Forced smiles among the Islington set;Another Voice;Opinion

5th March 1999 at 00:00
IT WAS a shock to be accosted, in the space of one week, by two local parents saying plaintively that they hoped their children would succeed in getting a place at Camden Sixth Form College.

These were parents who had rejected local secondary schools because they wanted higher academic levels than they believed our local education service could deliver. So why on earth were they suddenly wishing to transfer their young to the state system just at the moment when they would be preparing for A-levels? After all, the results gained in these academic exams are, surely, a great deal to do with why private education is chosen.

I found myself smiling at what I heard. These parents were talking about how their children would benefit from a "broader" education than they were getting at their independent schools.

They pinpointed certain things: a wider social mix than their children were currently getting; gaining an understanding of the different kind of lives and experiences children from varied environments have; learning to be more worldly and streetwise than they were within the confines of their elite schools; and learning about taking responsibility for motivating themselves to study, rather than being kept at it by paternalistic teachers.

These seemed of key importance to my partner and me when we decided to send our second son to a north London comprehensive which has a huge social mix and a lot of concern with children's emotional well-being and relationships, while the children, from the beginning, have to take quite a lot of responsibility for how hard they work, and whether they succeed or fail. All these things, to my mind, go towards teaching children vital skills for dealing with the outside world.

Yet, at the time, there were plenty of forced smiles from parents around us in Islington, where parental angst about academic achievement must be as great as anywhere in London. The tactful phrases scarcely disguised the message: didn't we think we were failing our son by risking the state system?

And I once supped with parents of a 14-year-old boy where the father leaned back in his chair and told us how pleased he was that his boy was reading WittgensteinI My kid would probably never be well versed in Latin or Victorian literature. On the other hand, he was being asked to write an essay in praise of the Ku Klux Klan and to read some Caribbean literature, which struck me as a thoroughly worthwhile way of teaching him to think laterally about race.

The interesting thing was that these parents were now voicing worries about their childrens' schools seeming too rigid in their teaching, too thoroughly wedded to the curriculum requirements and too socially exclusive for their children to be getting the by-the-back-door education that comes from becoming close friends with children whose home backgrounds, heritage and value systems may be far less homogenous than tends to happen in independent schools.

And they were saying that they believe this may actually be a handicap when it comes to getting good A-level results. It was something I identified with because we took our first son out of primary school when he got a particularly ineffective teacher for the second year running, and sent him privately to Bedales, a lovely school in a great many ways.

He did not, however, do better academically than his brother and, perhaps more significantly, it was he who observed that his brother was far more at home in the world than he was when he left the sixth form. Even now that he is 23, he still feels a bit that way.

So, I see this as a moment that vindicates the "bravery", as the euphemism goes for those of us living in urban Britain who have put their children through state education and watched them walk off with a good clutch of A-grade A-levels and are now anticipating their move to university.

It's schadenfreude, I know, but it was gratifying when, last year, the results from Cardiff University business school showed that students from state schools do better at the old universities than their independent counterparts. Just as I felt a frisson of satisfaction at hearing that the children from independent schools had been told they would require certain grades and even then there was no guarantee they could get into Camden Sixth Form College.

But I feel just as vindicated by the quality of friendship my son has with the feisty girls who appear on the doorstep and with the enormous youths who regale me with their street-wisdom and irreverent jokes.

At a time when human skills, resourcefulness and knowing how to learn and succeed are as much needed as anything, in spite of too little teacher time, inadequate resources and all the other horrors attributed to the state system, we do well to stop and consider the price of fixed ideas about independent education being the most desirable.

Angela Neustatter is a freelance journalist

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