Like many parents up and down the country, we are currently in the process of reviewing the various local primary schools in our area in order to attempt to secure a place for our rising-4 for September entry next year.
Our decision is set against the backdrop of vehement arguments between the merits of private, grammar school and free school education propounded by those such as Peter Hitchens and Toby Young and that of a fully comprehensive system as advocated by those such as former adviser to Cherie Blair, Fiona Miller (Alistair Campbell’s wife) and Owen Jones.
To give Campbell and Miller their due, while I am no fan of their politics, they have certainly put their money where their mouth is – all of their children attended state comprehensives in the London borough of Camden. Of course a child’s home environment is at least as important as the school itself, Campbell and Miller’s children were bound to do well wherever they went, but nonetheless I have to confess a certain grudging admiration for them for eschewing the hypocrisy of other leading political figures in the Labour party, such as Diane Abbot who unashamedly sent her son to private school using inverse racism to qualify her decision.
Were we fortunate enough to enjoy the salary and lifestyle of the Campbell family, faced between the choice of a private school and a Camden comp, the kids would be straight on the tube to the nearest school uniform outfitters to pick up their boaters, blazers and checked kilts.
If John Major is correct about the shocking influence of major private schools in public life, and I believe that he is, a healthy society is not one in which only the wealthy elite have access to positions of power and responsibility, the answer is not to introduce more quotas or to abolish private education, but ask ourselves what it is about private education that is perpetuating this situation.
Ripostes about old-school ties are glib, while social networking can undoubtedly help, it will only get one so far. You don’t get into Oxford, or even become Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequr on social contacts alone. There needs to be some measure of talent and ability. A contact (whether it be from school or somewhere else) can only get you so far. It may secure a job interview but if you don’t actually possess the requisite skills to be successful in your chosen field, name-dropping or appealing to Rupert’s daddy isn’t going to help you.
I attended two public schools, neither of which have ever been any use in securing any sort of position and neither have I kept in close contact with many of my peers. I didn’t go to university. No-one was interested in where I had been to school when I worked for one of the top five accountancy firms, or in investment banking or private equity. Of far more interest was previous experience and skills and qualifications to do the job in question, as well as possessing the necessary cojones to work in the unique environment of the trading floor. None of my bosses were privately educated either and blethering on about various members of the aristocracy or society set whom I used to sit next to in school nor indeed would discussing the offspring of various sporting superstars or celebrities have cut any ice .
But there is undoubtedly something that certain schools impart, whether they be private, grammar or religiously selective, which we should be seeking to distill, emulate and apply across the board, so that all pupils have the same opportunity to achieve both personal and academic excellence.
Educationalists and social scientists will have differing ideas about not only what excellence looks like, but also how to achieve it. My perspective is an unusual one in that my eldest daughter currently attends an independent school, due to provision put in place by her biological father, which is obviously not available for my youngest three children.
At present my daughter is caught up in three days of rigorous exams, the intensity of which have surprised me, given that she is only in Year 5. We’ve had weeks of revision sessions, sheets to download with expected knowledge, in French she needs to be able to spell concepts such as giving directions, the weather and the various shops and points of interest in a town centre, as well as decline two verbs and write in sentences. In history she needs to write essays, in Mandarin recognise and write characters, in Latin decline nouns, and the science and maths seems inordinately detailed and complicated.
At first I was rather taken aback, this seemed an awful lot to be placing on a nine year old, we’ve been concentrating on not stressing-out over exams, stating that as long as she does her best it doesn’t matter, and instead of cramming, doing bite-sized revision sessions once or twice a day. They’ve also been focussing heavily on revision sessions in lessons.
I guess the point is to get them used to exams and assessment and to be fair my daughter is coping really well and isn’t fussed at all. Another child, her best friend, has just left however, because she had a number of learning difficulties and was simply unable to cope, feeling too different to her peers and under too much pressure. It demonstrates nonetheless that all schools are results driven, concentrating on measuring and evaluating children according to a given scale, comparing them against their peers, instead of concentrating upon helping them to achieve their own individual and unique potential.
Since the age of 5, my daughter has learnt multiple languages as part of the curriculum, French, Spanish and Mandarin, and this year Latin has been added. I thought she’d struggle with so many, but she has thrived and loves her Latin and Classics. We forget, children’s minds are like sponges. In addition, they have PE or games three times a week, and regardless of ability the school ensures that all children have the opportunity to compete in sports matches, even if they subsequently learn that they are not very good and won’t always get picked, or need to practice skills. She sings in a school choir, which she loves, there are regular church services (far more liberal/muscular Christian that would be my preference) such as for Remembrance Day on Monday, tonight she’s singing to switch on Hove Christmas lights, she recently went on a three day residential trip to France, every year she is involved in a theatrical production, she produces spectacular artwork, in short the extra curricular opportunities and activities are excellent.
