After 22 years of teaching in the independent sector I have decided to follow my heart, and return to a state school. I start in September, at a wonderful village primary.
Becoming a parent governor at my children’s large non-academy state secondary was hugely influential in making the choice to go; to witness, around that conference table, the passion of the leadership team and teachers who will do everything in their power to support the achievement of every child, no matter what that child will ‘do’ for the ratings, has stopped me in my tracks.
We understand as teachers, that all children are valued. All are important. It is not the child’s ‘fault’ to be the recipient of any set of circumstances, good or bad. I have taught some wonderful children, enjoyed the privilege of amazing times in amazing settings – some scenes worthy of Hogwarts. I have listened to celebrities speaking at prize giving ceremonies, I have had rent and bill free staff accommodation, superb lunches and suppers, extraordinarily long holidays and splendid grounds. But a bell was tolling in my head for years, a bell which, with state governorship, became too loud to ignore.
My own children are in state schools. There is no choice about that. As a single parent on a teacher’s salary (and no, before you wonder, there is no staff discount at some of Britain’s most elite schools) it would be too hard even to cover the cost of the uniforms, sports kits and ‘extras’. Some of the time I feel that they are at a great disadvantage here – the attention to performance in the independent schools I have worked in is massive. The pupils are driven by the staff; they are tested, measured, pushed, mentored and given opportunities beyond my wildest comprehensive school memories. No one really seems to fail. It’s not an option. Something will be done. League tables are very important. They drive the business forward.
And in the school that my children attend? It looks like Grange Hill. It has an electronic barrier rather than deer leaping in the grounds. But the thing that I love, that makes me feel like waving a lighter in governor’s meetings is the difference in ethos. The head refuses to ‘offroll’ any child. If they can support a child with complex issues, to get just one GCSE, they will do that. If it means that the school’s overall score for that year is negatively affected, they will still keep that child within the community. They will send a minibus out to pick kids up who might struggle getting in. They provide breakfast items to some, not because they’re boarders, but because they really might not have any food in the cupboard at home.
High standards are also expected, and they are a national award winning school with many excellent results to celebrate, but the difference that I feel, which made me know I had to go back to state, is that the excellent education is available to you simply because you exist. Not because you can afford it or because you’re so brilliant at one discipline that you will bump up the school’s results.
So, it’s back into the state system for me. The kids I have left behind at the independent school will be completely fine. They already have every chance of success. I start my new job in September, but what of the wonderful village school I am heading to? A school that seemed good to be true? The county has just announced that it is in consultation to close in August 2020. Budget trimming.
It’s a good job I have allowed the deep passion for state education back into my life – time to roll up these sleeves and join the good fight.
Having worked as a teacher in London schools for over two decades, the majority of that time in the comprehensive public school system and significant portion of time in the private sector, I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.
There are three very good reasons why I would not send them but none of them are about money. Admittedly, I do not have a spare £18,000 or so a year to invest in private education (although I wouldn’t need to pay the full cost because, in most cases, as an employee you are entitled to often very substantial staff discounts). However, this would still not entice me. This is not to say that ‘everything is coming up roses’ in state education, far from it. But even if I could afford it, I just wouldn’t want my children to be educated through the private school system.
Firstly, I strongly believe that as a parent, I would be doing my children a huge disservice by sending them to a private school. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in private schools by their very nature. Some are non-selective (in that pupils may not have to pass an entrance exam to gain admission) but, by and large, a child in a private school will be surrounded by lots of wealthy, privileged, white children.
There may be one or two pupils on a bursary in a private school, which may give a tokenistic nod to ethnic or social diversity but still independent schools just do not reflect the rich tapestry of cultures in our cosmopolitan capital. More and more overseas students are attending private schools in the U.K. (as middle class families feel the austerity pinch and their numbers in private schools are falling) but although these overseas pupils may have a different nationality, their values and attitudes are very similar if not identical to their British peers.
This is not to say that privileged children are unsuitable peers, but a whole school of very similar pupils provides a rather limited scope of experience. Private school pupils are on the whole extraordinarily well-travelled and have been exposed to a wide variety of cultural events but they still, on the whole, have a limited life experience.
Children who have everything handed to them on a plate and have all adversity removed from their childhood will often lack resilience and emotional robustness. Generally speaking, private school pupils have had very little to overcome in their lives and have experienced little hardship. Consequently, many often have a huge sense of entitlement and fragile personalities.
