Different school, different planet

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Nicholas Raistrick is struck by resource envy after an Eton summer school.

Opening the large oak door to my new classroom, a poster for the Theatre Society caught my eye. "Harold Pinter will give a short talk followed by questions from the floor," it read, confirming my suspicions that school life at Eton is, indeed, a different world.

The classroom next door had a poster advertising a similar event, this time chaired by Andrew Motion. This is in contrast to the many state schools in which the only visiting celebrity is the local community policeman.

Like many schools, Eton plays host to a variety of residential courses in summer.

I was a house supervisor and teacher for the Bell Educational Trust, teaching English as a foreign language to students from around the world on a three-week residential course.

Spending a few weeks teaching on summer courses is a tempting prospect, and the programme at Eton offers well-behaved students with a sound grasp of English grammar, small class sizes and the chance to teach surrounded by facilities you can only dream of during term time in the state system.

For many teachers the downside can be feelings of resource envy. My own particular classroom had a whiteboard roughly the size of an aircraft carrier's flight deck and a permanently installed PA system powerful enough for a medium-sized mobile disco. Nearby there was a practice theatre "space" ("students are reminded to remove their shoes before entering the rehearsal theatre") and there was even a television and video player with - incredibly - a functioning remote control. The many libraries are well stocked with full class sets of textbooks, and classic and modern literature. Naturally, all of the reading material seemed free of the cartoon phallus motif that seems to find its way into all kinds of state school library stock. (When I was at school our biology teacher forced us to sign our textbooks in and out after each sex education lesson, such was the temptation for this kind of "art terrorism".) The sports facilities were enough to reduce PE teachers, not normally known for their displays of emotion, to tears of jealousy. Not just the number of cricket pitches, tennis courts (grass and all-weather, naturally) and golf course, but the well-stocked gym and indoor swimming pool big enough to recreate actual-size sea battles. Eton's outdoor pool is, naturally, the biggest in Europe.

Indeed, teachers have been known to go missing for days after lagging behind on the introductory tour of the site.

Some of the teachers' accommodation is equally impressive: how does a rent-free 18th century, five-bedroomed mansion set in mature landscaped gardens sound? Even if you do have to share it with 50 or so boarding pupils.

"Everything in the classroom was just right," said one state school teacher describing her time at Eton. "There was a slide projector in every classroom, as well as new copies of the core texts. The lighting was perect and there was none of the distracting clutter that you get in most shared classrooms. Even the dining facilities were comfortable - a place were you could really relax."

With annual fees in the region of pound;14,000, you'd expect a well-stocked resources cupboard, but it still comes as a surprise to find the cheerful and helpful support staff. A representative from the maintenance department attended each morning's meeting to see if there were any problems, for example.

Despite highly-publicised occasional incidents of indiscipline at the school, the atmosphere is conducive to high general standards of behaviour. The ratio of pupils to staff means that it's easier to know what the student body is getting up to.

When a student's loosetobacco was discovered in a residential block, for example, the find sparked off a drugs scare. The worried dame - a kind of housemistress - anxiously sniffed Old Holborn while waiting for official confirmation from security that the substance was legal.

Good resources alone do not make a good school. A well-resourced and maintained building in pleasant surroundings can, however, go a long way toward creating an atmosphere where students feel they have a stake in the school.

I used to know a teacher who would prepare for parents' day by tactically placing posters in such a way as to highlight the cracks in her water-damaged classroom. I'm not sure it generated any extra funding, but it certainly drew sympathy.

Who wouldn't think it a disgrace that both teachers and students should spend their time in such shoddy surroundings? And what message does it give out?

While calls for a feng shui expert would surely attract raised eyebrows from the most progressive of school governors, it is certainly true that a neat and tidy workspace can only have a positive affect on students' perception of their classroom.

After all, you wouldn't want to eat in a restaurant with a dirty tablecloth and missing spoons. And the best companies spend millions on making sure that working environments are pleasant enough to attract the best employees. So when a student is faced with a yellowing poster of the Bard and made to read pages and pages of bad photocopies instead of a textbook, it comes as no surprise that topical "anti-education" attitudes rise to the surface.

But Eton life isn't perfect. Pupils must attend classes dressed more or less in the style of Tudor merchants on church days. And when they get to university they will find that ex-state school pupils - should they ever meet any - are likely to tease them about their plummy accents.

The downside for teachers is that you will be known as a "master" or "beak" to your students, and your colleagues may never get to know your Christian name.

Plus the fact that you are likely to have a member of royaltyoffspring of rockstarsthe future generation of stock-brokers in your class. Which, let's face it, is unlikely in a crumbling comp.

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