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.”

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4 thoughts on “An All Too Ordinary Education

  1. Hello Steve, very interesting to read this and I think it’s a fair account of Cantell.

    I think you leave out a few things – the level of violence seems amazing in retrospect (maybe not to you as a teacher, though). Helen and I were recently talking about this, just how much it was tolerated, how Mrs Kinsella would just walk past people being given ‘playful’ kickings, and on at least one occasion stood and watched. However as a (I know untypical insofar as my parents had books, were political etc) ‘kid from the estate’ in question, I can say that meeting the indulged middle class kids of Cantell – ie, you lot – made an enormous difference to me. I don’t think any of you realised just how mindboggling it was to meet people my age for whom it wasn’t embarrassing to be clever, or to listen, or to read, or to be shit at sports. That slightly extra-ordinary aspect of Cantell is one of the very few things it had going for it, and my brother and sister had similar experiences – not of the teaching, which with one or two exceptions (Mr Webster in History…not much else) was largely awful, but of the odd social mix of the school being one of its virtues.

    Whether we would all have ended up doing well (as all three of us eventually did) in a more monolithically working class school I don’t know, but to be honest I doubt it. One thing I remember very well is being put in a lower set for almost everything than I’d been in where I was before (Quilley, in Eastleigh). My mum was convinced was profiling, ie ‘he can’t possibly be in set 1 for English and History he’s living on the Flower Estate’. I remember quite a few other kids without my advantages, let’s say, being in a similar position – obviously clever, but ‘difficult’, and so distrusted and ignored. Whether any of this is useful to your argument in a general sense I don’t know. But I wouldn’t overstate Cantell’s ‘ordinariness’.

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  2. Hello Steve,

    Very interesting to read your reflections on Cantell. As a former pupil at Cantell – certainly one of the “indulged middle class kids” – there’s much that I agree with in this about the sorts of experiences that I think many had there.

    In terms of my personal experience it seems I encountered some better and more inspirational teaching at the school. Although that perhaps just reinforces your point about the variability of the teaching. But I also look back fondly on my time at Cantell because of what Owen describes. Perhaps as a kid from Highfield this is a slightly indulgent view and, of course, it doesn’t necessarily imply credit to the school itself. However, I’d like to add some further observations about the school’s intake and about how this shaped the school.

    Firstly I don’t know if I’d characterise Southampton as a place where middle class parents tend to bus their kids outside the city. Or mabye it is but I don’t think that’s all that relevant to Cantell. There was a small handful of middle class kids who didn’t go to Cantell from my year at a primary (Portswood) which was a feeder school. But the large majority just went down the road to the local comprehensive – Cantell. That of course doesn’t mean that your observations about differing class experiences aren’t valid. But I think it adds to Owen’s point about the possibly more than ordinary nature of the school.

    The social mix does seem, on reflection, quite unique in some ways. A lot of this is to do with the proximity of the university and also, in my experience, because of the relative absence of a big middle class migration out of the area at secondary age. I wouldn’t characterise this as being the product of an active ideological commitment to comprehensive education at all; well, it didn’t seem like that. It was just that Cantell was the easiest option and most people seemed to have confidence that their (middle class) kids would be ok there.

    From what I remember there was fairly little anxiety among my middle class friends’ parents about Cantell and this despite the sort of reputation it had and the often lurid stories about violence in the school, in particular racist violence. Which is also something I think should be added to Owen’s point – quite often the the violence at Cantell was racialised. Just as one anecdote: I remember a piece of NF graffiti scratched into a plastic window that was left for years. I confess I didn’t really recognise the significance of it not being cleared up until a black friend brought it up, I think when I’d already left. I think the levels of racism and violence varied hugely from year group to year group and I certainly remember that it was exaggerated in local reports at the time. However, this in itself meant that experiences of the school in this respect could vary massively.

    That’s just something I thought was important to mention, if we are talking about differing experiences of Cantell depending on social background.

    Otherwise, sorry about the very long comment.

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  3. I lived in the council estate, my mum and brother still do, my dad ran the local football team, which was the school team minus the good players from out of the estate.

    My experience has been summed up by the blog and comments, however the slight difference I can reflect on is when I decided to work hard in year 10, how quickly I was ousted by my previous friendship group of council estate boys. I truly believe without my dad running the football team (and me being half decent) my last two years would of been incredibly difficult.

    When I decided to work hard only a few teachers realised and supported. I often say in today’s game I would of been in every target intervention group going, but the reality at the time was left to own devices. I had fun, enjoyed the sport and freedom but in comparison to the intentional education board line students receive now mine was very ordinary!

    Thanks for writing the piece!

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