Friday, 18 September 2009

Education, Education, Education

Master Patently is now in Year 6 (top juniors, in old money). This being the Autumn term, it means that it is time to think about transfer to secondary school. Time, therefore, to go round lots of local secondary school open evenings. We have six to check - two private, two grammars, and two uppers. Or, two that I don't think I can afford, two that we're not sure he can get into, and two that we're a bit nervous of.

The most recent was one that we were a bit nervous of. After all, googling the local papers does bring up quite a few references to a past stabbing incident there. On the positive side, a new Head has been appointed and a lot seems to have changed since then. Mind you, it would have had to...

I'll start with the good points, of which there were several. The pastoral care offered by the school seems to be excellent; anti-bullying policies seemed to be based on sound ideas that will work in practice, and were not mere platitudes. The children were smart, polite and well-spoken. The premises were excellent and well equipped. Staff seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic and committed to the education and care of the children; several children independently attested to the time that the staff were willing to devote to them above and beyond lesson time, to help them understand the lessons and keep them up to the standard expected.

The provision for Arts, be they graphic, musical, or performance, was very good. The standard of the output was similar. We were serenaded on arrival by the Music department, who acquitted themselves creditably. The Art department had been able to cover their walls with students' output, and the general standard in several different exercises and genres was frankly excellent; far better than I would or could dream of producing myself.

This was reflected in the Ofsted assessment, that it was a good school with outstanding features. The Head and the staff were justifiably proud of this.

And so we turn to the less impressive features. Naturally, these are more easily remembered after the event, and easier to remember in detail. That said, there was a distinct theme.

The Mathematics department did not actually seem to be teaching any mathematics. All the exercises that I saw were mere arithmetic. Now, I will readily agree that arithmetical skills are very useful, but arithmetics is not the same as mathematics. The general level of "maths" expected was also perhaps illustrated by the demonstration that was provided for the visiting children to try - it was a Tower of Hanoi puzzle, with 3 layers to transfer from one side to the other. All very nice, but I spent a while showing Master P a Tower of Hanoi solution in the grammar school a few days ago - their example had 7 layers.

The History department clearly worked hard to capture the children's attention. Sadly, they did this by using BBC costume dramas as their historical source. Ooops.

The Science department had a busy and well-attended demonstration going on in their lobby. This would have been great, if the demonstration had been a science experiment. It was not; it was cookery. And no, I am not joking. A brief scan around the labs showed well-equipped areas in which not much science seemed to happen - mainly the preparation of pretty posters in which mysterious things were given names. But science is not about naming things; it is about understanding them.

Top marks, however, go to the RE department. I shall merely say that one of the exercises (reported to us with pride by a student) was to learn about the Church of England by comparing and contrasting Songs of Praise with, err, the Vicar of Dibley. Mrs P could not look at me at that point, and I knew why; she was stifling the urge to burst out laughing.

We ended the tour in a Beauty suite, where students could learn towards a BTEC qualification. And there, the theme of these negative points hit me - they are not educating these students, they are preparing them for a life as a hairdresser. A hairdresser who dreams of artistic recognition, but a hairdresser nonetheless.


  1. Vicar of Dilbey?! Fr Ted is much more realistic.

  2. I thought that you (particularly) might appreciate that, Albert!

  3. Is it any wonder that so-called 'New Atheists' like Dawkins and Hitchens are able to make so much money from books which serious atheist thinkers find embarrassingly bad, when even school RE departments display such astonishing religious illiteracy?

  4. Schools, schools, schools...

    I once looked around a school and picked up a very impressive workbook casually laid out on the desk nearest to the door in a classroom. Only to discover, when I delved deeper, that it was highly likely that it had been strategically laid out. The reading standard was two years behind the equivalent year group of that at my children's school.

    My daughter is at secondary school which is quite simply superb. Although strict (and that can have its amusing aspects), it allows the girls organise themselves with impressive results and is constantly broadening their horizons. Individual attention is given to every child; I have seen every hopeless girl blossom and become articulate. Some GCSEs are taken early and the school undertakes its task of building the next generation of women seriously, even to the extent that in daily assembly they were told they should have babies standing up and that acceptance speeches, after the analysis of that of the first woman President of Harvard, should be kept short. The school has introduced the IB programme which does appear free of political interference.

    Master M is a different kettle of fish. He is at prep school as he was not ready for Year 6 exams; he will take common entrance at 13 years old. A teacher there told me "Don't worry, Mrs M, they all turn out alright in the end." Er, no, we are paying for you to educate him. The truth is that he made no academic progress last year; I had him professionally assessed so no one could argue with the results. It appears there is a lack of pastoralcare in those boys whose parents are not local. The ISI report failed to pick up on these weknesses and when Master P leaves I may write to them. We were beguiled the school's facilities (and Mr M by the headmaster's wife). We were not given a tour by students at the school. With hindsight, that was telling.

    Much of progressive education is akin to a fad as you identified, Patently. At Wellington College, Dr Anthony Seldon gave a marvellous speech about a holistic approach but afterwards the pupils on the panel seemed to lack ambition and appeared stressed which was the opposite of what the school hoped to achieve! I am sure you and Mrs P will make a wise decision.

  5. Albert - the Catholic viewpoint in the form of Fr. Ted is, of course, excluded again... ;-)

    Measured - both children seem to have the best possible asset, in the form of your interest and support.

  6. the Catholic viewpoint in the form of Fr. Ted is, of course, excluded again

    Which is foolish because Fr Ted sheds light on Anglicanism too. The only clergy known to me that are remotely like Fr Jack for example, are all Anglicans, whereas I don't know any Anglican clergy anything like the Revd Geraldine hang on, now that I think about it, perhaps The Vicar of Dibley is more realistic than I first thought.