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What Robin Ince Learnt at School

Comedian and science enthusiast Robin Ince’s boarding school years taught him that he’s a skilled bluffer – and he’s been bluffing ever since…

  • What Robin Ince Learnt at School

From the age of 13, I was educated at Cheltenham College. I wasn’t really made for boarding schools and that sort of regime and always remember the feeling of nausea as the new term approached. Best thing about this was that Cheltenham College was where Lindsay Anderson shot much of the film If…, starring Malcolm McDowell, which viewed school as microcosm of what was wrong with society. It ends with a machine gun fight from the top of one of the classroom buildings, so it was a comforting image during times of stress.

One of the main things I learnt at school was the ridiculousness of some of the delusions of the public school mentality. I remember being in an assembly very early on, and the headmaster telling us that we were ‘the top ten percent of society’. And I was thinking, ‘Really? I’m not convinced we are – there’s a bit of a financial thing going on, too, surely?’ I always stayed a couple of steps back from the ideology; I’d had a sense of being a bit of an oddball from an early age, enhanced by my love of old Boris Karloff movies and a burgeoning music scene where over-coated Mancunians created theme tunes for the troubled and narcissistic teenager. Dormitory living just emphasised the feelings of alienation… but it wasn’t terrible. And it wasn’t really about the school, either, despite my rejection of much of what it represented. I’ve got a naturally obstreperous nature and a tendency to be suspicious of any establishment that looks as though it might actively want me to become a part of it. Wherever I’d ended up, I would have insisted on not enjoying it.

I did alright, academically. Especially as I quickly realised that I could, without too much study, manage to make up pretty convincing answers. I got an essay prize once, for my review of the oeuvre of Agatha Christie. I knew a few plots and had seen Why Didn’t They Ask Evans on ITV, so the prize was thoroughly undeserved. This is set me on a career of bluffing and hoping not to be found out. My friend Tim and I would always choose the loosest possible questions – the ones that asked for opinions and arguments rather than hard facts, and enabled me to spew out all the various bits of information I’d gathered to support what I wanted to say. That’s what my life is like now. I have a magpie brain and poor concentration.

Had I done science, it wouldn’t have worked like that. It’s not a subject for bluffing. But unfortunately, the first time I took a physics test I did very badly indeed, which resulted in me deciding that if I couldn’t do it brilliantly, I wouldn’t do it all, and grumping off (I do that a lot). I had very smart, well-meaning science teachers, but they didn’t enthuse me. They didn’t inspire that combination of intense excitement and vague nausea you get when you start to think about the estimated number of stars in the universe, and how every atom that makes us was fused in a stellar furnace. I’ve visited schools since, and seen some wonderful teaching, but it worries me how the last few education secretaries haven’t seemed to care about allowing time and space within the curriculum for enthusiasm to be nurtured. It’s all, ‘at the end of this lesson, you must have these facts’. Whereas it’s incredibly important, I think, to keep children curious. This generation is further away from the fear of an early death – from tuberculosis, cholera, through childbirth - than at any time in history; we’re in danger of taking our long, healthy lives for granted and becoming blasé. Of forgetting that the society we live in was built on an incredible foundation of knowledge and achievement. Of spending our lives in shopping centres, and being distracted by pseudo-science on the internet.

I’ve got a son. He won’t go to a school like I did. The most important thing for me is that he will grow up enthusiastic and questioning. I am a firm believer in the state system and the importance of parents being as much part of it and as helpful as they can be. School is only part of the education. He’s exuberant, and interested… and within two weeks of starting reception, had been sent to the head teacher because he just wanted to talk too much about everything, I have no idea where he inherited that from…

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer, broadcaster (including presenting The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 with physicist Brian Cox) and science enthusiast. In 2019, he will be judging the first ever non-fiction category in the Teach Primary Book Awards.

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