Editorial: Shared interest

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Let's go back to basics. What is our education system for? It is for teaching + children. What does it teach children? It teaches them basic skills and the + national curriculum. And what other functions do schools perform? Schools look + after children during the day, help them to develop as individuals, and are the+ means by which aspects of our culture are passed on to the next generation. In+ the 1970s, it was fashionable to talk about the "hidden curriculum" - the + ideas and beliefs which schools transmit to children simply by the way they go + about their business. In those days, for example, schools implicitly taught + that boys were more important than girls and had more need of good jobs, and + that children in the bottom streams were not worth bothering about.Today, + schools still transmit certain ideas - whether they mean to or not.If a school + has its own playing fields, a pool, and well-trained and enthusiastic PE + staff, the pupils receive the message that their physical fitness is valued, + and that outdoor activity matters. Inadequate facilities and short-sighted + policies - for example, stopping swimming lessons as soon as all children can + swim the minimum national curriculum requirement of 25 metres - demonstrate the+ opposite. Similarly, decrepit schools with leaky roofs teach that society + does not much value those schools - or the children and teachers in them. Of + course,exceptional teachers can and do overcome such disadvantages; they may + take their children miles to concerts in order to show them that music can have+ a place in their lives; or arrange trips to art galleries to demonstrat e that+ art is for everyone. But they are working against the grain, often without + support; and they usually have to take their pupils outside the school to push + the message home. The result is that one key lesson our schools teach children + is about their place in society. The most influential families send their + children to private schools with excellent facilities, where they imbibe the + idea that they are different from - even superior to - the rest. At the same + time, the very existence of the independent sector teaches many children in + state schools that they are not part of that lite. This does not mean, of + course, that children in private schools necessarily have it easy. Indeed, the + pressure to achieve and realise the hopes of their parents can be acute, and + may be one reason for the eating disorders which currently seem to plague + independent girls' schools. But the fact remains that this educational + apartheid cannot be healthy. Many children in fee-paying schools never meet + those from the state sector - although over 92 per cent of the population + attends maintained schools. This gives both groups a strangely distorted idea + of a society divided into "snobs" and "yobs". But could these fossilised + barriers be starting to crumble? Last week, Stephen Byers, the Minister for + Standards, asked independent schools to share their facilities with state + schools - indeed, encouraged them to demonstrate their community credentials + in order to justify their status as charities.At last, this looks like being a + step forward. But it can only work on a wide scale if such co-operative schemes+ avoid any sense of an independent school graciously consenting to share some + of its advantages with its social inferiors down the road. After all, private + schools are not always rich, and the state sector is not necessarily grossly + deprived. There may be extremes of privilege and poverty, but many + decently-brought-up children of all backgrounds go to well-run local schools + where they are given a good education - and plenty of private schools are + educating very similar children. What is important is that both types of school+ - and the teachers and pupils in them - should cooperate in a spirit of mutual+ interest and inquiry. Educationally speaking, private and state schools are + all part of the national education system, and already have more in common than+ they might think.With this in mind, schools should propose to share not just + facilities, but ideas, problems and expertise. In particular, pupils should be + encouraged to focus on their similarities, not their differences.What could + scupper Mr Byers's plan, of course, are the petty distinctions and hostilities+ of the British social class system. But that's another story.

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