Friday, May 13, 2005

On schools

Hilary Wade added a comment last week to this blog, following up on my previous exchange of views on matters regarding education and ideology. Hilary had previously recounted a tale of a frustrated teacher, desperate to lead his flock to the path of righteous leftism, who found he met criticism and mockery. The point of the anecdote had been to highlight that

"people, even when young, can be self-seeking, ornery and perverse, and when you apply an action to a group of them, while what you get is not necessarily an equal and opposite reaction, exactly, it will almost certainly be an effect different to that which you intended."
To further explore this, Hilary drew on some personal experiences regarding the introduction of the comprehensive school system.

It was a fascinating post, and one that I felt deserved returning to: partly because I was educated by the comprehensive system in a school without a sixth form.

Hilary's tone comments on the flawed notion that there can be a trickle effect: that disaffected and less able pupils can be transformed into studious and able pupils merely by putting each in proximity to the other. I would add: of course proximity isn't enough. My school, in the twenty years before it closed, was radically changed by its intake of pupils expelled from other schools (generally schools with a worse reputation than ours had at the time - if you got thrown out of those schools, things really were looking bleak for you). These pupils were brought into William Crane as if by being with us they would suddenly acquire skills, abilities AND ANY INTEREST IN DOING SO. Well, duh, the result was not positive. But could it have been different? Probably not in and of itself as an action (as integration). It required instead a broader thinking - one that looked at why they were disaffected, their home experiences, their expectations. If pupils were changed, what would this do for them? To return to an acho of Hilary's anecdote, being told something is good for you doesn't make it believable, nor does it mean that you will benefit from it per se. Single actions are never enough.

To take one example, I was at school with a girl who was constantly reminded at home that she wasn't 'academic'. This applied not only to the most traditional school subjects - sciences, arts, languages, in fact anything above basic functional reading, writing and arithmetic - but even to the way in which applied subjects were included in the CSE curriculum. Her parents were constantly at odds with school (especially her mum) as they considered education a waste of time - a block on children being able to get "into the real world" and into work. Effort on school work was not valued or especially encouraged - though interestingly her brother was at least encouraged to "do his best" even though this did not stretch to any promotion of studying after 16. Kids like myself, who constantly asked lots of 'how' and 'why' questions of the world and adults and the workings of the universe, got pretty short shrift in this household not least for offering any encouragement about the possibilities education could offer her. (She wanted to be a nurse: this required O levels).

Eventually, after much dispute, she went to college to do some O levels to try and get into nursing. Because she was good at it and enjoyed the subject, she opted to make her fifth subject, alongside the sociology and biology-type subjects she was required to take, English Literature. [It was ultimately the only course she passed: grade C]. Against various familial disputes - not least of which were the ongoing tensions arising from me pursuing A levels at a college closer to home than hers - the encouragement for her studies slipped further into antagonism. Most of the girls on the course came from similarly tense backgrounds: environments where it was rare to not being 'eterned', married or a mother by 18 years old. My friend found it harder and harder to keep her focus as the pressures mounted to get into work. And if her eventual results meant that she was going to find it difficult to get into nursing, what she found even more problematic was the idea she might have to leave home and move across the country to finish her training at a university. You left home to get married; not to go and study. For her the combined circumstances and expectations and experiences were too much. Changing her possibilities would have meant doing much more than just having a moderately bright girl with people both more and less bright with her at school. It required a major change of attitude, not just within her immediate family but within her entire social structure.

The point being: the comprehensive system didn't go anywhere near far enough in addressing inequalities. And I know too many people who failed the 11-plus who, rightly or wrongly, felt condemned to a second-class education and set of expectations because they didn't get into a hallowed grammar school. So I'm not entirely convinced that retaining the system as it was before comprehensives was distinctly better.

To other matters arising from Hilary's remarks. Hilary recalled the passion felt for public schools but then goes on to say:
"But I like the idea of boarding schools! I like Dimsie and Molesworth and Red Circle School and 'Fifth Form at St Dominics' ... where they still have proper dormitory feasts and the teachers wear mortar boards and the Head is strict but fair and the school captain wins the match in the last over by hitting a six into the pavilion clock, and the school, in short, is just like a proper school ought to be."
Can I say that "boarding schools" are not per se "public schools": I would not argue that children (myself to some extent included) didn't quite like the idea of being in it together in a boarding environment. But I would add that what I liked most about some of these tales was a streak of liberty against authority (matron sucks; teacher is a fool) rather than an inherent delight in the public school mentality and structure. Maybe Hilary's gang were all of the aspiring class that saw something positive in the family-less hierarchical structure of a public boarding school: I was less heartily convinced. For me, Grange Hill was not a horror. And can I say this? Any current love of Hogwarts is more about the battle of the ordinary against the privileged who feel they by rights have sole access to Hogwarts - for who of the readers imagines themselves for the priggish, self-righteous Malfoy's rather than the underdog Harry, the put-upon Weasleys, or the 'half-blood' Hermione?

I feel I have more to say, but as Cloud awaits to whisk me home I will depart forthwith and await the fall-out. More blogging next week folks!


David Duff said...