No school is perfect and to our minds the religious character of the school could be better, comparative RS drives us up the wall, when you are of a certain faith, it isn’t bigotry to tell them that we don’t believe the tenets of other religions and we wish that she could learn a lot more about her own faith. We don’t want Catholicism to be that weird thing that mummy and dad do at home, but it is mainly unsupported and at times undermined by the school’s culture.
But you can’t have everything, and, as the recent departure of her best friend illustrates, there is no one-size fits all school. There are many many things that her school gets right, they are rigorous about uniform standards and codes of behaviour, pupils are rewarded or penalised with pluses and minuses, there is a strong and healthy culture of house competition and each pupil is encouraged and incentivised to achieve their personal best and play to their strengths.
When looking around at the local schools for our other children, the over-riding feeling is one of sadness. We are the lucky ones. There are some excellent Catholic primary schools in the area, all of which are oversubscribed, and our younger children will be supported and encouraged in their faith at school. Added to which they achieve high standards academically and have good Ofsted reports.
It would be a lie to pretend that academically they were of the same standard though, the younger ones aren’t going to get to learn Mandarin, Spanish and Latin, nor are they going to enjoy the numerous extra curricular activities that are offered on site. With four children, driving around Sussex for three separate lots of ballet, martial arts and instrumental lessons, isn’t going to be logistically feasible.
Our home environment will enable our youngest three, if not to enjoy the same type of education as our eldest, at least to succeed to their highest potential and we can always and probably will, supplement as necessary.
The idea of the perfect school is a myth, regardless of whether it is religious, independent or state and will vary from child to child. Obviously there are things about my eldest daughter’s school that could be improved, not least in terms of better supporting those with special needs, although my daughter’s friend is now much happier in a local state primary. For us the perfect mix would be the academic and extra-curricular facilities of her current school with a strongly Catholic ethos.
My kids will be okay however and I’ll get over the fact that they can’t have the same level of opportunity as my eldest. Life isn’t always fair. Private schools have to ensure that parents get value for money and therefore need to offer something over and above the normal. If opponents to public schools want them abolished then they need to do something to ensure that they are redundant and eliminate the need.
As a Christian, my primary duty is not to educate my children in purely academic terms, but bring them up to understand that they are children of God with all the accompanying responsibilities. They need to learn that this life is only a prelude.
If I am regretful or melancholy over the fact that my younger kids aren’t going to receive the creme de la creme education that every child deserves, I can at least console myself with the fact they will receive a decent start at a Catholic school.
What makes me so incandescent about this, is that schooling matters. It can help raise kids out of poverty. What about the children in the rough council estates of the city, whose parents don’t have a religious faith, who don’t have the cash to pay for private schools or move into a more salubrious area and are crammed into the portacabin or ICT suite of one of the local primaries which are bursting at the seams due to Brighton’s primary schools being at over-capacity? Why shouldn’t Katie Hopkins’ dreaded Tyler or Kay-cie have the chance to learn languages, or benefit from copious playing fields? Subject to strict standards of behaviour and incentives in school from an early age, a chaotic background can be surmounted.
In an society which places personal autonomy above other values, there is no autonomy when it comes to selecting the right school for your child. If you are rich and or religious, you have more choice than most, but even so, you have to take your chances, there’s no guarantee that my children will get a place at any of our preferred choices. As happens to many, the children will be allocated a school at random to ensure the LEA have met their responsibilities. Typically the schools with the leftover places are those which don’t perform all that well, due to a variety of cultural factors. If that happens I’ll home educate, but how many families are in a position to do so?
Average is not acceptable. We should be aiming for excellence across the board and for all levels of ability, instead of moulding children into a one-size fits all. Whether at primary or secondary level, access to academic, sporting, musical or creative excellence should not be the preserve of the super-rich. Every time I appreciate how good her education is, I am overcome with a pang of sadness intermingled with outrage that this is not on offer for all.
Once upon a time private education was within the reach of many middle-class families and were also accessible to children from working class backgrounds thanks to the now-abolished assisted places scheme. Thanks to rising costs of living and the bubble in the housing market, above inflation private school fee increases, mean that they are now accessible only to those with a hefty chunk of disposable income. Together with an increasingly ideological curriculum, it’s hardly a surprise that home-schooling is in the ascendance, or that Free Schools are being set up left, right and centre. People want more than what is currently on offer.