Saturday, 8 February 2014

Expected to achieve

    I went to school with a few people who've done rather well for themselves. One or two household names, one of whom's known the world over. And a fair crop of the 1%, bond traders and people involved in other dubious financial endeavours. It was that kind of school.
    I also went to school with a fair number of people who've never really made much of themselves, that dread phrase "Never achieved their potential". I guess that group contains me. And one or two who just dropped off the edge, like the person who secured a place at an elite institution but who I last saw sometime in the early '90s as a very ill looking down-and-out begging at Oxford railway station.
    As I've mentioned before in these pages, my school was one of the more rarefied examples of what we Brits confusingly call a "public school" which to the rest of the world is a private school. In my case I went there because I passed an extra exam as an 11 year old blacksmith's kid from a small village primary school, and Margaret Thatcher picked up the tab as part of a bold experiment in social mobility called the Assisted Places Scheme.
    Public schools are an odd mirror of the Real World. One in which most of the people are not exceptionally talented, but are fortunate enough to have rich parents who pay for the privilege of having their offspring constantly told that they are. And in which the expectation is that all pupils are destined for great things by right not by achievement, because to people with such talent achievement is a right. Contempt for people of lesser talent - otherwise known as those in the state education sector - is an unwritten part of the curriculum based mostly on complete ignorance.
    The customer for public schools is the parent not the child, and the product is exam grades rather than well rounded young people.
    It's an odd thing, experiencing all that at school. Firstly because you pretty soon realise the world isn't like that if you go out into it without the cushion of an excessive parental fortune. Success in any field has infinitely more to do with luck than talent, whether that luck lies in being in the right place at the right time or in having the right doors opened for you by who you or your parents are.
    But secondly there's another much more insidious effect of that kind of education. Someone has been bred to achieve by right, yet by the time they've been out in the world for a while it just hasn't happened. They aren't rich, they don't manage an empire, and nobody knows their name. Even though their achievements are by any rational measure not half bad they feel as though they have failed. In our connected age this effect is amplified by the never ending barrage of friends and acquaintances puffing their smallest successes and glossing over their failures.
    This last is something I think ironically I was sheltered from by the great failure of my life. The dotcom crash ruined the careers of huge numbers of people just like it did mine, but such was the culture of tech startups that there was always the illusion of success in the next one to keep you going.
    It might seem odd to be spending a Saturday morning in such navel-gazing, but it's been on my mind this week because of yet another acquaintance catching the School Bug. No, not the runny nose all the people with kids get a week after the start of term, but the pushy parent bug of wanting to ensure that little Nathaniel and Penelope have what their parents consider to be the best possible education. And as is so often the case when the pushy parent moment arrives, they single out the One They Know who Went To Public School to help them justify their educational prejudices.
    What I try to tell them of course is that there is more to little P & N's futures than exam results and they might end up with children better able to cope with 21st century life if they sent them to the comprehensive instead. Which isn't what they want me to say, I'm supposed to reassure them that public school is the only choice for youngsters so obviously gifted, they'd only learn how to deal drugs if they went to school with the feral youth from the estates.
    I really hate the British obsession with education for all the wrong reasons.
    I should be painting a picture of Nathaniel & Penelope in a couple of decades time, living in shared houses and working in peanuts jobs for "good" employers while slowly realising that the success that should have been theirs by right isn't going to come, and that somebody else will always be there to rise on the back of their achievements. And unlike previous generations they probably won't be able to claim the person getting the breaks had more privilege than them.
    At the moment the prospect of having a family of my own is something I'm having to fight to maintain a hold on. I know I won't catch the Pushy Parent bug in quite the same way.
    I hope I'll manage to instill in my children the idea that they can succeed if they try and have a bit of luck, but also that lack of success and failure are not necessarily the same thing.


  1. Hmmm... I think that this needs a correction.

    You shouldn't just send children to a comprehensive. You should be able to send them to a good one though.

    Mine wasn't. In fact it sounds the polar opposite of yours. I spent 5 years being told I was aiming too high and that I would never succeed. Thankfully I didn't listen to my teachers, and thankfully I have fantastic parents who supported me and pushed me to achieve what I wanted to.

    But I would call it borderline child abuse to willingly send a child to my comprehensive rather than a better school if you could afford it...


  2. Or even simply a better school perhaps Stace?
    I didn't know you had offspring Jenny. There's many a gifted child who have made something of themselves despite which school they attended. The converse is also true as you say Jenny. You can lead a horse to water etc....All we can really do is support and encourage our children to do the best they can. Every child has potential but not every child is gifted. Wasn't this idea the basis of the comprehensive system?

    Shirley Anne

  3. Kind of what I meant Shirley, it doesn't have to be private, but it should be capable of bringing the best out in the students.


  4. Having had the reverse of your education, like Stace being told constantly by teachers that I was only fit for menial work like everyone else in the school - teachers who universally had a privileged education at least at grammar school and not at a secondary modern school which mine was, even though it had been renamed comprehensive. The teachers and teaching were the same, the facilities were the same and the expectations were the same.

    In reality Penelope and Nathaniel's only hope of retaining their self worth is to have home education if they don't go to a decent school.

    When you leave school you are judged by your qualifications. For me to get to university I needed three 'A' levels with at least one at grade B, an achievement gained by only four pupils out of the 160 intake. Most from a background of uneducated families, and four who had parents that had been to university. That is the standard of an average comprehensive that was in no way considered bad when compared to other comprehensives. I guess that part of the problem was that my contempories at better schools were taking exams in electronics and computer science, exams that I could have got good grades in without having to try while I struggled with the core boring subjects that I was told was all that was available.

    At a comprehensive it is just as likely one of the teachers will be drug dealer (as was the case at my school) let alone the pupils.

