Many children are unhappy - but don't blame the system

16th August 1996 at 01:00
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

Philip Larkin's words apply to those in loco parentis, so I was not surprised to hear John Wilson's painful memories of the "abrasive bad grace of his teachers" in "Let's not hear it for the sec mod" (TES, August 2). I'm sorry to have revived them, though, and feel inclined on that account to overlook the many mistaken impressions of my original article (TES, July 19).

John Wilson's particular experience does not logically undermine my affectionate but informed celebration of another, very different school, with its lively, confident pupils, its positive and stimulating atmosphere and its dedicated and well-qualified staff.

If it makes John Wilson feel any better, I'll reveal that my sister and I were often rather unhappy in our direct-grant convent school, as was my brother in his grammar school, my husband in his public school and a variety of friends and relations in all sorts of educational establishments. It means nothing except that children and adolescents are vulnerable and that some teachers don't do their job properly, for all sorts of reasons.

In my particular case, it was not so much the hours spent at school sewing winceyette pyjamas for "the poor", embroidering table-cloths or solemnly learning to eat a banana with a knife and fork, but the prevailing atmosphere of disapproval and negativity.

My friends were fun and a few of my teachers taught me something worthwhile, for which I'm grateful. But my real education took place at home.

I was fortunate in one respect - my parents - and in a kind of fruitful poverty. No car, no television, no holidays to speak of, but hours to play and talk and argue and read. Like John Wilson, I read every novel I could lay my hands on as well as all the main poets, including (in translation) Greek and Roman, Russian and Chinese; history books of all kinds from Bede onwards, books of devotion and oddities like Modern School Hygiene . . . it was all food for thought.

Apart from a desire to speak up for the successful sec mod and those who taught and learned there, I thought there were one or two points of relevance to our experience today. It may be unfashionable or even heretical to say so, but I do think that moderately-sized schools are more human than enormous ones. I think that dedicated classroom teachers who stay put are an asset. I think that there's too much jargon and pretentiousness, too many bits of paper which clog up the works. I do think that teachers teach better when they have a range of interests and time for recreation.

John Wilson seems to think that "cosy" is another term of abuse, but it seems to me that we could do with a bit more of it. Today's child is often too much exposed to the "darkling plain" where "ignorant armies clash by night" and does not enjoy nearly enough of the "various", the "beautiful", the "new", or enough "joy", "love", "light", "certitude", "peace" or "help for gain". Our aim as teachers should be to provide a climate in which students not only gain their paper qualifications but grow up with a sense of all these positive things.

GILLIAN HARRISON 347 Woodstock Road Oxford

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