Our hostess, commendably, draws attention to a previous comment by Hilary Wade (with whom I have fallen deeply in love) on the subject of 'skools'. It is rather unfortunate that in her previous post, she, our hostess, brings down withering criticism on the heads of those responsible for banning certain youths from a shopping centre, on the grounds of their total lack of *logic*. In this current post she writes movingly of a girlfriend at her school whose family failed to encourage her in her studies which left the poor girl bereft of opportunities in her life.

Given those circs, what conclusions does Ms. Rullsenberg, the logician, come up with? Well, apparently "It required a major change of attitude, not just within her immediate family but within her entire social structure." Er, well, yes, I think we all managed to see that, but if we all had rich, well-adjusted and intelligent parents, even I wouldn't be the bad-tempered curmudgeon that I am.

But Ms. Rullsenberg, now applying the full power of Wittgenteinian logic, goes further: "... the comprehensive system didn't go anywhere near far enough in addressing inequalities." That rather begs the question of what "the comprehensive system" could, or should, do. Short of following the practices of various social services departments and ripping the girl away from her family, giving her full board and lodging, and a suitable income, what else can anyone do - assuming that anyone should do anything?

Possibly Ms. Rullsenberg lives in the hope that in the forthcoming socialist nirvana all these unpleasant "inequalities" will disappear, much as Marxists believe that states and governments will disappear. It may be so, but personally, I wouldn't hold my breath!

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

If that is what you both desire, I hope you and Hilary are happy together.

In my own meandering fashion, I was merely raising that the comprehensive system as it was rather inadequately conceived (and has been allowed to be undermined by successive governments of all persuasions) could not hope to compete with broader social factors. Additionally, I was not implying that she should have been dragged away from her family in order to access a nice public boarding school (though Hilary rather implies that this was what at heart we all wanted anyway). I also don't think that the grammar/secondary modern option would have serviced my school friend any better - in fact probably it would have been worse since the failure at 11 would have been enough to ensure that her parents were even more set against education. And that also shouldn't be taken to imply that she wouldn't have met people like myself to encourage her if the grammar/secondary modern system had still existed: knowing my beligerance I would probably have deliberately failed the 11+ in order to remain with friends. Either that, or, given my then propensity to be unable to follow instructions, I would have screwed up the entrance exam.

My point was simply intended to respond to some of Hilary's assumptions and propositions about what comprehensive school pupils wanted / expected / were taught to expect, and to illustrate that piecemeal and inadequately supported actions will not in themselves change society. Do I want a radically different society? A socialist nirvana? Duff, if you can't get the answer to that...

Hilary Wade said...

I think it’s platonic, Lisa. He’s never met me, indeed if he did he might well be in for a severe disappointment.

Not to be deliberately obtuse, but I am honestly not sure I see your point. I remember knowing people like the girl you describe at school, and worse – there was one who sat next to me in my 1st year who didn’t really learn to read until she was eleven – and what this meant was that the classes went grindingly, intolerably slowly; in fact I learned to draw so well in order to pass the time while the teacher explained things over and over again that in later life I have held down a stint as a cartoonist on “Punch”. The mind, as Hoftstadter says, takes the path of least resistance, and I don’t think it helps bright children, from whatever background, if you put them in a situation where there is less for their minds – if you like – to resist. My parents’ generation is full of extremely sharp, working-class people, ex-grammar school, who can add up columns of figures in their heads and were the first of their families to go to University – what you say only confirms my belief that think their successors would not now have that same opportunity, nor do I think that dragging other children out of private schools into comprehensives would create it.

By the way, if you don’t believe anyone identifies with Malfoy, try googling “Cassandra Claire”!

David Duff said...

I must apologise to Hilary Wade for my importunate declaration of love. I fear she may have missed my first passionate overture in a previous comments box which 'dropped off' shortly after I wrote it. Thus, I should explain that this surge of affection stems entirely from (I hope she will allow the familiar) Hilary's earlier comment on education. Outside of the always excellent Peter Cuthbertson, I had not thought to read such good sense anywhere in 'Blogdom', er, least of all here.

Apparently Hilary has difficulty seeing Lisa's point. (Oh, bliss, another thing we share!) I regret to say that I have an increasing suspicion that Lisa does not actually have a point. What she has in spades, is a set of re-actions, rather like Pavlov's famous dogs, that have been programmed into her by daft teachers, and even dafter university lecturers, all re-enforced by fellow-travelling ninnies, most of whom have now grown so used to nodding in agreement with each other that they have totally lost the faculty for critical thought.

Allow me to give an example. We all agreed that the comprehensive system of education had failed to dent the hostility of Lisa's friend's family. It is doubtful if a Grammar school would have fared any better. Thus it was, and thus it will always be, with certain of the lumpen prolelatariat, the point is: what do you do about it, *assuming* that you should do anything at all about it?

Lisa's point, according to Lisa, was ".. that piecemeal and inadequately supported actions will not in themselves change society" which begs the question: would a change in society, change human nature? Not if the last 10,000 years of human history are anything to go by!

So, instead of what I am forced to describe as the rather feeble hand-wringing coming from Lisa, what we are looking for is her solution, her point, if you like.