04 December 2009

Leaders of tomorrow?

There's another a round of hand-wringing beginning - this time about private education. I can't say I'm complaining as the hand-wringing about the state of the blogosphere isn't doing us any good (though I'm gutted that Subrosa has had to hang up her blog) right now so it's good to get onto a discussion of something different. Anyway. Calum noted Gordon Brown's school jibe towards the Tories, which was undermined by the roll call of Labour politicians' school days. Kez, meanwhile, enters the fray with a consideration of how schooling, class warfare and politics interact.

Allow me to present a personal perspective, which I suspect is fairly rare - having seen elements of both the private and state sectors for myself. I went to the local Church Primary, which was state-funded. Though after that, there was a bit of a fiasco: there was one school in the Chorley area, Parklands, which had a good reputation, and my parents applied for me to get a place there. That's where one of my classmates wanted to go as well, and we were excited at the prospect of going there. Thing was, we were outside the catchment area, and the County Council had instead allocated us to Albany, which was probably under-subscribed given the poor reputation it had at the time. Well, you can guess what happened: our respective parents hit the roof. But they had different reactions. My friend's parents decided to look outwith the county: we were just a few minutes' bus ride away from the boundary between Lancashire and Wigan Borough, and just on the other side of that boundary was Standish High School, so they applied there, to the consternation of the County Council, who were forced to relent in the end. My parents went down a different route: they sent me to a Grammar School in Blackburn (that's the one in East Lancashire, not West Lothian). It's not quite a private school in the sense of Eton or Harrow, but it's fee-paying, it was single-sex at the time, and it selects its pupils in an exam (mind you, there's no good way to put this, but if some of those kids actually passed the test I sat, the required mark must have been bloody low). They skinned themselves to do it.

And what a waste of money! First, the buildings looked like they were about to fall down. Everything was old, and grim, and quite shabby - this place had been founded in the reign of Elizabeth I and that appeared to be its heyday. Second, the ethos. We were, it seemed, continually ranked against each other; anyone who cocked up got pretty much humiliated by the teachers and in any case of harassment, most of those in charge (though there were a few with their wits about them) would blame the victim rather than the aggressor for having done something to bring it on themselves. Basically, while there were a few good people and the usual groups would form, hostility was the order of the day and your classmates were potential rivals, not friends. Then there was the teaching: brandy-soaked buffoons and golf obsessives pacing around the room dictating everything; getting told where all the literary devices were in a set text in English Lit. We basically got spoonfed everything, with no room for questioning, challenging, engaging on anything. This is what it was, and that was that. And the fact that it took anywhere between an hour and an hour and a half to get there in the mornings (and the same timeframe depending on traffic on the way back) didn't help.

Eventually, my parents' bank balance and my tolerance for this turgid way of doing things both gave way at around the same time, and I switched, to that school just over the boundary, where I could have gone in the first place (and just seeing my travelling time drop to around ten minutes was a boon!). And while some of the buildings looked like they needed a fresh coat of paint, a lot had recently had that, and more besides. It was brighter, happier, and while there were a couple of tosspots, mostly, everyone just got on, even across the different groups. But the classes were the eye-opener: we were actually discussing openly the same literary devices, the same ideas, that Old Brandy Breath had dictated to me at Blackburn. We engaged with each other, and we'd have the odd argument over various points, but it was just about the actual matter being discussed in class and as soon as the bell went, we'd go back to being mates. Things were what we made of them, and as long as we could explain ourselves, the teacher actually encouraged us to do the talking. It was the complete opposite of Blackburn and the only areas where the Grammar School had the edge were Classics (only because Blackburn offered Latin and Greek, but Standish didn't), and German, and that was only because in the classes there, everyone showed up because they actually wanted to learn German, whereas at Standish, everyone else was there because they didn't want to do French - and even then, that possibility wouldn't have been open to them at Blackburn. Neither would the options of studying Italian and Spanish. There were even Japanese classes at lunchtime. We actually engaged with the teachers in the running of the school, with a school council, and it was the pupils who took the initiative to run a charity appeal during the Kosovo Crisis - that would never have happened at Blackburn!

In terms of what Calum and Kez are saying, I think they're both right: Calum's right to point out that it's rich of Labour to slag off David Cameron et al for the school he was sent to, when plenty of Labour people were sent to similar institutions, but Kez is right to point out that you can't blame either side for where their parents sent them - only how they behave afterwards.

And where does my tale fit in? Here's the moral: the Grammar School kept up the Establishment way of doing things, the way things are, the way they've always been and always will be. There was no scope for challenge, for independence of mind or individual thought. There was a mindset which you followed or you'd never get on. And yet they talk about private schools educating the Leaders of Tomorrow? Wrong. Do you think David Cameron is capable of coming up with new, original ideas? Of course not - he's had his brain hardwired by years of life in the Establishment ethos. Whatever he does, whatever anyone comes up with who's been to a place like Eton, or even just the Grammar School in Blackburn, it'll just be variations on the same old tired themes, there'll be no real change, no way of doing anything radical that will genuinely improve ordinary people's lives. They aren't the Leaders of Tomorrow at all, but the Followers of Yesterday, a yesterday that let so many people down and bodes ill for today, tomorrow and the next day, while those spoonfed Old Boys are calling the shots.

But the original thinkers, the ones who might just have that big idea, that actually could change the world, they're not the ones who've been sat there, their concentration wandering as their teacher marches around the room telling them where the metaphors are in a piece of prose. They're the ones who are used to coming up with their own ideas, and batting them around. They're in your local state school.

They're the ones who could bring about real change. They're the real Leaders. What we need is for them to step forward... and for parents to stop pissing their money away on having their kids told what to think, when they can be taught how to think at the Comp, for free.


Julie said...

Interesting post, Will.

I went to St Aloysius in Glasgow and to be honest, I loved it. Yeah, it was very academic and competitive, but it also had a bit of an edge to it; our school was run by English Jesuits and our headmaster was a guy who'd been involved in 'liberation theology' in Peru; basically telling the Peruvians to rebel against their government. Then there was my English teacher who actually did Scottish Literature with us and taught us Scottish history along the way. Oh yeah, and the headmaster allowed the teachers to vote for who they wanted as their deputy head. It had its faults, but I liked the place and did well by it, I think..

subrosa said...

Good post Will but I don't think all private schools can be labelled strictly results base. These days parents are demanding a far more rounded education for their money.

That apart, in Scotland private schooling has never been popular - only for the 'toffs'. The start of the decline in standards in the state sector happened when comprehensives were introduced, many secondary moderns were closed and the pupils moved to the local academy building (or vice versa). Trying to squeeze academic and vocational subjects into a building which was far too small, the lack of pre-preparation and the slow realisation that facilities weren't enough all contributed to a generation or more losing a quality education. We've never recovered from that although some schools are superb. My old school has extended as much as possible and presently offers a stimulating education to each pupil. Of course the head isn't a man who rests on his laurels. He's highly motivated.