Category Archives: Education

Back to school

There are some cities that succumb to a form of mass hysteria when it comes to schooling, and Bristol is one of them. Its reputation as a bohemian hub, full of alternative and creative types, sits uneasily with the large number of families here who opt out of state education. My sons have seen a steady loss of their classmates from the local primary school to private prep schools over the years. Some parents admit that switching to the private sector at this early stage guarantees a place for a child who might otherwise fail the Year 7 entrance exam. Others focus on their child’s sensitivity or cleverness: Jasper would benefit from a more nurturing approach; Jessica wasn’t being stretched. All too often, it seems, the local primary isn’t good enough for some special snowflakes.

When the prospect of secondary education looms into view, those who remain loyal to the state sector begin to feel, preposterously, as though they’re swimming against the tide. In this part of town, private secondaries far outnumber state schools: there are at least seven within a two-mile radius of our house. Middle-class parents treat the idea of sending their child to the local comprehensive as some sort of social experiment; a risk that they aren’t prepared to take. The proximity of a well-known and prohibitively expensive public school means that they can justify their educational choices with the refrain, ‘At least it’s not Clifton College.’ They protest that they only want to do what’s best for their child, that their choice of school is nobody else’s business – and yet, in providing their child with an educational springboard, they may well be depriving a clever but less privileged child of an opportunity further down the line.

This unfair divide in our education system is on my mind because I’ve spent the last twelve months choosing a secondary school with my elder son. I’ve trudged around open days, questioned diffident adolescents about their favourite lessons and listened to head teachers rehearsing the USPs of their school. Meanwhile my son has dissected frogs, fiddled with Bunsen burners and watched endless re-runs of the school play. If I’m honest, I still can’t be sure which school will suit him best. There are too many imponderables that will affect his day-to-day experience – the class teacher, the cohort, and the development of his personality. All I can do is make an informed choice based on a combination of observations, data and gut feeling. And my decision? A deep breath, followed by a mumbled confession that lays bare my hypocrisy: he’ll be starting at an independent secondary school later this week.

I always thought I wouldn’t do it, while privately thinking less of parents who did. It seemed wrong – it still does – to buy an educational advantage in this way. Of course, there are many ways in which parents use money to boost their children’s chances in life – engaging a private tutor, for example, or moving to the catchment area of a better state school – but paying for private schooling is a decision on a much larger scale. It means that my son will mix almost exclusively with other middle-class kids on a daily basis. It’s almost certain to affect his world view.

Despite all of this, over the last year I’ve come to acknowledge that my child – small, shy and swotty – is likely to be happier and more successful at the school we’ve chosen than at the local secondary. As Year 7 has loomed ever larger on the horizon, my thinking has become more nuanced and my attitude has softened. (How convenient, I hear you say.) Could it be that private schools aren’t entirely populated by the offspring of florid-faced, braying Tories? Is it not possible to come from a privileged background and still be kind, polite and thoughtful?

The presence of an Ofsted-outstanding state primary school on my doorstep – small, nurturing and with a largely middle-class intake – has, until now, made it easy for me to align my actions with my principles. Our local comprehensive is a different proposition. It’s a large school with a broad social mix, where a higher than average proportion of children qualify for pupil premium. In theory, it was exactly the sort of education I wanted for my son, but that was before I visited. At the open day we witnessed several disruptive incidents which, while swiftly dealt with, meant that the teacher’s focus switched from imparting knowledge to crowd control. The main theme of the head teacher’s talk was disadvantaged pupils and lower achievers – rightly so, given the school’s demographic – but there was no mention of the provision for more able children. Against this backdrop, it seemed horribly elitist to ask about the patchy GCSE results. Fortunately, I didn’t have to: somebody else did, and the head’s response was unconvincing.

