As good as anyone else

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Ann Barlow wonders what it is that people have got against comprehensives.

I'm suffering from an identity crisis. I'm forty-something. I've got an Oxford degree in maths, admittedly gained rather a long time ago so I'd be a bit rusty if you gave me a problem now. After university I became a teacher, first making sure I had my Cert Ed.

I had two children when I was in my thirties and freelanced for 10 years (the polite way of saying I stayed at home to look after them, earning a bit of pin money occasionally). Once I had waved them both off to school, I decided it was time to retrain and get a job. I've now ended up with a master's degree in information management and a part-time lectureship.

So what's the problem? Well, until a week or two ago, I would have said I was well educated. I've got various bits of paper which say my academic qualifications are all right and I didn't make such a bad job of being a housewife. I'm quite a good cook, I can mend a fuse and I know quite a lot about the environment - from walking my dog.

I'm not, you know - well educated. How do I work that out? It's very simple really. I went to a comprehensive school.

From reading the newspapers recently I've discovered a lot about comprehensive schools that I never knew as a pupil. Apparently, they are violent places and they don't provide a good education. Parents who send their children to comprehensive schools are obviously not providing the best for their children.

Come off it! There are hundreds of thousands of former comprehensive pupils who are now grown up. Are we all uneducated, bovver-booted layabouts? Of course not. Most of us are articulate, responsible adults. You'd never guess we'd been to a comprehensive school.

A lot of people don't guess. So people like me are often asked that oh-so-common question: "You don't send your children to a comprehensive school, do you?" Why, what's wrong with me? Yes, that's where it's at. Those of us who went to comprehensive schools are being denigrated by those who don't know what they're talking about. We're being brainwashed into believing that our education wasn't good enough. Some of us might have got better degrees if we'd been to other schools or we might have been bullied less.

But there are grammar school pupils and even private school products who would say the same.

As far as I'm concerned, my comprehensive taught me to value people and to recognise that each individual person has some talent. Those of us, like me, who had a talent for book learning learnt to appreciate the skills of others and the value of manual work well done. I believe that is the part of my education which has helped me most - the knowledge that people are different but that it needn't stop them from getting on. Getting on in more than one sense, by climbing the ladder of success or by being able to mix socially.

Which is why I'm confident that my son's comprehensive school will give him an education which he'll find useful and I'll be happy for his sister to be educated there too. After all, I'm quite satisfied with what I am now, even if I'm not, as I once thought, well educated.

Ann Barlow was a pupil at Lampeter County Secondary School, Dyfed, in the 1960s. She read mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford, and is currently a part-time lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University

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