UK Politics


Let’s discuss the worst schools in the country.

30 odd years ago I attended one, an establishment which was not so much dedicated to education as control. A place where bullies ruled, teachers had little connection with the local community outside the school, nobody (and I mean nobody) was given any indication that it might be possible for them to attend university, and everyone was destined for a manufacturing job (if they were lucky, which given the time period, very few were.)

I want to see if our readers can find some positive things to say about what makes a good school and a good education, and if we can make some positive suggestions to improve failing schools based on our own experiences as teachers, parents or pupils. It does not matter if you live in London or anywhere else in Britain or abroad, went to a “good school” or a “bad school” or even if you have not thought about such matters since you ran from the school gates for the last time ever screaming “free at last!”. The bottom line is that everybody has an interest in seeing that everybody else in society gets a decent education. I am not very interested in going over the usual “Grammars or comprehensives” debate again. The only premise that you may usefully disagree with is that there actually are still such things as “failing schools.”

A week or two ago on the “Defend Robin Sivaplan” thread I was part of a clash with David Jackmanson and others about the “right” of a teaching assistant to hold a protest during school hours. After the usual “sparring” David asked:

I’d ask the people who criticise Sivapalan to say what they most want to see out of high school graduates?

I mentioned that in my current job as an Adult education tutor:

In the next week or so I will probably be allocated about 30 GCSE English students with ages ranging from 16-60 (…)At the first lesson I will ask them about their experiences at school and I would lay a bet that 95% will say they either had teachers who didn’t care, a different teacher every week or they messed about and bunked off (and lets not forget that they were ALLOWED to mess about and etc.) All will state that their experiences of school education were “shit.” All will be nervous of returning and expect the worst.

Next summer I will have lost about 5 of them, the rest will pass and four or five will leave with an A* grade. I’m not boasting, it is just that the class will be the first time these people have met a so-called “education professional” who will listen to them and encourage them.

I’d most like to see them not having to come to me as adults in order to learn basic literacy – in other words, I’d be quite happy if I was out of that particular job.

David replied that:

It would seem that many students are abandoned to glorified holding pens in their school years, and the system tolerates this. What a waste of talent.

Yes, I think so.

And I think it is a scandal, and I also feel that if your child was made to attend such a school you would think it to be a scandal as well.

Alan Johnson recently talked about continuing failures in the education system (as well as suggesting some ways forward) in a speech which is well worth reading in full. One thing that he said was:

We must “personalise” the way we deliver public services, so that no-one is left behind – from the most gifted and talented children at the top of the class; to the disengaged and disinterested child at the back.

Nice words, how do we turn them into realities?

My personal view is that somehow, some way has to be found to get local communities more involved in local schools. I have often suggested that schools in working-class areas need at least some of their teachers to come from such communities themselves. This is radical I know, and I suggest it here not to make a “thinly disguised attack on the middle-classes” but in order to get the discussion going. I will be glad to hear from those who think that this is a load of old cobblers as long as they have alternative ideas about educating the next “lost” generation of working-class children. Before you write off the idea however, consider the words of a self-confessed “middle-class” lecturer in social anthropology who spent 14 years living on a council estate in South London

(full article here)

Eventually, I begin to understand that being of less worth in posh people’s eyes is part of the pride of working class people. It flies in the face of the dominant (posh) value system that attempts to define common people. (…) Reacting against dominance, then, working-class pride creates the means for dignity; common people fight back defensively with their own values and so being common entails an inverse snobbery.

The importance of this understanding from the point of view of education is as follows: if it is true, as I suggest it is, that the school, as a formal institution of the state, has come to represent and embody posh people’s values, and make legitimate their way of being in the world, then it is also true to say that common children, (…) will encounter the formal, “proper”, “posh” atmosphere of the school as if it were a foreign country.

The strangeness of this encounter is probably no different in magnitude from what I felt on entering Sharon’s home. The crucial difference between the two encounters, however, is that at school, and in life, middle-class people behave as though they are doing working-class people a favour, teaching them how to live a “proper” life and then wondering why it doesn’t work. They are not prepared for working-class people’s resistance to this process, a resistance born of a defiant pride about the value of common life.

Generations of children forced to enter a world which they do not understand at the age of 11 in order to be force-fed a diet which they cannot digest and then to face the disappointment and resentment of people who expect them to be grateful. How many Millions of hours of wasted effort?

Don’t make too much of the idea that Gillian Evans claims to be writing about the “white” working-class. The same I think, is true of many schools with a much more varied intake and anyway, over the 14 years that she lived in Bermondsey the area has been transformed into a very diverse place indeed.

At the end of our exchange on that previous thread David Jackmanson suggested that:

I think the activist Left (revolutionary and social-democratic together) needs to start asking people who are suffering from bad education what is going wrong, and what they need.

But perhaps we’ve uncovered a pretty important issue where we could prove to be useful allies to ordinary people in our own communities?

Well have we? You don’t even have to be “of the left” at all for us to try an experiment and see what we can come up with do you?

What made your school good or bad? How can the lessons of your own experiences of education be applied to the worst schools in the country?

Over to you.