I’m aware of how this sounds. To express these concerns, even through the medium of a pseudonymous blog, makes me cringe. It immediately sets me up in opposition to parents who have chosen that school for their children (not to mention those who had no choice in the matter). To them, it will no doubt appear that I am criticising their decision in order to justify my own. And yet, how can a large inner-city school be expected to provide an outstanding education for all of its pupils when faced with real-term cuts to its budget? The reality is that it has to set priorities, and many pupils will lose out. Over the past year, some of Bristol’s secondaries have resorted to desperate measures: withdrawing lessons in ‘non-essential’ subjects, such as drama and sport; denying individual support to children with special needs; and pleading for parents to plug the gap in funding. Meanwhile the status of the teaching profession is downgraded while pressure is heaped on teachers, who are expected to do more with less, year on year. It’s profoundly depressing, and it’s not what I want for my son.

Now the autumn term is almost upon us, and it’s time to stop the self-flagellation. The choice is made, and it’s back to school. Although it’s tempting to preface any conversational reference to my elder son’s schooling with a set piece about how I struggled with my decision and am still not fully reconciled to it, this smacks of having it both ways: preserving a sense of myself as an essentially decent person, while reaping the benefits of an elite education for my child. And perhaps there’s more to the decision than I care to acknowledge. I went to a private school myself, and while there was much about it that I professed to hate, I can’t deny that it conferred certain benefits. I’ve come to recognise a perverse aspect of my personality: I’ve never been a joiner and yet I very much want to belong. I’ve always rather liked the security of being part of an institution – be it a school, university or profession – while publicly railing against it. The wood-panelled corridors of my son’s new school already feel familiar, although I’ve only set foot in the building a couple of times; perhaps, in the end, we all revert to type.

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The poshness test

If you were in charge of recruitment at a law or accountancy firm, who would be your job candidate of choice? A slightly diffident applicant with a regional accent, a clutch of dodgy A-levels from an inner-city comprehensive, and a first-class degree obtained as a mature student at a former polytechnic? Or an urbane ex-public school boy with an air of easy assurance and a solid 2:1 from a Russell Group university?

New research by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reveals that working-class applicants struggle to gain access to the best jobs. In some solicitors’ firms, trainees are five times more likely than the population as a whole to have attended a fee-paying school. The Commission concludes that firms are applying a ‘poshness test’, excluding bright young people simply because they come from the wrong side of the tracks.

At this point, I’ll come clean: I’m one of the privately educated elite to whom the report refers. At my fee-paying girls’ school in Manchester, we had elocution lessons – misleadingly timetabled as ‘speech and drama’ – the sole purpose of which was to eliminate our flat northern vowels. But there are degrees of poshness, and I was always aware that my parents – a teacher and a receptionist – didn’t move in quite the right circles.

These days, parents like mine can’t afford to pay for their children’s education. Research published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2010 revealed that school fees had risen at nearly three times the rate of household income since 1992. Average day-school fees now stand at more than £12,000 a year, well out of the reach of the average teacher, let alone a cleaner or call-centre worker. Private education, it seems, is increasingly the preserve of the very rich.

When I started university, I mixed with students from schools that were even posher than mine. You could spot the public-school brigade easily – they were immediately on first-name terms with professors, chatting unselfconsciously at sherry receptions about gap years in Nepal and summer placements in their fathers’ firms. At the age of nineteen or twenty they were already plotting out their career paths, joining clubs and committees and effortlessly forming the connections that would guarantee success in their professional lives.

After graduation I joined a national law firm, where for every clever solicitor from a state school, there were ten affable but academically less stellar public-school types. Pitted against these people at interview, the working-class candidate doesn’t stand a chance. From the moment he walks into the room, he sends out a thousand tiny signals that reveal his background.

The truth is that it feels safer and less threatening for privately educated interviewers to recruit in their own image. That’s why so many law firms are full of clubbable chaps and chapesses who obtain partnership primarily on the basis of their ability to schmooze clients. A group of them once poured scorn on my suggestion that our firm should seek out and offer assistance to socially disadvantaged job candidates – they were against positive discrimination, but they failed to recognise that they had benefited from a far more subtle and insidious form of it over the years.

