Tuesday, 13 May 2008

What schools do

A student friend was recalling her school days - not very long ago. "Don't write what you think," she was advised. "You don't pass A-levels that way. Write what you're told."

And that's how it works. She took the advice, kept quiet about her own ideas and wrote the unoriginal essays that would gain the highest marks.

Luckily the story has a happy ending. My friend is now studying Philosophy and Theology at university, filled with excitement at her studies and writing what she thinks. It sounds as though she's on track for a First. Meanwhile compliant students, who never considered thinking for themselves, are floundering and wondering where it all went wrong.

My school exams were something of a farce. For O-levels I relied a mixture of rote-learning, guesswork and, for the subject that interested me, extra reading and thought on the day. English Literature was almost a disaster. I launched into an essay on Shakespeare's King John which required a comparison of Cardinal Pandulph and Robert Faulconbridge. I'd nearly finished when the awful realisation struck me: I was writing about the wrong Faulconbridge. There was only one thing to do. I scribbled out the entire essay and wrote a hasty comparison of Elinor and Constance instead. The teacher, who didn't like me, was delighted that I didn't get an A and told me I shouldn't be studying English.

I have odd memories of other exams, including my last Geography paper. I had never passed a Geography exam in my life but I wrote rapidly, trying to recall my notes. Then, when I found myself with more time, I began to invent. I hope the examiner enjoyed my vivid account of logging on the forested mountainsides of Denmark. (I borrowed the facts from Norway. After all, I reasoned, it's all Scandanavia.)

My last essay was my piece de resistance. I was asked to compare the ways in which transport was adapted to environment in four contrasting parts of the world. This was my sort of question. I decided I would fail gloriously and chose the Amazon jungle, the Sahara Desert, the North Pole and Britain. I outlined the problems Father Christmas would face if he tried to travel by sleigh in the Amazon jungle. Tarzan wouldn't find it easy to swing through the trees in the Sahara Desert, I said. He'd have to wait a long time for a bus too. "On the other hand," I remarked, "I once had to wait more than an hour for a 73 bus in the Upper Richmond Road." And so it went on.

I wrote a note to the examiner at the end, congratulating him on reaching the end of my paper and commiserating with his misery at marking it. I added that "Kilmarnock carpets are made in the Killybegs". I'd learnt the fact and it seemed a shame to waste it. And then I included my favourite Latin quotation from Aeneid I: "Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit" (Perhaps one day it will be a pleasure to remember even this.)

That was the only Geography exam I ever passed. Sometimes thought and imagination (and nerve) win out over rote learning. These days I don't think I'd have been entered for the exam. I certainly wouldn't have seemed a good bet for A-levels.

Today, exams are accompanied by celebrations and rituals, many borrowed from the United States. There's a school leavers' assembly - I'm not sure what happens there. And for many children, there's the school prom. It's an expensive, dressy event - an evening meal and dance. Not all pupils can afford to attend. Suits and posh frocks are expected - wedding shops have branched out to offer "prom dresses". Some pupils arrive in stretch limousines. It's extravagant and socially divisive.

At least this year's prom is relatively cheap: £25 for each 15- or 16-year-old. But the venue is in the outskirts of a neighbouring city, twelve miles away. The prom finishes later than the last bus and train. Obviously the school assumes that all parents have cars, or can afford 25-minutes in a taxi.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating to hear of all that you say. Thankyou! oh yes, I too detest the American style socially divisive 'school prom'.

However, I can't believe you achieved anything other than straight A's. You must have had better things to do, or read. kllrchrd

blog by Kathz said...

I never managed straight As after primary school - I was no good at subjects that required practical skills, from drawing to scientific experiments and, for a long while, anything that required me to visualise or use visual memory caused me serious problems - even panic. Life got easier as I chose the subjects I wanted to study. But, for a number of reasons - some to do with the system, some to do wih me - I don't think I'd have done very well in today's education system.

Anonymous said...

What would you like modified in the system as you see it, if you were to go through it again?
In my case a little more input from parents would have helped - from the little that I can remember. For me, living in such a remote location was a real handicap, no idea whatever of the world of work or what it could offer. Such limited horizons. kllrchrd

blog by Kathz said...

There are important things schools can do: widening pupils' sense of opportunities, encouraging independent exploration and investigation, prizing thought. The best things I took from school were mostly not examined. There were extra classes which followed teachers' interests: in philosophy, politics and recent history, for example. And somehow I got to concerts intended for good musicians (not me) which helped me to respond to classical music at a time when teachers thought my inability to sing meant I was tone deaf. And there was a good library where I browsed for hours - and the best teachers encouraged wide reading. Because I went to a boarding school at the age of 9, my parents knew very little about my school education - and the boarding school limited my education in other ways. Holidays, when I explored London galleries and free museums and, later, stood in the gallery of the Old Vic, were vital.

I think schools, even in remote areas, should have a range of cultursl and scientific visits (a mixture of people visiting and school outings). Above all, pupils should encounter all sorts of ideas and possibilities - and these shouldn't be narrowly restricted to what teachers or parents think are the pupils' main areas of expertise. Pupils may turn out quite differently from the way parents expect. (I have a friend who went to Cambridge to study engineering - after graduating she became a circus clown.)

Above all, schools should offer education in the broadest sense rather than training to pass exams. Life doesn't run in the very narrow tramlines that the current testing situation assumes.

Anonymous said...

I've read your last comment again and again, very wise words that so many are missing out on. I was lucky some subjects were well taught, we only went to CSE level and had the old fasioned wood, metalwork and tech drawing, I think I took O level in all three as well as maths, tho apart from geometry type stuff am not not very good to say the least. I would miss out greatly if I was stuck with the present day CDT which I would be good at anyway. The old courses help train hand eye co-ordination and probably for the first time in their lives give most boys the chance to complete something, not left half undone. I remember in English Lit the set books were dire - how to put someone off for life - with an equally non charismatic teacher - a woman I detested. My failing was maths. The couple of times my Dad tried all he did was humiliate me, a very sensitive boy. I was also mad on electronics (age ten to sixteen) all self taught, got zilch encouragement at school, the science master was a shambles. At least my Dad had a home workshop, Myford lathe etc and books that lead me on, so it could have been much worse. I was given a reading list from a prospective employer (Suffolk) when I was fourteen - that really was an eye opener. So, it wasn't all bleak!
Little things, Whitby Museum and my Uncle John giving me a Chinese newspaper when I was six, funny how that triggered me.

Can you recall the steps that lead to joining Boarding School? You must have given the signs to initiate the move. Was it a good one? kllrchrd

Kathz said...

My primary school suggested I try for a scholarship but would only let me try one - I'm not sure why it was the boarding school. There were some good teachers (and some bad ones) but I disliked the school intensely. I have few happy memories of the nine and a half years I spent there.

I think I was considered bright because my mum and dad encouraged and taught me at home - I arrived at school aged 4 already able to read and do arithmetic, which was less usual then. But I wasn't very good at being taught in classrooms.

Anonymous said...

I was a very late reader, I doubt I could read before seven, I can work out these facts because we moved north when I was seven, third school by then and crippled with awkwardness. I have a feeling my weird mother and distant father meant I was less nurtured than I should have been. Luckily my auntie Annabell invested some time in me when we moved up to the same village. I feel no injustice, I was never denied any education I should have had. I've now created a home life that suits me. Thanks for opening up on your early years. kllrchrd