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Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Virtues of 'Bad Education'

Back in Doncaster now, I've retreated back into my pre-Cambridge existence which revolves around cycling, volunteering in the local primary school and reading books at a very slow pace. Nonetheless, and despite the repetitiveness of it all, there is something great about being back in the community in which you were raised; about seeing those familiar faces, even those to which you cannot put a name. The biggest of these is being back in the primary school I've volunteered at continually since 2006, and with the same group of kids too. I love my Cambridge self, but it is incompatible with Doncaster - the neckscarves can stay in the south, you could say. Arrive at the Don, the trackies are on and this is how life has become this last week. Sportswear and smiles.

I've been in the school today and it's been quite unconventional itself - the entire day has been spent in the art room making hands out of rolled up newspaper and papier mache, with a sight to doing henna on the completed hands. It's been a fun day - I've basically just been chatting with the kids all day whilst rolling up Daily Mail's into shapes vaguely resembling fingers.

But as well as my usual tattle with the bairns, I had an interesting talk with the artist who had travelled over to come and run the henna thing. We were stood at the back of the artroom, overlooking the quite distressing sight of 30 kids wearing XL adult shirts back to front, covered in all sorts of colours, amongst a floor covered in cast off plaster finger tips and scraps of newspaper, and she began to talk to me about 'educational backgrounds'.

She mentioned that she grew up on an estate like that of these children (incidently this is the estate I grew up on, going to this same primary school) and went on to comment on the usual things about the kids - obvious lack of respect, undisciplined, about parents paradoxically having too much power and too little interest. She wasn't being unreasonable at all though I myself have different views on what is the purpose of discipline in schools, which in turn alters what I perceive to be its result. Discipline is used when the teacher is displeased, it is used often and usually to the same children - this is not to blame the teachers of course, for they are merely acting how they are expected to act. I prefer listening to the kids and actually talking to them, yet i am aware that I am only able to do this because I am a classroom assistant rather than the time-pressed teacher. But through doing this, there develops something more solid, more resembling respect, between teacher and child.

But back to the artist, she went on to say how she was lucky enough that her parents sacrificed a lot in order that she and her siblings could go on into private education. She is now very content in her job and her siblings have grown up to be successful and quite well off at what they do. She looked over at the children and mentioned that, even though she loves working in schools like this, she is glad that her children inhabit an educational world far removed from it.

My retort is one familiar to my friends, who are privy to my socialist gripes. I myself was at this school, in the same year group as these kids, just 10 years ago. The community has barely changed either - in 1999, a small Kosovan community had moved into the estate and their kids were starting in the school; to my knowledge the number of children who weren't white could be counted on one hand and this is by-and-large the same today. Not that exams are the be all and end all, but I got straight 5s in KS2 SATs and in secondary school (also a comprehensive), I got 7s at KS3, A*s and A's at GCSE and A's at A Level before getting into Cambridge. Clearly, the kids are not a total lost call, if only by my own, admittedly abnormal, situation. But my parents were not that different from many others - the differences came about in terms of the value they placed on learning.

But it is not, as I said, about academic performance. I went on to state how I saw virtue in this sort of school, and it may seem a weak argument, like victory in defeat, but I see truth in it - a community like this can be an adversity over which the child can triumph. Looking defensively over the kids I gave the example to her of one of these kids - not necessarily the brightest academically - who I feel convinced will do well in the future. This little girl, it seems, has much to contend with, and has been in this situation for some time - she is not in any way emotionally defeatist from it though. She is tough, and with this she is resolute and determined in what she does. It is sad that she has been involuntarily made this way, but it is the best adaptation for her to develop. To note the virtues of a child's resilience is not to condone the conditions that necessitated the adaptation - without bringing these reasons into it, the character she has developed is one that will allow her to brush her shoulders off after setbacks. I have high hopes for her future, for she has been regrettably forced into being strongwilled - the adversity that is faced by children in communities such as my own is neither legitimate nor justified, but these obstacles make success an even greater achievement and thus provide more fruitful rewards.

We agreed to disagree, as is often the case in my arguments.

Thinking in terms of the prospects of these 9 year old kids, who I've worked with since they were 6, I thought I'd write down quite honestly the advantages and the disadvantages of our shared educational and social background.

- Diversity - these children are used to a mixed bag of children. This isn't merely ethnic or religious diversity but diversity of behaviours and experiences, many of which will have been negative.
- Social awareness - This is the argument that my private-school friends react most forcefully against, but I stand by it. Admittedly, regardless of which school a child attends, they become aware of that particular social setting. For affluent private school children, they become socially aware of their affluent subculture, which is wildly unrepresentative of the lives of the majority of those in our society. From my own experience, my school background has taught me, first hand, about the difficulties faced by the council estate residents who populate swathes of the country.
- Radicalisation - struck with the realisation of their own educational setting, the challenge of triumphing over adversity is a stimulus to learn itself.
- Success - this may seem an odd inclusion here, but being successful, and being told this by a teacher, is a huge stimulus toward pro-school attitudes. It is easier to rise to the top in schools with many children of low-ability. Being the top creates the 'successful personality' regardless of how hardly fought for is the success itself.
- Freedom - the lack of parental interest in education is one of the greatest problems in state education, and is a concept alien to those in private education, whose parent's interest is confirmed by their very place in the school. The upside of this for the children of these areas is that they are less constrained by parental expectations and are thus able to flourish more independently.
- Childhood! - there is a greater outlet for unstructured fun. I would say a childhood spent playing with friends, even if this is in the street, is as beneficial as sending one's little gems off after school each day to a tirade of extra-curricular lessons, varying upon what a parent can afford. Piano, ballet, stage school, rugby etc

- Anti-school environment - What i cannot deny is that the consensus, in both primary and secondary, was largely anti-school. Student did not place high value on learning (nor did I - I tended to do well more out of my permissiveness to authority figures than anything else to begin with) and for this reason, involvement in intellectual activities such as reading is less 'accepted' and thus less practiced.
- Class Sizes - the class sizes in my educational background have been so large (30 through all of primary and in ks3 secondary), that the Cambridge supervision system seems all the more amazing. The problem of state education in poor areas, such as that of the kids, is that they have little outlet to be seen by the teachers as an individual. This is a problem, because the attachment between child and learning is best mediated by an encouraging adult and this is not as easy with 30 children in a class.
- Confidence - on from the previous point, the childs individual confidence is often much less than that of more affluent peers (peers who most are unlikely to ever come across). What use is personal presentation and confidence - what matters is ability, and in a large class size, this is best expressed through the number of ticks in a work book. Similarly, this skill is just not developed - the state education doesn't teach public speaking which is in fact a hugely important life skill. The only time children in these schools have to stand up alone and speak to the teacher and other kids is when they are being disciplined.

So as I think of the educational prospects of these kids, whose futures I genuinely do care about, I am probably accentuating the positive and who can blame me? I have faith - I have to hope. I really dislike the idea that is often propagated that education is wasted on many of these children and this is an argument I heard about one of them just today. The majority of these kids have got pretty huge obstacles in their paths and a few have very dark clouds hanging over them already but this difficult situation CAN be overcome and it needs little more than emotional support for the children within education, to come to realise that they CAN be successful.

And there are few things I'd like to hear more, in future years, than that my bunch of kids are doing well for themselves.

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