Monday, 14 May 2012

On schools...

Michael Gove has spoken of the vast overrepresentation of privately educated people in a variety of places, which includes arts and the media as well as the shiny benches of the Palace of Westminster. His solution, as well we know, is to reform the state education sector so that it can provide the same standard of education as the private sector. The solution proposed by George Monbiot and Laurie Penny is to ban private education.

Various people I like to pay attention to have joined in the fun, and both Shuggy and Chris Dillow quickly come to the conclusion that neither Gove nor Monbiot/Penny have the right answer.

I don't think private school should be banned for a variety of reasons. The main one, I'll admit, is ideological.. I find the idea of the state telling people that they don't have the right to educate their children in the way they deem fit to be rather abhorrent. This is especially so when we're banning parents from educating their children in a way that even the people who would ban it seem to suggest is better than the state system. It's not as if we're even talking about faith schools where one (thought not I) might argue that religious indoctrination of children is a bad thing (I had a Catholic education, as did my siblings and 17 cousins, as did an awful lot of other people I know, and, as yet, none of us have set fire to an abortion clinic even though we ALL saw the requisite video nasty.. indeed, I can't think of a single one of us who would even claim to be anything close to a practicing Catholic).

Another reason why I don't think we should ban private education is that I don't think that banning private education will bring about the desired result. As I commented at Shuggy's place..
These objections also focus far too much on the role of the school in the lives of these children… when anyone with half a brain knows that it's what happens at home that matters the most. Schools, as good as they may be, can only work with what the parents send them. Parents make choices which tell us a lot about how they bring up their children. A parent who wants their child to be privately educated, or even one who will pretend to be a Catholic to get their child into a 'better' state school, is probably a parent who communicates with their children, who supports their children, who pushes their children. It's a parent who is trying to give that child the best possible start. The school is only a part of the system which Monbiot and Penny take issue with.. taking away the school will not change that system. 
My mother is a Learning Support Worker in my old primary school which, being in a neglected old coal mining community, has steadily deteriorated along with the economy of the area. She'll tell you that  you can do what you want with the funding, management and structure of the education system.. you can choose the Tory route or the Labour route, you can model it on the USA, Sweden, China, or the lost civilization of Atlantis if you like.... None of it will make a blind bit of difference if parents will not communicate with or engage with their children at a young age, or if children aged 3 and 4 have to be turned away from pre-school because they are not toilet trained, or if bright kids get bullied by their parents, as well as by their peers.

The problem with the 'education system' is that everyone is focussed on the 'education system'.. and no matter how good it is, it can only work with the children that parents deliver. Richard Murphy has opined on another aspect of the tory approach, pointing out (entirely reasonably) that an approach which helps to turn around a single school cannot be applied to a whole system. Of course, his solution is just better funding for the state system, so I think he falls into the same trap.

We are told that Finland has the best education system in the world.. well maybe it does, or maybe it has the best parents in the world? Most likely, the two work in harmony.. whereas in the UK they are frequently in conflict. Why is that? I can find some right wing friends who'll say it's about benefits culture and a lack of discipline, and I can find some left wing friends who'll blame poverty and a lack of hope.. but much like the question of whether the state should embrace/imitate private education, or ban it, I can't help but conclude that these are merely tribal responses to a non-tribal problem.

My mother bemoans those parents who think that it's the responsibility of the school to sort out whatever difficulties a child has.. but is it any wonder that this sort of thinking is widespread if politicians and commentators on all sides speak as if, indeed, that's what the role of the school is? If the right wingers are shouting 'teachers are lazy and are failing your kids' and left-wingers are shouting 'schools are broke and they are failing your kids' then the one clear message is that, whatever the reason, the system is failing your kids and, thus, there's really no point engaging with it.

Our schools and our teachers are being attacked from all sides. Maybe they need more funding, maybe we need to stop educating people on models that date form the industrial revolution.. but I wonder if the first step isn't to start shouting about what's good in the system so that parents and children can buy into it. Because, let us remember, having society get together to build and fund a system to give every child the opportunities that our system gives (which are vast) is worth shouting about.

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