Another view - Does insider college knowledge make you keep it in the family?

13th November 2009 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Is it right for those who teach in the state sector to send their own children to private schools? It's the issue that's been exercising the minds of school teachers recently.

It was sparked by an opinion piece written for The TES by a columnist who herself answered a most definite "no" to the question. This was followed by a flood of letters, many suggesting the issue was not quite so black and white.

In FE, we are mercifully spared the dilemma. As the poor relations to school teachers, we couldn't afford school fees even if we wanted to. Maybe the big question for us ought to be, would you send your offspring to your college?

For some, perhaps the answer is easy: they can give an unequivocal "yes". But for the rest of us, it is likely to be trickier. Inside looking out is very different from outside looking in. And there are things you know about your own college that others simply don't.

In my own case, neither of my children went to the college where I was working at the time they were eligible. True, that college was a long way from their home - about an hour and a half each way travelling time. And with them at 16, it wasn't a case of my "sending" them anywhere - they made their own decisions about their education, as on other matters.

But I can't duck the issue quite so easily. They chose to do A-levels. And my college then had an A-level programme - and I was teaching on it. Could I - would I - have recommended it to them if the choice had been a feasible one? My answer has to be both yes . and no.

What my inside knowledge told me was that our teachers were much the same as elsewhere: they ranged from excellent through to competent. Most were good, and none entirely hopeless. Teaching wouldn't have been a problem.

But I also knew there were difficulties with our two-year A-level programme - our intake was never comprehensive, never a true reflection of the range of students in our area. We attracted our share of bright kids, but they tended to be the ones the sixth forms didn't want. Often there had been problems in their lives, and these tended to surface again while they were with us.

Much of the rest of our intake was made up from those who struggled to get four GCSE grade Cs or above. The solid, regular performers from our area tended to go elsewhere, so it was hard to get an academic ethos among the students. Inevitably, classroom morale and results both suffered.

At the same time, we also ran a one-year "catch-up" A-level programme for older students in which results and ethos were better. Interestingly, this was where some of the offspring of teachers in the college did show up: having failed elsewhere, it was now down to mum or dad's to sort the thing out.

That was how I ended up teaching my boss's son. His C grade for English literature, achieved at a supposedly prestigious sixth form, wasn't going to get him into the university he - or his mother - wanted. While he was the one who turned that C into the A he always should have got, I suppose I at least had a hand in the process. "What I like about your classes," he once told me in a very back-handed compliment, "is that you know when you come into the room what you're going to teach." What this said about teaching standards at that sixth form is clearly another matter.

A year or two later my college, like many other FE colleges at that time, dropped its A-level programme. I went on to teach adults on pre-access and access courses. Would I recommend those courses to my "children" - now in their late 20s - if need be? Without doubt, yes.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

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