As a teacher for over 20 years it is not in my nature to speak ill of any child. And that is not what I’m doing here. I’m generalising. In the same way we could also say that children from challenging socio-economic backgrounds often present with challenging behaviours. It’s not rocket science but it isn’t a rule for all children. My children have friends with names, religions, cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds which are sadly absent from private schools. These friends will go on to be my children’s neighbours, colleagues and partners, and learning about each other and how to get on with each other as children is a crucial foundation for what goes on in adult life.
Secondly, I feel the attitudes to learning/ learners and teaching/teachers in the different education sectors is vastly different. In the independent sector, the curriculum is pumped with subject knowledge and specialist teaching. Children from as early as reception receive specialist teachers for French, Mandarin, music or Latin for example.
In the main, the curriculum is ridiculously compartmentalised and disjointed and this makes for disparate learning. On the whole, in public sector schools the ethos is different; topic learning is still prevalent. For example, pupils will learn about the Tudors in history, write imaginative diaries of Elizabeth I in Literacy lessons, whilst learning to play Greensleeves in music and about the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome on religion in Britain, whilst painting a Holbein portrait. The learning is within a firm context, is meaningful and cross-curricula. The thinking is joined up, holistic and fun.
Additionally, I do not want to speak negatively or disparagingly of private school teachers (many of whom are my very good friends) but I will say that in the private sector there is a much greater emphasis on the teachers’ subject knowledge and not their skills as practitioners. Sadly, as I know from experience on open mornings, when prospective parents go around, quite often one of the questions being asked is “so where did you get your degree?”. (Although parents need not ask, as this information is often made available on school literature.)
This prevalent attitude is based on an out of date and largely debunked philosophy. I’d like to believe that ‘gone are the days’ when we think of teaching as little more than seeing children as empty vessels to be filled with facts and knowledge. In the private sector, I’ve encountered many teachers with first class degrees from Russell Group universities who are ‘old Downe House girls’ or ‘old Paulinas’ (educated at St Paul’s Girls School) who are very knowledgeable in their specialist subject but haven’t got a clue about pedagogy, let alone children. These teachers are often completely confounded by pupils who may have special educational needs, have English as an additional language or have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even in deliciously small class sizes, private school teachers struggle with pupils with difficulties as they themselves have probably encountered few pupils with learning difficulties in their own education.
Just as well private school teachers rarely encounter such children in their teaching career, and if they do, the school will often simply request the parents pay additional fees for the child to have one-to-one tuition with SEN or EAL specialists. Excluding pupils with challenging needs is rarely an issue because a quiet informal meeting with the head teacher usually leads to the pupil leaving to go to a more ‘suitable’ setting with little fuss.
Regularly, I tell my pupils and my own children: ‘Mistakes are golden!’. It is when we make mistakes that we really have an opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as you learn from it. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that, if you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not learning. The real tragedy is when we make the same mistake over and over again without learning, or, as is so often the case with particularly pupils in private schools, we hide or run from a mistake and see it as a source of embarrassment, or worse, shame.
If so much of your life in a private school is building up towards passing an 11+ exam and getting into a seemingly elite independent secondary school, the cost of making mistakes is high. Children focus on finding the right answer. Therefore understanding the process of learning, metacognition and creativity is stifled if not crushed. It may sound alarmist but many private schools are breeding judgmental, jaded and narrowly-focused pupils who are terrified of making mistakes.
Finally, children’s mental health across-the-board, (regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural backgrounds), is an overwhelming concern for any educationalist, regardless of where or who they teach. In many private schools (and increasingly more public sector schools) the culture of competition is at best problematic but in many cases, disturbingly rampant. Consequently children are frightened of making mistakes.
When your parents have met substantial financial costs for your education, mistakes take on even greater implications. Children become automatons fearing mistakes and seeking only to score the top marks. Their awareness of themselves as learners or as creative thinkers is repressed as their prime focus becomes getting 130+ in standardised scores and looking like a candidate for a ‘top’ independent secondary school.
I have known many children who, after a very heavy day at a private school (learning six different subjects and having clubs for sports or science before and after school) then go home and have another hour or two of tuition. It is worryingly commonplace the number of children who regularly look exhausted, fraught and on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew of one girl preparing for 15 separate entrance exams, which probably cost her parents over £1,500 to just sit them and nearly cost the girl her sanity.
As a teacher and parent, my fundamental principle is this; what I want for my own children, I want for all children. I want children to grow into happy, successful, creative, well-rounded and caring adults. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe the best chance of my own children, and arguably any child, becoming such an individual is by going through the comprehensive school system.
Not for the long term, but for the short term it’s something that should be tolerated and even encouraged for young people still finding their way, after, (or even before), school finishes at 18.