Still, it seems unfair just to blame employers – in truth, the divide opens up decades before that first job interview. Middle-class parents confer all sorts of benefits on their children, simply by virtue of their money and social capital. Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds tend to have poorer language skills when they start school, whereas middle-class children, who grow up listening to dinner party conversations and Radio 4, seem to absorb their parents’ high expectations.

To compensate for social disadvantage, it’s clear that intervention is needed at an early stage. How unfortunate that the Sure Start programme, with its emphasis on quality childcare and early education, has been undermined by funding cuts, with many centres forced to close down. Another progressive initiative is the pupil premium – school funding targeted at children from disadvantaged backgrounds – but its future is uncertain under a government that has already announced a real-terms cut in the education budget.

There are other, more radical solutions. I don’t suggest that it would be practicable to dismantle the private education system but I do think reform is possible, given the political will. Changes that could go some way towards redressing the balance include removing private schools’ charitable tax status; obliging them to offer a certain number of well-publicised bursaries; or imposing a quota system so that the proportion of privately educated students at the Russell Group universities bears a closer relationship to the seven per cent of pupils in the general population who attend fee-paying schools.

Another means of redress is discrimination law. The Equality Act already rules out recruitment decisions based on a candidate’s sex, race or disability; why not make it unlawful for employers to discriminate on grounds of socio-economic disadvantage? While none of these suggestions is uncontroversial, I believe they deserve to be explored.

Meanwhile, those of us who have benefited from a private schooling, and who now act as gatekeepers to the best jobs, need to ask ourselves some difficult questions. Has our privileged education opened doors that would have remained firmly closed if we’d attended the local comprehensive? Do our recruitment decisions reveal an unconscious bias towards those who look, sound and act like us? And are the qualities we value in a job applicant – such as eloquence, confidence and polish – simply a convenient shorthand for posh?

This article was originally published as a guest post on Mumsnet.

Respect

When it comes to education, the free-market mantra of choice often proves to be illusory. In many UK cities, the shortage of school places is such that the closest school is the only realistic option – and if it happens to be a good school, you’re either very lucky or sufficiently well-off to pay over the odds for your house. But in a consumerist world where state schools are run like small businesses, we have to pretend that families are able to pick and choose. That’s why it’s no longer enough for a school to provide a good education: it must also have a mission statement and a set of values.

At my sons’ school, one of those values is ‘respect’. The other day, the school sent out a form asking parents for examples of when their children had been respectful at home. I attempted to complete mine against the backdrop of a charming breakfast tableau in which my elder son (let’s call him Thing 1) claimed that the younger one (Thing 2) had farted in his porridge. Thing 2 promptly dropped his pyjama bottoms to demonstrate that there wasn’t any porridge on his bum-cheeks, whereupon Thing 1 performed a slide tackle and sat on Thing 2’s head. Curiously, I couldn’t come up with a single example of respectful behaviour that morning.

The problem runs deeper than my slack parenting and out-of-control offspring: I don’t really understand what’s meant by ‘respect’. In the past it signified a feeling of deep admiration. My sons have boundless admiration for Neymar and Ronaldo but I suspect that’s not quite what the school was getting at. In its modern incarnation, ‘respect’ is often used as shorthand for discouraging yobbish or racist behaviour on the football pitch, or, more generally, as a streetwise and often-parodied way of referring to inclusion and equality. To me, on the other hand, it encompasses lots of things – being open, accepting, engaged and interested, while maintaining (and this is the crucial part) a polite distance and an observance of personal boundaries.

People are increasingly bad at this last bit. Take the charity fundraiser on our local high street, who wiggles his hips at me as he hollers, ‘Hey, lovely,’ or, ‘Give us a smile, sweetheart’. He doesn’t know anything about me. I could be a surgeon or a High Court judge. Perhaps I’ve just been made redundant, or maybe I’m on my way to my best friend’s funeral. In any case, it feels uncomfortable to be flirted at by a stranger who’s young enough to be my son. It’s just as well for him that – unlike certain middle-aged men of my acquaintance when approached by an attractive younger woman – I’m not so self-deluded that I imagine he’s interested in anything more than the contents of my purse.

