An All Too Ordinary Education

I’m not overly keen on personal blogs.  Or rather, I’m not too keen on the idea of writing them.  I thoroughly enjoy gaining a better understanding of the educational views of others by taking a look into their own school years.  So I love this from Lee Donaghy, and this from Laura McInerney.

But I feel that at some point I should share how my views have been shaped, even though my own journey through compulsory education wasn’t as interesting or exceptional as those mentioned above.  In fact, once I got to secondary school, it was all too ordinary.

My initial experience of education was through the church that my dad worked for.  It was a large, evangelical church which ran its own primary school.  It was a free school before free schools were a thing, so the funding came from parental contributions.  We were blessed with some brilliant teachers who provided a loving, caring school environment.  I remember my Year 5 project on the Ancient Egyptians; the excitement of sports day; Mr Williams’ voices as he read Roald Dahl and the weekly assembly which parents were invited to join.

I recall a cookery test in the infant school in which I received double marks for including cinnamon in a list of ingredients that should go in an apple crumble.  I wondered at the time whether I really deserved double marks for an ingredient which wasn’t fundamental to the dish.

I recall doing litter duty outside the school gates one lunchtime and looking up the road to see an athletic figure in the distance walking towards us with his dog. “That’s Alan Shearer”, I exclaimed.  As the figure got closer my prediction proved correct, and the Saints striker chirpily said hello to us as he passed.

My bucolic primary school experience came to a shuddering halt in Year 8, when I joined Cantell School, a big secondary on a council estate in Southampton.  Southampton is one of those places where middle class families tend to bus their kids to better schools out of town, but Cantell was near our home and my older brother was doing alright there.

Despite being on the edge of a council estate, Cantell was close to more affluent suburbs so top-set classes were full of children of professors, teachers, scientists and engineers, as well as the son of the local Labour MP.

The quality of teaching was mixed.  I had brilliant History teachers, a decent English teacher and a good Science teacher.  I’m not sure of the guiding principles behind the curriculum.  I did GCSEs in Keyboarding, Business Studies, Statistics and Drama, but I wasn’t allowed to take both History AND Geography.  French GCSE was modular, with a small test every couple of weeks which the teacher would always help us with.  So I got an A grade without being able to speak or write more than a sentence or two.  Our Drama teacher was away most lessons. I think she felt guilty for this so boosted our marks by way of apology.  There’s no other way of explaining the A* that I was awarded.

I don’t think I did especially well at school until Christmas of Year 11, when I decided that I would write revision notes for all of my subjects and commit these to memory.  From the February half term I set myself ambitious daily revision targets, which I met.  This meant that I went into the exams with lots of factual knowledge in my head, and I did well.  The same approach served me well in my A Levels (at a sixth form college outside of town), and it’s one of the reasons that I support the role of knowledge and memory in education.   When Willingham, Christodoulou and the Michaela crew suggest that knowledge is vital to learning because it’s the stuff we think with, it chimes with the dramatic improvement in my own grades once I decided to memorise large chunks of material.

My best memories of secondary school were beyond the classroom.  We had one of the strongest football teams in town, and thanks to some intense coaching from an Australian maths teacher we soon had a cricket squad to match.  Mr Halliwell’s coaching and our enthusiasm got us to the Hampshire final, played on the green pastures of Winchester College, where we were beaten by a local private school.

I was lucky that my parents valued education.  I could always get help with my homework, and once a week my mum would drive us to the big public library in town, so we did our fair share of reading.  My dad would often be watching the school cricket matches that we played at the local sports centre.

Soon after I left Cantell it fell into hard times.  School league tables were introduced in 1992, the year before I started.  As these league tables evolved they revealed what those of us at the school already knew – that middle class kids in the top set did fine, but  the disadvantaged and minority-ethnic kids who dominated most of the other sets didn’t leave school with much to show for their time there.  The school failed an Ofsted in the early 2000s, but it’s doing better now.

My memories of secondary school are happy enough, but I would be surprised if anyone had their life chances transformed by Cantell.  It was a school where kids from educated, supported families did alright, while kids from the local estates – who made up the majority – didn’t.

It mattered which teacher you had.  There were a couple of rogue teachers who you really didn’t want to end up with, and staff absence was a menace.  A few wonderful teachers freely gave up their own time to arrange trips, take us on DofE weekends, and even play tennis with us at the local park, but these teachers were more the exception than the rule.

Expectations were low.  We could turn up late with impunity, wear trainers and slip through the fence to go to the chip shop at lunchtime.

Probably the biggest difference between my school and the schools I’ve worked in is that there was no sense of urgency, no sense that – if done right – school had the power to transform someone’s life chances.  It was more of a ‘do no harm’ approach to schooling.  In this it was probably like most schools – ‘come as you are … but don’t expect us to change your life’.

This laissez faire approach to schooling works ok with middle class kids of educated, supportive families, but it’s not great for those that rely on education to provide access to a world otherwise beyond their reach.  We should expect more from our schools than just to do no harm; to watch from the side as middle class kids ride the wave of opportunity, while less fortunate kids flounder in the shallows.  This is why I favour a model of education founded on excellent standards of behaviour, a rigorous academic curriculum, and assessment which is honest enough to admit to students and parents when things are not going well.

The sad thing about my happy school experience is that beyond primary school, it was all too ordinary.  The school and the teachers did their job, but not much more.  In doing so, our schools fail those who need them most.

For more on this theme, see this excellent post from @greg_ashman: “It is disadvantaged children who suffer most from the failures of our education systems.”