  5. Ah, yes - I had forgotten about the GCSE choice being limited to core subjects - they removed Computing from my options at school as 'it is too popular'. I have never been able to work that out. The Maths that was taught left me really screwed for college and uni. My GCSE was at a level of 11 year olds, I was in the higher class and still didn't do algebra, differentiation and integration etc. All the things that should be included at that level. Once I started my physics A-level I realised just how much that school had cost me.

    As for the comparison to other schools... Ofsted actually gave the school very good scores, year in, year out. The comment in the report is that results were poor, but to be expected considering the students the school took in.

    If Ofsted don't even think the children are worth the effort then what chance do the children have?


  6. I went to comprehensive school. I was lucky that the teachers that taught me really wanted to be doing their jobs and would make the effort to encourage you to go beyond what was being taught as part of their lessons. Our physics teacher probably had more to do with some of us deciding to do computing for A level, because he brought a ZX80 in to school one day and showed it to a group of us.
    My Russian language teacher actually took the time to give me extra one on one lessons as I wanted to try for an O' level in the subject rather than the CSE that the rest of the class had decided on.
    It was that sort of encouragement that really helped me to want to do things, to go to university and to get a career that wouldn't mean I ended up doing a job I hated. Of course it didn't hurt that I had a serious crush on her either :-)

    I'm actually not sure what a lot of my friends from school are doing now,. I'm only really in contact with two. Of those, one who is my best mate, was in the bottom band at school so didn't have lots of qualifications and left school at 16 to train as a butcher. He's done lots of things since school but a couple of years back decided to set up his own business. He's now got two offices with about 20 to 30 staff working for him and is looking at having to take on more people because they can't keep up with the work. He's worked hard to achieve what he's done and I'm immensely proud of what he's achieved, but don't tell him that :-)

    As my son looks at doing his exams this years I do feel that the school has not done all it can to encourage him to achieve everything he can. Even he feels frustrated at times. Still he knows what he wants to do when he eventually leaves school and the education that he's received will help with that. What he learns at college is going to set him up for his career. Beyond that though its his personality and experiences in life to date that are going to be more help than anything that he really learns from a classroom or book.

  7. Maybe I'm lucky in where I live, the local comprehensives are reckoned to be not too bad. Mostly run-of-the-mill, not failing. And that's from a wide variety of intake areas too, my town has its sink estates as well as leafy suburbs. One state school in my town is supposed to be very good indeed, but it's oversubscribed by the Nathaniels, Tarquins, Emilys and Penelopes whose parents have pushed up the house prices surrounding it to levels at which you might think it'd be cheaper to send them to Eton.

    So those were the parameters behind my piece above. It's funny, I'd describe my experience of being sent to a school like mine as borderline child abuse too.

    What I learned from my expensive education is that *far* too much score is set by exam results. They are not a guarantee to a telephone number salary and neither is a degree, whether it comes from an elite institution or like mine from a Northern industrial town. It's luck that gets you ahead in life, and that can happen to you or not wherever you went to school and whatever you came out with. I have worked for a significant number of very successful people who didn't have an O level to their names.
    Most lucky people never fully appreciate their luck and imagine they achieved on talent, I've seen more than one fortune gained and blown away on that premise in the startup arena.

    With respect to computing at school I think it's pretty well accepted that after the 1980s when we were lucky enough to learn something of how they worked - and surprisingly my private school had no better facilities in that respect than state schools at the time - the course of computing education went sadly astray. I'm no fan of the current education minister - my sister was at university with him and could tell you some very unpleasant stories - but I support him in his changes in the curriculum to ensure all kids have the chance to code.

    Sadly I have no kids as yet. I was talking in the future context of when they might have come along.

    1. It would be nice for the youngsters to have a chance to learn properly about computers and how to write code but as long as its part of teaching them about the whole software development process. Teaching them one single part of it is fine but not everybody ends up writing software because you need people with the skills to talk to customers and find out what they want, then to turn them into requirements for people to use to design the software that you are then going to code. Then you need people with the skills to test that software and uncover bugs within it and areas that don't meet the requirements. Finally you need the people that can deliver that software and who will maintain it.

  8. Having suffered a Grammar School Education I am so gad that I could send my daughter to a comprehensive, not everything in that garden was wonderful, but it was a considerable improvement on what I had to endure 40 years earlier. large comprehensive schools allow a wide syllabus, give great facilities and so many more opportunities than the old narrow grammar / secondary modern system.
    I had an old boss who used to say that all he wanted in life was and unfair advantage, that is what parents seek for their children when sending them to Private (or Public) schools.

  9. Went to a reasonable public school, didn't enjoy it that much. Would say the best choice is simply a good school whatever the name. Personally left teaching after experience of a couple of London comprehensives, though, and would definitely want some reassurance that way.
    It is sad to concentrate on exam results but probably sadder still to look at likelihood of later 'achievement' as any sort of criteria. Find it quite fun to be mildly famous and to have a business recognised as fairly outstanding but it was more accidental than by design. And it certainly owes more to counter cultural history than education. But horrible to feel that it might give me any sort of personal validation, or that I might relate to others in terms of them being high or low achieving.
    There is one virtue that I would give to a public school education, though, and it is one that has helped me in life. It's the confidence it instils in oneself at actually surviving a creaking, antiquated system with ghastly values and emerging relatively intact. Still take a little pride in being semi thrown out of the place too...

  10. "There is one virtue that I would give to a public school education, though, and it is one that has helped me in life. It's the confidence it instils in oneself"

    This is the one thing I see, the one big difference, being given the confidence that anything can be achieved, and not have their confidence beaten out of them by elitist teachers. This is what makes people successful, and not just in a financial way - but that is often the case anyway.