The only choice is which plastic chair

28th July 2006 at 01:00
The teachers are spawning, the walls in our staffroom are covered with photos of babies. The talk is all maternity wear and ultrasounds, nap times and nappies. I'm the odd one out - the bloke who still has a spare bedroom and a crumb-free back seat. Most lunchtimes I'm asked: "When's it your turn?"

I think it is getting to me because recently we produced a theoretical child. Joking about its names and obvious genius is fun. But where will Junior go to school? At the moment we live in Ontario, Canada, but could easily move back to England. And as Tony Blair says, when it comes to education, choice is key.

So after trying to decide which accent we would like Junior to have, we have been weighing the pros and cons of each educational system. There are significant differences.

Here, for example, high school begins at 14 and goes to 18. Life is GCSE and A-level free. There is also publicly-funded Catholic education, while other religious groups get nothing.

Otherwise, though, things are not that different on my side of the Atlantic. If you visited my classroom, you would see the same sort of stuff going on as you would in the secular school down the street or in your local comprehensive in Maidenhead or Manchester.

Wherever our theoretical child goes to school, there will be the same plastic chairs, the same rows of desks and, most importantly, the same basic pedagogy. He or she will spend most of the time sitting down, listening to the teacher and writing.

But according to Tony Blair, if we raise our child in England we will have more educational choice than ever before. And it is all laid out in Higher Standards, Better Schools for All.

Schools are about to gain increased control over admissions. They will be able to determine curriculum (as long as their students get decent GCSE results, presumably) and choose how to specialise and expand. They can form partnerships with businesses, while parents win more choice thanks to an increase in school bus services.

Don't like the school across the street? Send your child to the Virgin Academy across town. Why am I not surprised that the changes are market-driven? I still do not see how they will affect how my child learns - what will be expected in the classroom, what will be taught, how and by whom.

My ideal primary school would not give any homework (especially not big projects that are mostly done by parents), would not bother with standardised tests and report cards that say things like, "Child bounces ball with limited success", would have an equal balance of men and women on staff and a genuine socio-economic mix among the students. And, seeing as children learn better when mobile, it would not confine them to plastic chairs all day. Educational choice should mean different approaches to learning. Take A S Neill's still radical Summerhill, for example, where your child can determine his or her own needs, and where classes are optional; or those small, reactionary private schools that have returned to rote learning.

Blair's idea of choice is not about choosing one model of education over another. It is about choosing your child's friends. You do not send your offspring on a half-hour bus ride for different teaching methods, but for a better class of student.

Our local elementary school, and Junior's default option, is in a leafy, affluent part of town, and services the children of doctors and professors.

Not surprisingly, this month it was voted the best elementary school in Ontario. And not surprisingly, everyone wants to send the kids there.

But when I walk past the place each morning, it looks just like a traditional school. The only thing is, no poor kids are kicking around, and a Blair-style admissions policy would keep it that way. What savvy business would refuse to sponsor a place like that?

So, when it comes to choosing where to send our kid to school, it is clear that only one thing really matters, whichever country we end up in. Some plastic chairs are worth more than others. And so are the kids who sit in them.

Nicholas Woolley teaches in Ontario, Canada

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