I spent a professional lifetime working in public schools – not Eton or Harrow, but schools in the public rather than private sector.
I am committed to comprehensive education for many reasons, among them the appalling waste of human potential which I remember only too well from the selective system when I was at school myself.
I have also seen, especially in Edinburgh, where I spent most of my career and as socially divided a city as there is in these islands, the effects of schools, whether in the old selective system or the continuing private sector, which reinforce existing privilege.
I happily sent my own children to our local comprehensive – and they were superbly well served.
I was delighted to work with any educational establishment which wanted to work with the schools in which I worked, for our learners’ mutual benefit. In Edinburgh, I found one private school which enthusiastically did so. Without shielding my ethical reservations, I admired hugely the adventurous and innovative culture of that particular school and we worked together on several challenging joint projects. Both schools (and their learners) benefited. That however was unusual.
Since one of the key purposes of private schools is to ensure that the children of the relatively affluent do not have to mix with the children of the poor, such co-operations were exceeding rare.
I was intrigued therefore to read American teacher, Michael Godsey, stating recently that: “I observed a high school English class on a campus without bells. The school didn’t need them: every student showed up for class promptly, and they remained attentive until the last minute – without packing their books early or lining up at the door.”
It was a private school. He also had spent a lifetime in the public sector but was now actively considering sending his daughter to a private school, above all else, because what he had recently seen in the private sector was that, “the kids take pride in their personal character, and they admit that they love learning”.
Despite my enormous reservations about the social ethos (and indeed social purpose) of private schools, I understand, at one level, what he means. I also have recently seen superb learning in private schools.
I saw a class (and not a top stream class) of 14 S2 boys study Henry V at a level which would have done credit to S4 students in my former school.
The atmosphere was positive, courtesy universal and behaviour excellent: the worst that happened was that in group-work discussion one lad spoke at a decibel level which certainly interrupted his classmates’ discussions. Work continued until the bitter end of an hour-long period. Almost every learner participated actively and enthusiastically.
And yet, for all that I admired that classroom and the efforts which had made it thus, I remain committed to a system of schooling where we educate all our children together, where we seek to apply the best standards of the private schools (in teaching, resourcing and class sizes) to the public sector, where our expectations are as high, where the engagement of teachers, learners and parents in a co-operative venture achieves similar outcomes, and where we eschew the exclusive culture of a system divided by ability to pay.
My simple question to Michael Godsey is this: “How can you expect your students, and their parents, in your public school to value the education you seek to provide, if you do not consider it good enough for your own child?”
I would ask the same question to every public sector teacher in this country who sends their own children to private schools.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.