My thought for today is about private versus public education. This thought was inspired by a recent conversation with someone I found myself standing next to whilst watching the Olympic flame with its huge entourage of ‘sponsors’ pass by on a sunny afternoon.
This person, a Russian, has been living in London for more than 12 years, and has a son who’s coming up to Nursery (kindergarten) age. What kind of a Nursery and what kind of a school ought to she send him to?
It seems that amongst her circle of friends it’s commonly assumed that since you have to pay for private nursery and school provision then it must be of better quality to what the State (i.e., we, the people) provides. She herself was somewhat bewildered – since in Russia, as in most countries, there’s an expectation that all children attend their local nursery classes and local schools, whose running costs are paid for out of general taxation.
It’s by no means that simple in London, and in several other parts of England!
In fact, I’ve heard of parents who insist on driving their children on journeys that can take more than an hour and a half each way in order to get them to a private school of their choice.
I put it to this young mother that, speaking as someone who worked within our State-run system as a teacher and headteacher for many years, it’s extremely disrespectful to me if it’s assumed that the schools I worked in were necessarily second-rate by virtue of them being non fee-paying, and that I myself am therefore deemed guilty (by association) of also being second rate.
It reminded me of a parent who asked me at the beginning of my time as a Primary teacher, “If you do well here, could you get a promotion to work in the Secondary (Junior High) school?” It was pointless to say to her that I’d already taught in Secondary schools, and that I prefered to teach children rather than teach academic subjects. (Needless to say this was in the days before a non-negotiable national curriculum, before SATs, before government micro-management of teaching methods, and before teaching to the tests.)
So if a teacher does really well working in a state school . . . can they get a promotion to work in a private fee-paying school? Hmmmm.
Would they want to?
I mentioned to my Russian acquaintance that in Finland, to pick another country at random(!), there are no private and therefore no exclusive schools. Anyone can therefore send their child to any school without paying fees. Does this mean that every teacher in Finland is therefore second-rate? Even though they all have Masters degrees? Even though they’re paid at least as well as other professional people? Even though Finland is always at the top or near the top of the international comparison tables for educational achievement and attainment?
It’s this business of exclusivity that’s so important.
There are many people in London and elsewhere who send their children to fee-paying schools because this is the only way they can guarantee that their children will be with children whose parents can afford to pay for their education. Simple.
All kinds of other justifications are advanced – smaller classes, better equipment, better teachers – but we know the real reasons. It’s the exclusivity, or rather, the non-inclusivity thing.
We’ve heard it so many times – “Oh but I’d be letting my child down if I didn’t buy them the very best education!”
Can we please define “best”?
Often “best” is about the highest scores in tests and exams. Sometimes it’s about the “best” discipline and behaviour – because we know that all schools that are full of the children of footpads and costermongers (to say nothing of the unemployed and unemployable) are rough and unruly places. To say nothing of the schools that are full of “immigrants” and “ethnics”.
It’s rare that “best” is about enabling children to become independent, creative, curious, enthusiastic, imaginative learners who love learning for its own sake. Who gives a damn about that stuff? Let alone the dreaded “SOFT SKILLS” – by which they mean the much-less important intelligences – personal, social, emotional, physical, spiritual, etc.
So what could I possibly say by way of advice?
Think about your values. Think about the all-round developmental needs of children. Think about the different types of intelligences. Think about your child’s all-round wellbeing. Think about his individuality.
Go and visit some schools. Talk to the people who run those schools – discuss their values and their attitude to learning and teaching. That’s what I used to do as a headteacher – talk to prospective parents about their values, the needs of their child, and the values of the school – as well as its ethos, its commitment to the personalisation of learning, and its commitment to providing an engaging, motivating, stimulating and enjoyable education.
There are parents who want a ‘traditional’ sort of formal (i.e. regimented and passive) education for their child. There are schools that are willing to provide one. They make money out of doing so. For all I know, there may be children who want to be in that sort of learning environment and do well there.
Maybe parents should just make themselves aware of the full range of possibilities, and ask themselves whether their child would do EVEN BETTER in one type of school rather than another.
And bear in mind that no school is in a state of stasis. Most schools are in a state of becoming – something better or something worse. It would help schools enormously to become better if more parents took time to be better informed about schools, about children’s needs, about the different sorts of intelligences, and about children’s wellbeing. If more parents understood their children’s needs better, as well as their children’s rights, then maybe more parents would be prepared to fight for what is right for children.
Many caring parents give up, opt out and do homeschooling – which is maybe fine for those who can afford to do so, and those who have no viable alternative. For the rest – we can all make schools better places if we become a lot clearer about what a good school looks like, what a good school offers, and what children need from their school. There will never be 100% agreement on any of these questions, and we’re foolish if we think there will be, especially in places like London and England.
And even if we did have 100% agreement on pedagogy, entitlement, curriculum and needs there would still be people who would demand the right to exclusivity and non-inclusivity.
I guess it takes an enlightened country like Finland to have a general agreement amongst its population about the actual wellbeing of all children, plus a general agreement that the wellbeing of all its children and all its citizens is more important than the wellbeing of just a few – especially where those few will live amongst the many, earn a living from them, expect protection and a justice system, as well as health services, safe streets and all the rest.
In some countries it seems the few are prepared to opt for living in gated communities and use only private schools, private healthcare facilities, private transport, and if necessary employ private guards.
But hey! We’re getting into politics here, and that’s truly a mug’s game.
From September both my grand-daughters will have to wear a school uniform that includes a tie. There can be no negotiation or argument about this – they HAVE to wear a uniform that includes a buttoned-up shirt and a tie. Apparently most of the parents who use the school are perfectly happy with this situation, and some may strongly approve of it.
Fine. What I’d like to see is all of the children being asked their opinion – and being allowed to write down their opinion anonymously, after debating it within their group. What exactly are the pros and cons of this type of school uniform? What is the wearing of a uniform (with a tie) supposed to achieve? Where is the evidence that it achieves it? What would happen if the “uniform” consisted of a shirt, sweatshirt, teeshirt, etc, of a certain colour together with a school badge or logo and children were allowed to choose whether they wore it or not?
Is it better to achieve a sense of identity and “belonging” from a commitment to one another and a commitment to the school – or can it come simply from wearing a common uniform? Do we all have a right to wear whatever we prefer and feel comfortable in, unless it’s part of the terms of paid employment?
Is it right to ban the wearing of ‘designer’ clothing and footwear in schools, and any item that carries a manufacturer’s label or logo, in order to avoid bullying and teasing?
Is it better to have discussions within groups of children in order to learn about the undesirability of all forms of snobbery, taunting, teasing and labelling – instead of simply banning children from wearing their regular clothes and forcing them to wear a uniform?
Or is school uniform just a convenience for parents who can’t be bothered to argue with their children about what they’re going to wear for school?