Reasons to keep on believing

18th December 1998 at 00:00
SIX YEARS and many thousands of words after starting to write a column for The TES, it is time to step aside and let someone else's prejudices take over.

And I use the word advisedly, since it is sobering to re-read your past output and realise that although you had always fondly imagined yourself to be roaming freely and open-mindedly across the wide plains of education, all you had in fact been doing was trundling up and down the narrow ditch of your own preoccupations.

Everyone's attitudes are, of course, always coloured by their own experience, and my view of British schooling was fundamentally reshaped by stepping outside it long enough to view it with completely fresh eyes on return.

For as long as I live I will never forget the shock of coming back to this country after five years away and discovering a culture that seemed totally hostile to children.

It wasn't only the readiness of exasperated parents to lift their hand to their kids, or the way tiny children had to squeeze their way home from school along narrow pavements where lorries belched diesel fumes into their faces, or the pubs that hung "No Children" signs at their door; it wasn't just the shabby school buildings, or the lack of up-to-date resources, but a pervasive unwillingness to envisage that things could ever be different.

Things began to shift a few years later, with a new government whose stated priority was education three times over, and however much one might dispute the extent of the improvement since then, there is at least a much wider acceptance of the idea that things in education should, and can, get better.

Despite this, the preoccupations to which I find I have returned again and again remain remarkably unchanged. They include:

* The belief that all children can achieve far more than we imagine, but will never do so until we give them the mental tools with which to do it. These include not only being able to read and write fluently, but also having confidence in themselves, being willing to stick at tough tasks, being organised, and being able to get along with others. We do very little about teaching this kind of emotional intelligence, but children need it far more than they need to know the causes of the Thirty Years War or how plants photosynthesise.

* The belief that the body and mind are inextricably linked, and that children need to eat right and exercise about 10 times more than most of them do now, if they are ever going to access their full mental powers.

* The belief that children need much better care than our society makes it possible to give them now. More nurseries, play groups and homework clubs would help working parents, but even better would be a radical revision of working schedules to allow parents to have more time for their children at home. Unremitting institutional care is not the ideal for younger children, any more than a full-time latchkey life is for older ones.

* The belief that parenting is an undeveloped and undervalued skill which all of us with children need to learn to do better, and which, if learned, would hugely reinforce the work of schools. A quote that has always haunted me, from the late Joan Lestor MP, is that we spend more time learning to drive a car than we do to be parents.

* The belief that partnership and inclusion - between education and industry, teachers and parents, maintained and private schools, volunteers and paid staff - is the only possible way to tap society's full resources, and that the unbending dogmas of yesteryear about how things should be done, and who should fund them, have no place in the flexible education system of the future.

This leads, in turn, to the belief that in the real world there can be no perfect school system, and that to constantly search for it by abolishing grammar schools, introducing specialist schools, or wringing our hands over the great public-state school chasm, is to squander scarce time, money and energy. Better by far to get on with improving what's already there than to try and re-engineer - yet again - the underlying structure.

And improvement depends, almost entirely, on the quality of the people inside those schools. New buildings and fancy computers are nice, but not nearly as good as powerful leadership, good teaching and respectful relationships between staff and pupils. How do we get these? It's perfectly simple. By going all out to attract good people into teaching and then paying them enough to keep them there.

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