Oliver James: Parental guidance

I took my first 'make or break' exam when I was 13. Leaping over the Common Entrance (called CE) hurdle to public schools was - and is usually - a worrying prospect. There was the Algebra, the Geometry, and worst of all (at least to me) the Latin. It was explained that the acquisition of this dead language might kill me now but that in later years it would breathe life into my prose and diction because it is the foundation of English.

OK, knowing a bit of Latin does enable a person to see where our words are coming from, but I would dispute the idea that it was really worth all that bother. Rather, like so much of what we were taught at school, then and today, I think Latin's true purpose was to force us to get used to doing largely pointless things at a young age just because the authorities had ordered us to do so - preparing us for the world of work, which for too many is much the same.

In my own case, I failed the Common Entrance exam so comprehensively that I was lucky to get a second bite, at a boarding crammer school. I was only beaten once there (for throwing stones at the ducks on the pond), the main punishment being a run along the dismal Sussex lanes (it was winter) during the tiny window of the day in which we were not declining amo, amas, amat.

I ran a record number of miles in my brief stay, but at least I did not crack up. I can still recall standing in the bathroom with another boy who was shedding copious tears. He was missing his parents, but worst of all, he told me he simply could not stand another day of the pressure. It was the first time I got an inkling of what mental illness is, and the poor lad had to leave.

Our day began with a test of 20 French and 20 Latin vocabulary words, and ended with another such test. There was no respite at all apart from a visit to the church on Sunday. My only solace was my dad's tape recorder, on to which I had recorded the Beatles' album Revolver (this was early 1967), and strictly forbidden reverse-charged phone calls to my mum from a phone box when on my runs.

Ah, happy days. But before you reach for the Kleenex (or the sick bucket), I have to admit that there was probably no other way I could have passed that exam. I was so disorganised and compulsively ill-disciplined that only a boot camp could have changed me.

Of course, I would not recommend such rigours to anyone. The interesting thing is that the reason it worked in my case was my relationship with my dad, and this gives more than a clue to the real causes of academic success.

Tony Blair has stated that he wants an education system that enables children to fulfil their 'God-given talents'. The truth is that neither God nor genes is the main dispensers of ability - it's our relationships with our parents.

oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.