I have always been a staunch supporter of state education. Still, am, ideally. If I had children, and I honestly thought that my local state school would honestly be the best place for my children, in terms of their intellectual and social development and in terms of making them well-rounded, interesting beings with the best start in life, or at least a reasonably good start in life, then I would send them to that state school.
But it seems to me, more and more, that this is almost never the case. For an example close to my heart, read on. The vast majority of the medical students I know went to an independent school. A number of them were even educated at public schools, some were even boarders. This trend is repeated all across all the medical students I don’t know, as well (and don’t get me started about how many of their dads are doctors too, or how they are all, almost to a man/woman, upper middle-class, safe, shiny, pretty people. Not that I’m not in the latter category, well, if you think I’m pretty, I don’t know. But I can be shiny and wear cardigans and look safe!) For a well-worn statistic in a slightly different area of study, try this: 6% of all children in the UK are privately educated at secondary school level; over 50% of students at Oxbridge come from independent schools.
Here are my perceptions of my education. I don’t really remember infants’ school. I was in a central London primary and was one of only about two children in my reception class for whom English was our mother tongue. This meant that a lot of the pupils were learning how to speak and understand spoken English at the same time as learning how to read and write it. A lot of them, too, came from very difficult backgrounds. I remember feeling quite isolated at that school – I didn’t make many friends and I did get bullied, but then, I was an August baby – I was significantly younger than the oldest children in my year. The thing is, I think this school was good for me, at that age – it taught me before I’d even learnt to think about it to be inclusive and fair and to not be afraid or even aware of my differences from other children in terms of race or disability or socioeconomic background. We were quite well integrated with a school across the road that catered for children with special needs and so once a week a group of us went to play in their fantastic indoor play area, full of those squashy slides and climbing equipment and interesting bubbly lamp things and ball pits and stuff, and it was great fun, and we were all children together. If I’d been sent to some prep school and had been wearing a little blazer and a hat and neat grey socks and regulation brown shoes I think I would have missed out on a lot of things that were fairly crucial to my early social development.
The same cannot be said of my education once we moved out of London. From then on I was the new girl, and therefore an outsider, to start off with. I was quiet and a dreamer and teachers therefore regarded me as stupid and possibly deaf or autistic for quite some time. Because of the constraints of the national curriculum I was not allowed to progress onto books which actually challenged and interested me for two whole years, stuck instead on various reading schemes and tedious non-fiction books about things I didn’t care about. Middle-level maths bored me so much I’d spend hours sharpening my pencil to the finest point known to mankind (why I never fantasised about/carried out said fantasies of stabbing the aforementioned pencil into the eye of my frankly awful year three teacher Mrs Mallett, I do not know) and never got to progress onto the top level stuff – but then, occasionally, I’d sneak a look at this supposedly top-level stuff, and it was equally dull and unchallenging and stupid.
And so it goes on. Fourteen years I spent in school, and for thirteen of those years I was very rarely challenged by anything I encountered. (The fourteenth of those years was spent in the second of the two huge impersonal sixth forms I went to, where I was a mature student, doing Chemistry and Biology in one year (well, Human Biology, because my secondary school in a misguided Gifted and Talented program forced the top science set to, having done the dual science GCSE early (which was a good thing) then take Human Biology AS in year eleven, surely the most obstructive and non-useful A-level ever if you want to do anything seriously scientific with your life. It’s almost as ridiculous as Sport Science or something) – anyway, yes, the first time I got seriously challenged at school was because I was doing AS and A2 Chemistry simultaneously, which meant I was actually having to cover the AS stuff twice – with my AS class, and also because the A2 course was in a totally different order, pre-emptively so that I could cope with the A2 stuff. Serious organisation required). Teachers were uninspiringly stupid and rule-bound, hiding from answering difficult questions by saying things like ‘I don’t have to teach you that under the curriculum’, or ‘never mind, it won’t be in the exams’. Exams, exams, exams. I walked through my GCSEs. I then stopped working almost altogether, preferring to go to houseparties and down the pub and into various nefarious field scenarios involving epic quantities of vodka and JD and such. I stopped paying attention in lessons, and my huge 3000-strong sixth form barely witnessed any of this – we were supposedly responsible adults now, and meant to take responsibility for our own learning. If you’re not enjoying the stuff you’re learning, or not learning, at age sixteen, you’re not going to try very hard to do well in it, especially if by not trying at all you can still come out with respectable B and A grades.
The thing is, if I had been in a smaller school, if there had been a sixth form as part of my school, it might have been noticed that I was really not cut out for arts subjects. It might have been noticed before I even signed up for those subjects, and I might have been convinced to go with my original plan which was all sciences anyway. I wouldn’t have allowed the fact that my best friend had essentially ‘shotgunned’ medicine to stop me from even considering it as a career choice. If the school I was at wasn’t all about just getting as many people as possible through with five Cs, and letting anyone like me who could do that blindfold go hang, perhaps I would have been challenged more as I went along.