Just over a month ago a good friend of mine said that she had received a letter from the local council stating that if her 17-year-old daughter does not return to sixth form or start another course she may lose her child benefit. When I got home that day, I had the same letter. The letter suggested that our children would be put on the NEET register if something was not done about rectifying the situation, and we could lose our child benefit. But what if you have a child that has had a very negative experience at school for the last 11-12 years and has had enough?
NEET is a term given to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 that are not in full time education, employment or training. It is a term used by the government to analyse the amount of young people that are not contributing to the British economy and is not to be confused with young people taking ‘a gap year’. The term NEET tends to be applied to the lower classes or to young people who do not continue school at 16 or 17 for various (probably personal) reasons and is seen to be a detrimental state which leads to prolonged unemployment. The Gov.uk website states ‘Studies have shown that time spent NEET can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health, and increase the likelihood of unemployment, low wages, or low quality of work later on in life.’ But what about the young people who have not fitted the academic model of schooling in recent years and just need time to recover from the bruises of a system that never suited them, what about the ones who need to find the time to recover and discover what it is they are good at, re-build their shattered self- esteem and set off from there? These are the ones the educational system unconsciously rejects, the ones they don’t know what to do with and the ones that don’t tick their boxes. They deserve a future too, don’t they?
NEET is a term we need to get rid of, because ‘a gap year’ or ‘a gap six months’ sounds much better. It has a middle-class ring to it that the lower class or lower ability kids who are not university bound do not qualify for, in the same way that they did not qualify for so many things whilst at school. Why are we labelling them again so soon? And making sure that they start their adult lives with a big question mark over them.
Many of our ‘average ability’ kids these days don’t get into their school’s sixth form because they have not acquired the necessary grades to do so, so they scrabble around at 16 looking for what they think is the next best thing. This is the first big rejection for them and it cuts deeply. It comes at a time when they have summoned everything they have in their academic basket to achieve a range of 3 to 5s for their GCSEs. They want to do A Levels because they know that this is what the ‘smart kids’ do, but with their grades it is going to be a very long and high ladder to climb, so they are left with a choice of L2 and 3 Btec courses at FE college which is the poor relation to A Levels and they feel like they’ve failed again. So, they try for a little while, and maybe it suits some and they are successful, but not all of them and many drop out. They say ‘it was rubbish and I never wanted to do it anyway’ and retreat to their rooms to mourn. If you’re 17 and never felt as though you were good enough, why are you going to put all your energy into something you think is second rate from the outset? Now, I’ve taught on these courses and know how much the lecturers put in, but trying to heal the scars of 11 years is a big ask and in many cases it’s not possible. The damage is done.
The time that it takes for a young person to heal after their perceived failures differs from person to person, so the time they need to sit and reflect on their lives and work out a coherent plan for the future is also going to differ. Is this time NEET or is it the natural amount of time that almost everyone needs to decide what they want to do? I used to tell my students on a daily basis that I was 52 and still had not made up my mind what I wanted to do with my life, at which they laughed at and replied ‘but miss, you’re a teacher!’ The thing was, most of the time I really meant it. I can’t remember why I wanted to be a teacher and at that stage in my career I used to wonder on a daily basis why I was still a teacher. I was 52. Why are we expecting everyone to know exactly what they want to do by the age of 17?
Even those that are academically successful and pushed into choosing 6 universities and filling in their UCAS form at 17 are not completely sure. I spent years ‘helping’ young people choose courses to apply for and write their personal statements so that they would be accepted into their first-choice university. I did it because I believed that they deserved to get the same opportunities as their private school counterparts out of a drive for social justice so that they would be able to compete for the best jobs when they’d finished. I even went so far as to encourage one of my best academic students to strive to become prime minister one day. I now wonder how many of them made it through the first year and whether they have £60000 worth of debt instead of a great career. We don’t encourage young people to take the time to reflect before they go off to university and really get their money’s worth, doing what they enjoy and what will lead them on to a career in the area they are passionate about. No, of course we don’t – they might end up NEET mightn’t they? It is the more affluent young people that take a year out to do an internship or go travelling and ‘find themselves’, the local kids from the council estates or the lower ability will be NEET and we can’t allow that. The Independent ran an article in 2016 which stated ‘Almost a third of first-year students have either already dropped out of university or are thinking of leaving in the summer’ which suggests that we are pushing them into something they are not prepared for and landing them with a £15000 debt into the bargain. This is money they have paid and got nothing out of, and will be added to the new course they start when they do eventually find the degree that they want to do.
I’m not suggesting that any young person should be NEET for long, but give them the chance to take a breath or time to heal from the battering and bruising experience they’ve had at school, and take away the label – being NEET is not something anyone should have to put on their CV.