The question is apparently simple – what are we educating children for? Put figuratively, is it for a future comparable to battery hens, or is it about free-range chickens? If the former, which might seem to give a high return on input/output calculations, then such over-refined children (sorry, chicken!) can’t even stand on their own feet as they’ve never developed their leg muscles. They can’t fly for similar reasons, so if the wire cages are taken away from them they are perfect morsels for predatory foxes to gobble up. Not so the free-range cockerel who, if threatened, thrusts its beak into your ankle and then, as you scream, he flies up to the safety of the nearest beam and crows at you out of reach of your flaying arms. One is adaptable; the other is trapped within a limited environment.
So what of the education provided for today’s children? Does it empower them, or constrain them? Does it give them the skills for today’s world, or prepare them to learn how to survive in an uncertain future? And where do schools, homes and the community (that which exists between the child’s home doorstep and the school gate) fit into all of this?
Twenty years of politically-inspired reforms have driven up exam results by turning education away from an exploration of the wonderful, into lessons in how to pass exams. Policy makers, caught out by such short-sighted policies, increasingly blame the problem of underperforming secondary schools on the decrepit state of their buildings. A multi-billion pound plan to rebuild virtually every secondary school in England was failing to meet its targets even before the credit crisis struck in October 2008, and an experiment to encourage commercial sponsors to fund new Academies seems also to be faltering.
It’s easy to be confused. What is special about an Academy? There are other confusions; what are the differences between Primary, Nursery, Pre-school and Middle Schools, and what distinguishes a Comprehensive School for a Grammar, Technical or Modern School. Or from a Sixth Form College? Are they all Secondary Schools, and are they all of equal value? And what is the difference between Public Schools (with capital letters) and state schools (with no capitals)? Confusion abounds, everywhere.
It takes more than bricks and mortar, or even concrete, glass and steel to transform the archetypal Bottom Street Comprehensive into the state-of-the-art St. Pristine’s Academy. Rebranding education becomes a farce unless it comes with new forms of learning that enables more and more youngsters to learn how to live good and productive lives. It is that basic; it’s nothing to do with new paint.
On the street corner, and at the bar of The Labourer’s Arms, local people still think of ‘their’ comprehensive as the old Bottom Street Secondary Modern School, largely rebuilt in the mid 1940s to take those eleven-year-olds who failed to get to the prestigious King Edward’s Grammar School. The grammar school had been built four hundred years earlier at the top of the hill, and is surrounded by the better residential housing. Re-designated as a comprehensive in the 1970s the town’s people instinctively sense that Kind Edwards will always be better than Bottom Street Comprehensive.
Five miles outside the town, on a bend in the river, is St. George’s Court, a public school for some five hundred boarders set up a hundred and fifty years ago for the sons of the newly rich industrialists from the Midlands. It is surrounded by extensive playing fields, and boasts many famous former pupils. Initially few local children went to St. George’s, but as more of the better-off citizens became dissatisfied with comprehensive education significant numbers of parents who years ago were happy with King Edward’s, decided “to go independent”.
Such is the basic geography of England’s schools. What you see in their locations and buildings reflects assumptions of long ago. Look for the origins of primary schools and these are not so obvious. There were several thousand Dame Schools in England at the time of Shakespeare, teaching possibly half of all youngsters to read and write in the draughty corners of church porches, but they left virtually no records. It was only in the early 1800s that the churches began to build schools for children up to the age of ten or eleven. You can easily spot such schools with their semi-Gothic windows and steeply-pitched roofs they look like the churches they stand next to. They are most obvious in villages where, mid-afternoon, you will find endless traffic jams as parents who value small and human-scale education queue to take their children back into the towns.
It was not until 1870 that government began opening brick-built Elementary Schools free of charge for all children up to the age of fourteen. Bottom Street was one such elementary school, designed originally to take three hundred five-to-fourteen-year-olds in a functional, no-frills, building similar to a workhouse. Utilitarian it might have been but “It wasn’t really a bad place”, reminisced a resident in the old people’s home; “because you were there until you were fourteen meant there was time to get the basics right, and the teachers knew everybody”.
Many of the problems faced by today’s schools lie in the decision, taken in 1944, to raise the school-leaving age to fifteen. Rather than adding a year to the elementary school an over-ambitious government split the old elementary school into what they pretentiously called primary and secondary schools. Someone in Whitehall assumed that as primary education was little more than baby-minding, it would be cost-effective to reduce the old elementary curriculum by three years and make the age of eleven the transfer point between the two kinds of schools. This was to be based on an I.Q. test for it was claimed, such a test could distinguish between the top 25% of youngsters who would benefit from a grammar school education, and the rest who needed either technological subjects, or simply basic education.
In doing this the politicians of the 1940s mixed the assumptions of Plato with the pseudo-scientific theories about the nature of intelligence, and so perpetuated many of the class divisions that had grown up in Victorian times. To them it seemed totally appropriate to turn the earlier elementary school into Bottom Street Secondary Modern School adjacent as it was to the industrial estate, and surrounded by council houses for few children of such families, they assumed, could ever pass the 11 Plus.
How wrong they were! Over a twenty-year period those I.Q. tests showed conclusively that significant numbers of working-class children from Bottom Street had the ability to go to the grammar school, while similar numbers of middle-class children failed to qualify for a place at the grammar school. When they were allocated places down the hill at the secondary modern school consensual politics broke down. To accept that intelligence was not simply genetic upset everything for to recognise that nurture was as significant as nature meant that labelling children at such a young age was utterly wrong.