Another example is the waitress who hunkers down by the side of our restaurant table and asks, ‘Okay, guys, what do we fancy tonight?’ She’s probably just following management instructions, and I do understand that it can be a tough job. The pay is appalling; the customers are sometimes ignorant, rude and sexist. As a nineteen-year-old waitress working in a Manchester hotel, I was once asked by a diner – a well-known trade unionist attending a weekend conference – to sit on his lap. I told him it wasn’t in my job description. The point is that it would never have occurred to me to display chummy over-familiarity with any of my customers, even the nice ones. It would have felt wrong.

I accept that my advancing years signal a slow descent into obscurity, so on the rare occasions when hip young types deign to address me, I feel they should at least have the decency to be polite. I’m aware that this makes me sound rather old-fashioned. The problem is that, for my generation, ‘respect’ calls to mind the dreaded injunction to ‘respect your elders’. You can attempt to re-brand it all you like, but for us, it’s up there with other parental pearls of wisdom such as ‘because I say so’ and ‘eat your greens’. How can one little word carry so many nuances of meaning? According to Ali G, ‘There is so little respek left in the world that if you look up the word in the dictionary, you’ll find that it’s been taken out.’ As far as I’m concerned, deleting it from the dictionary would clear up an awful lot of confusion.

What’s so British about your values, Mr Gove?

Michael Gove, champion of the education system and teachers’ pet, has recently told school governors to abide by ‘British values’. I’m a parent of school-age children and a firm believer in many of the values he cites – among them, democracy, equality and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs – so you’d assume I might have an interest in those values being promoted in our schools. Instead, I’m irritated and offended by Gove’s hi-jacking of liberalism.

There’s something galling about the Westminster elite acting as a self-appointed barometer of public feeling and telling the rest of us what Britishness entails. Gove’s beginnings may have been humble but in what sense can an Oxford-educated member of the kitchen-supper brigade claim to reflect the mood of the nation? It strikes me that the British character – if such a thing exists – is a stubborn independence of spirit tempered by a certain diffidence and an understated sense of irony. Taken together, those qualities are likely to result in an outright refusal to be told what values to espouse. Perhaps that’s my problem.

But, of course, Gove’s advice isn’t meant for people like me. It’s directed at Muslim school governors in response to the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal involving allegations of religious extremism in Birmingham schools. If a tiny minority of Muslim governors hold illiberal beliefs that influence the provision of education (and Ofsted’s findings in this regard are hotly disputed), we need to be honest and simply say that this is unacceptable. By going further and implicitly condemning certain beliefs as ‘un-British’, Gove creates an ‘us-and-them’ dichotomy that borders on the racist. After all, I don’t hear him levelling accusations of un-Britishness at all those white UKIP voters whose values strike at the heart of his notion of equality.

Anyway, what about Christian governors? Many so-called Church of England schools are happy to accept children of all faiths or none. The parents might tick the ‘Christian’ box on the entry form but the reality is that the vast majority of pupils at such schools are atheist or agnostic. Against that backdrop, shouldn’t we question the role of church-appointed foundation governors tasked with promoting the Christian faith? Such scrutiny is unlikely to be prompted by Gove, who has approved free schools run by Creationists as part of his great drive towards educational excellence.

Inevitably, the identification of Gove’s ‘British values’ is itself a value-judgement. Let’s not pretend that liberal values are self-evidently superior to other worldviews. The reality is that they trump other values because we, as a liberal democracy, decide that they should. And in the context of the Trojan Horse controversy and the rise of UKIP, to dress up these adopted values as somehow ‘British’ is dangerous. It’s a dishonest tactic that promotes religious and racial intolerance, undermining the very values that Gove claims to support.