If it wasn’t for things like the national curriculum, and comprehensive entry, I might have routinely been in sets full of people who weren’t just going to scrape by with the minimum. Not that I have some kind of crazy intellectual-elite kind of agenda going on here – I know that’s what it sounds like, but this is from my point of view as an academic, geeky and intelligent young woman. I also believe that state education often fails people who aren’t as bright by making them hate the very idea of learning and all the rest of it, that smaller class sizes and less rigid curricula are the key to well-rounded, happy pupils, and to every child attaining their potential, and I can’t see how state education could possibly provide all of this but it should, oh, it should. Teachers might have had the time to inspire us and not just drill us. And yes, independent schools are competing in a market, and so yes, of course they’re fighting for good exam results from their pupils, but usually that means good exam results from all their pupils – I wouldn’t have really been able to get away with slacking and coming out with two Bs at A-level the first time round when I could so easily have got As. I needed structure, and discipline, to really do my best at that age, as much as I needed inspiration. Inspirational teaching is pretty rare wherever you look but if there’s no time or room for it in a situation where you’re still struggling at GCSE level with some pupils’ basic literacy it’ll become even rarer. That said I cannot thank enough some of the wonderful teachers I had along the way who took the time to inspire me and others of their pupils – Mr F’s amazing socialist diatribes and debates, Mr M’s utter madness on occasion and realisation that part of my problem was a total inability to organise myself, the way both of those men protected me on occasion from the hell school was socially, Mr L, back in junior school, starting the fight with my organisation skills, among other things. But by and large, there are probably ten times as many teachers I could rant on about with bile and lots of swear words and you would all hate me so I won’t.
And there are other things I gather about decent independent schools – the opportunity to actually get involved in worthwhile music making, or debating, or rowing, or acting, or whatever else floats your boat. My school music-making was done out of a sense of pity and of duty when others of my friends at other schools got to do all manner of fun and interesting ensembles, had orchestras which were worth listening to, had decent peripatetic teachers actually teaching at their schools (my sister and I always had private music tuition, usually stealing our teachers from local public schools, if you must know, but then, we held County Music Awards that bagged us free tuition from London professionals otherwise well beyond our means) and all the rest of it. The social education one gets at independent schools – learning how to be a civilised human being, being given the opportunity to be curious intellectually, rather than being branded as a boffin from the off and from then on being made to feel ashamed of who you really are. I’m not saying it’s utter heaven, for one thing, I wouldn’t know, and I do konw that many of my friends who were privately educated weren’t much happier than I was – ages eleven to fifteen, roughly, are horrible for the vast majority of people.
There were a lot of faults with my state education, and I don’t know how much better life would have been for me in any of the independent schools to which I could theoretically have gone. But I do know this. The people I know now, who were privately educated, are going to better universities, no matter how intelligent they are. They are socially more adept – knowing how to make any guest or outsider seem instantly welcome, moving conversations along with grace and tact, knowing how to order wine and open doors for people and talk to waiters and baristas and so on in a way that many of my old school friends still clearly haven’t mastered. They are the ones that get through interviews into Oxbridge or for law, or medicine, and so on. Who know about music and literature and what’s on at the theatre. On a daily basis I feel academically and socially at a disadvantage, and that makes me feel terribly belligerent about the whole thing. I feel somehow that if I’d had my time again, and been differently educated, I would have made the right decisions and known how to manage certain situations and of course life wouldn’t have been perfect, at all, but I do, crucially, feel that I would be better off. I would have done the three sciences at A-level, and probably philosophy, those would have been the right choices. I would have worked for them. I would have possibly been more socially secure. I would have got those interviews to medical schools and walked through them. Because I know I am good enough, but I never got the guidance when I needed it about how to actually show that to the people that really mattered.
Right, that’s enough of my bitter failed-old-woman rant. Here is why I am still a supporter of state education. Everyone, for goodness’ sake, everyone, deserves a decent education. GCSEs are getting easier and easier every year, that’s why grades are going up, everyone knows it. Everyone who wants to go to university should be able to go. Everyone who doesn’t really want to study until they’re 21 shouldn’t feel obliged to do so. A friend of mine claims that if you can afford to pay for a better education then surely you deserve it – but how on earth am I undeserving of the better education that this friend had, just because my parents couldn’t pay the fees?
If I ruled the world, I would probably base my own state education system on the German one where, at the age of eleven, all pupils take exams which then put them into one of three schools: the Gymnasium, for the brightest students, which focuses on academic subjects and where the hope is that most students will then go on to university; the Realschule, which is a mix between academic and vocational subjects, for students somewhere in the middle; and the Hauptschule, which mainly focuses on vocational subjects and helping their pupils become skilled in a useable trade, getting them onto apprenticeships at the end of school, and the like. The way the system works means that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of stigma associated with what school you do or do not get into – and also there are end of year exams, every year, and your placement within the Gymnasium or the Hauptschule or the Realschule can be reconsidered. I gather there is a certain amount of fluidity. The curriculum isn’t as tight or as dictatorial, and from what little I know, general studies and life skills are far better taught than they are in state schools in England as well.
What I’m really saying is that everyone should deserve the kind of education that some people decide to pay for. I’m not saying at all independent schools are perfect and all state schools are terrible because I am well aware that that is nothing like the case. I’m just saying that in some ways I feel I missed out. That there is a certain amount of social inequality which means that people from a certain kind of background still find that doors are opened for them by dint of who they know and where they come from rather than their knowledge, potential and who they really are; and that those same doors are closed to other people because they don’t know the right people or come from the right places and they haven’t the polish that certain kinds of education and upbringing instil in one. And yes, of course I’m bitter. There are so many what ifs, but if a number of things had been different I could right now be a more than competent medical student.
Next (but this is for another post) I shall talk about university fees, and the end of the cap, and what that will mean for people like me – for whom Mummy and Daddy hand over a lot of money and support and things and it’s all just about OK, at a stretch – and what that’ll mean for that 6%/50% factoid I mentioned earlier.
Sorry I’m so full of bile at the moment. If anyone so much as mentions the word ‘hormonal’ I may rip their hair off their heads and force them to eat it. Because I’m not. Honest.