Hooray for Henry and Henrietta?

18th July 1997 at 01:00
It's a strange experience returning to the old school, but mid-life curiosity got the better of me recently and I took advantage of an advertised open day to "avail myself of the facilities".

Where the bike sheds once stood was a purpose-built music wing; beyond that three floors of new science accommodation; across the playground the Pounds 2 million sports hall was well advanced. I don't know whether this has been raised from jumble sales or rich benefactors, but the overall impression was the first-class provision for an undoubtedly hand-picked intake of motivated pupils. Two current pupils acted as guides - polite yet unaffected, shy yet ingenuously open with their comments about the school and the staff.

The following week found me with an abiding sense of anger at the sustained lack of investment for my own pupils. Books, furniture, equipment, all boringly mundane compared to CD-Roms and putting the school on the Internet, but state pupils are every bit as deserving of quality provision as those of my alma mater.

In the week that Prince Charles agonised again about the awful mess that state education has made of pupils' lives, it was interesting to see that he omitted to mention the 30 pupils ejected from an Aberdeen theatre for rowdy behaviour. Not victims of progressive teaching, but instead Hooray Henries and Henriettas from a school familiar to the Prince in the suburbs of Lossiemouth.

Down the years it's been a source of wry amusement to me that colleagues who asked me where I went to school regard my answer with studied disbelief. Like the boy I met years ago who was so embarrassed about his school that he said it was "on the outskirts of Slough".

Going back 30 years the teaching at my old school was the same mixture as most schools, some inspirational, some dull, some viciously bullying. The belt was freely administered. One teacher who later committed suicide used to belt the poor spellers before they sat the weekly test, knowing that they would inevitably have more than the acceptable number of mistakes. It gave a whole new meaning to the swinging sixties. Another highly entertaining teacher, who ran the Scripture Union, later did time for burglary.

Maybe there's inevitable distance between the state and the private sector. If money is at stake then vested interests will prevail. A young person I know left an Edinburgh private school after five years with six good Highers to go to her local comprehensive for sixth year. A member of the guidance staff phoned the parents with increasingly alarmist stories along the lines of "universities will think twice about accepting anyone who leaves our school to complete a sixth year at a state school".

And when this failed to impress, they warned, "they don't know how to fill in UCAS forms in these schools - she'll be disadvantaged".

I suppose the quality of teaching may have stabilised down the years but my wife's memory of sixth year at our school's "sister" establishment was of reading Paradise Lost round the class, and of the teacher who wrote history notes on the board for the girls to copy, for an hour before lunch, without turning round once. It says something for the discipline instilled that she was able to do it in relative peace and free from threat of injury.

Perhaps it says even more for the fact that the pupils were scoffing their sandwiches to enable them to participate fully in lunch-time hockey practice.

Eheu fugaces!

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