-curricular activity and parenting didn’t yet involve over-protecting, over-washing and over-talking about schools and in particular the private option. If going private had been a subject of discussion - no, boggle-eyed obsession - in the 1970s then some of the old man’s dinner parties would have exploded into bitter argument with guests required to leave before the lemon meringue pie.

But I’ve always been fascinated by private schools, what it would have been like to attend one, and here I mean the full, live-in experience. My first reaction might have been to run a mile from boarding school but my second might have been to run a mile for it. I snigger chippily when the system breaks down in a comical way and yet there’s lots I secretly envy about it.

The fascination began with the Geoffrey Willians and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books. I read them tucked up in bed by my mother knowing that some boys had to make do with battleaxe matrons. I was appalled when a master roared: “Your psychoanalyst may say one thing, Blatworthy, but I say another.” I didn’t know what a psychoanalyst was but guessed the need for them wasn’t good.

The books painted the school, St Custard’s, as a gothic hellhole, but I reckoned that if you could befriend the illiterate, pig-nosed central character you’d have a chance of surviving the Latin, prunes and interminable botany walks. Molesworth, despite the ill-fitting cap, was a hero. As any fule kno.

In recent years private schools both Scottish and English have sought to distance themselves from possible comparison with St Custard’s.

This they’ve done in the modern way: by allowing in the TV cameras. Eton, Harrow and Glenalmond in Perthshire have all been the subject of docusoaps and now Gordonstoun has joined them.

For a private school in a competitive market, this primetime exposure can be the prospectus brought shiningly to life. That is, if you can retain control of the final edit which, tediously, tends to happen in these cases. Eton promised its series wouldn’t be an advertisment for itself but that’s what resulted. The Gordonstoun one seems to be heading the same, soft-soap way.

Of course, the Morayshire school originally gained notoriety for being of the carbolic variety. That is, if there was any soap at all. Prince Charles hated the cold showers and wrote home complaining of being punched as he slept. “Colditz in kilts,” he called the place. For these reasons, Gordonstoun was the big beast for programme-makers, the one they all would have wanted.

It seems unlikely that the bartering for access went like this: “We’ll show your bell-ringing if you give us some bullying.” Sky, who also made the Eton series, shoot to the bottom of the class for this timid effort.

Gordonstoun comes out looking timid, too. We all know about the confidence with which the privately educated take on the world but here we get masters avoiding the camera’s gaze.

Given the controversies over “chav-hunting” and elitism and David Cameron and much of his government being straight outta Eton, you can understand these schools’ desire to show their best face, but this is a bland one.

This is a shame, because as the principal remarked recently of the compulsory Cairngorms yomps: “A lot of schools are trying to pull away from risk - we’re not.” I like that, and am sure my son would too, although there’s nothing steeper about Gordonstoun than the £34,000-a-year fees. I see a lot more vibrancy, dilemma and real life on display in those programmes showing state-school struggles such as Educating Yorkshire but would I want it for my kids?

The debate in our house is ongoing and will intensify. My wife was privately educated and, when my manners are a bit too keelie, she’ll remind me that she won Kilgraston’s cup for courtesy and consideration. “That’s like the one they gave out at St Custard’s,” I’ll say. “The Mrs Joyful Prize for Raffia-Work.”

As any fule kno.