Good school, bad school, bog standard comp: How good is good?

I was living in London during my time in the sixth form, and was determined not to go to university in London but instead move to a quieter place. One of my teachers told us about his son, who was at Hull University, and I thought: that sounds nice, a small village up north! Of course I was mistaken as Hull is in fact a big city – in the top ten in England. I innocently applied to the university and got a place. When I finished studying Physics at Hull, I saw the opportunity to fulfil my dream of becoming a teacher, and this took me to Sheffield University to do PGCE. However, before I could be admitted I had to spend at least one week at a primary school and another week at a secondary school.

A fantastic opportunity came up: to spend time at one of my ideal schools, Highbury Grove. My primary school observation had been in a poor area of Sheffield and was a tremendous pleasure, and I looked forward to my Secondary school classroom observation at Highbury Grove. After spending a couple of hours at Highbury Grove, my dream of utopia almost evaporated in my face. I saw unruly young people walking around with an attitude and teachers doing their best to contain them, until they log off at 3pm. More on this in my next blog.

I then went to do my PGCE at the University of Sheffield, an opportunity to see how schools are run in the Socialist Democracy of South Yorkshire! I was fortunate enough to be placed at a school in Barnsley, a school which was second from bottom of the league table at the time. In that year, the school had its first student with a real chance of going to university and every teacher (actually most!) were very pleased and worked hard towards this goal. At the school, I remember a 12 year old boy used the f’ word and his only punishment was for him to be taken to a little room where the staff then tried to calm him down, with the hope of returning him to the class a few minutes later in the day. I was gobsmacked by the lack of ambition and low expectations. Yes, the mines in South Yorkshire had closed down and Sheffield Forgemasters, the pride of British manufacturing, had made an awful lot of people redundant. The men had low self-esteem as the wives, who often worked at the call centres, were the breadwinners. For a man, this is never easy to take no matter where you are, but perhaps in the culture of Yorkshire at that time it was even harder. From my own point of view, I still can’t understand why people are unable to aspire and try to do better, or at least try and get the best education for their children. On one of my teaching practices at Wath-upon-Dearne, which was supposed to be the best Comprehensive around at the time, I nearly fell off my chair when a parent said that his son should not bring school work home and that home is not a place to study.

The opportunity to visit about 20 schools all over the country and attend interviews was another eye opener. Maybe I was complacent or brave, or stupid, but I was very picky as to which school I wanted to work at, and did not apply to just anywhere or accept just any job. In the end, I was lucky to be employed at a comprehensive school in St Albans which was formerly a grammar school. It was in a very nice neighbourhood, with an old timer headteacher, who was only the third headteacher in about 60 years. It was an ideal job for me and I was pleased that I could afford to live in St Albans and teach at a jolly good school. I enjoyed the school’s Christian tradition. Although not as strict, the school in St Albans reminded me of my boarding school days in West Africa when I would get up at 5.30am, sing the songs of praise, and then after manner for the day’ which was delivered by the vicar during assembly, get ready for school. The school in St Albans was actually very popular with the local Muslims, who liked the fact that it was a single sex school, with good discipline.

After a very enjoyable three years I went to teach at a state grammar school in Buckinghamshire. The students did rowing and played hockey and 150 year old pictures of the cricket team decorated the corridors However, being is a state school there are so many aspects which resemble a bog standard comprehensive. The food was appalling and the school lacked so many basic facilities for teaching and for the comfort of the children. However, it had the most important material required to provide top quality education: It had good teachers. Consequently, the students achieved high grades and a large proportion gained admission to Oxbridge (please see my article on Oxbridge) .

After leaving the grammar school I then went to teach at a fee-paying comprehensive! It was in fact an independent school and a little cheaper than the public schools in the town. The buildings were like those of a comprehensive school and actually much worse in many aspects. However, most children achieved or surpassed their full potential, so parents felt justified in the money they invested.

My next school was a girls independent school, located somewhere in the sticks in Surrey Hills. Most parents were very well-off and although they were very supportive, high expectations were the norm. Despite the fact that it was not one of the most selective around, your chequebook was more of a selection criterion than your daughter’s IQ. It delivered the results. Money was not everything; there were very clever children who would have easily passed the entrance examinations to Guildford High or even Wickham Abbey, but the parents preferred the caring and happy environment at the school, which nurtured the girls as an individual and get the best out of them in every way. It was run by a rather scary, but at the same time lovely lady who was able to combine providing a relaxed and jolly school with high academic achievements. In fact I had some of the best times of my teaching career at the school and the students and parents were very generous to me.

Next week, I will discuss what issues and recommendations I have drawn from these experiences. I will also summarise the article in terms of how the school a child attends can affect their examination grades. Have a good week and speak to you soon.

Speak to you next week

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