‘Educating Essex’

I am slightly allergic to institutions, especially these factory farms for teenagers called secondary schools; so it’s been a bit of a trauma over the last few weeks visiting some of the secondary schools round here for their open evenings. We still have the 11+ in Essex, but it’s not compulsory. Sounds ok, but actually it means that in the year your child turns 10 you have to start thinking about whether they want to take it, or not. And that’s a pressure in itself, especially when (regrettably) the word from the playground hasn’t changed in the 30 years since I did the 11+

Grammar school = good
Comprehensive = bad

Rubbish of course. Try telling that to a 9 year old… That’s why we’ve been visiting the schools, so the 9 year old can make her own judgements with her parents, rather than listen to other 9 year olds.

We visited a High School this week; it gave me the heeby-jeebies. Built in the 1930s it was like a carbon copy of my own school. The Head Teacher’s speech was a thinly-veiled message I can summarise as:

If your kid isn’t a super-geek from a wealthy family, don’t bloody bother.

More worryingly, everyone was sooo serious, no-one smiled – least of all the teachers. It’s no good telling me you are welcoming on the one hand, when there’s none of it in evidence on the other. Additionally, the head mentioned that all girls did PE ‘hockey, netball’ before drifting off into an non-commital ‘etc…’ and all girls we expected to ‘enjoy it!’. I did exceptionally well not to flee the hall screaming.

This school boasted 100% success in 5 GCSEs A-C grades including English and Maths, but they start them a year early, on their accelerated curriculum. In one classroom I heard a teacher referring to ‘accelerating the learners’ *shudders*. This is a top 100 school and it boldly claims to send your children out into the world at 18 ‘set for life’, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of life. A fairly serious one I would think…

I can’t decide if this is worse than the comprehensive that has the highest exclusion rate locally, a ‘behaviour modification programme’ and the best exam results in the borough, outside the grammar schools. I can’t help but think that comes at the cost of the excluded learners the behaviour modification didn’t work for.

It was, therefore, a rebalancing experience to watch the actual C4 #EducatingEssex programme from Passmores Academy in Harlow. I especially enjoyed the senior management team meetings where they had been edited to look as if they were permanently in hysterics. You can sometimes measure the gravity of your occupation by the regular need to laugh so hard you fall off your bar stool. It’s an exercise in grounding.

The show also neatly summed up my main objection to how we organise secondary education in this country. This was done through following the Deputy Head, Mr Drew. Mr Drew is a history teacher and spends just one hour a day teaching his subject. Mr Drew was forthright, outspoken some might say, but his views, at least, seemed to come from the heart as well as the mind. He seemed to respect the kids in school as individuals and have enthusiasm for his subject. He believed that permanent exclusion of children from school is morally wrong, he promoted the idea that bad behaviour is just a manifestation of some deeper confusion or pain. But it seems that despite having all that sound ideology, Mr Drew spent much of his working life being a faux-policeman: enforcing uniform and behaviour policies and apparently (from their perspective) making a nuisance of himself to the kids he was purporting to educate.

But what else can Mr Drew do? If you have a school of around a thousand kids there have to be rules, and when they get broken someone has to ensure there are consequences. It’s just a damn shame that it’s the teachers who actually like kids and are effective in the classroom that have to spend so much of their time doing it.

I had the opportunity to teach (cover for one session) a class of teenagers last week. It was a small class, one where ennui seemed de rigueur. What do you do with that boulder of disaffection and negativity when it’s landed on your foot? Well like Sisyphus of Greek myth you can push it up the hill yourself, watch it roll back to the bottom, and begin the task again, or you can get creative.

You can look at the boulder, you can talk about it, you can give it a name and make it your friend. You can ask the disengaged to give you a hand with the interminable rolling thereof. What I wouldn’t do is ask it to do is straighten its *tie.

My old school's logo 'Not for ourselves alone' I don't remember the logo or the mermaids. I would've remembered mermaids, surely?

And finally, because writing this didn’t quite annoy me enough, I took this gem from my old school’s current website

THE FOLLOWING SYMPTOMS MIGHT BE SHOWN IN SOMEBODY SUFFERING FROM WHICH MENTAL ILLNESS?

Hallucinations
Poverty of speech
Delusions of grandeur

So wrong on so many levels, grammatically for a start. Plus it’s from the ‘psychology quiz’ and it’s a psychiatric question. Oh, and we don’t tend to term people as mental illness sufferers either these days. Perhaps the super-geek school where they accelerate the girls and they all love PE because the male head said so is not so bad…

*If you are of the strict uniform persuasion I recommend you consider the selective High school I visited this week. £26 for a name-embroidered ON THE BREAST POCKET science lab, £50+ for a blazer.

Posted on October 1, 2011, in Be not idle, Children, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I faintly remember the motto but definitely not the mermaids. And although I’m reading on BlackBerry and the image is small, one mermaid seems to have a come hither look.

    I refused to wear the blazer, so never even had one; did you?

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