The schools thing

Dot writes: a couple of months ago, when I was still on maternity leave, I tried taking the boys to a toddler group that’s held in our local library every Friday morning. It wasn’t a great success: any play arrangement that relies on Hugh staying at one end of an open-plan space and not zooming off to rearrange the non-fiction section is doomed to failure. But I did have an enjoyable conversation with another parent, who turned out to be a former PhD student of a professor in my department, and who was there with the youngest of his quite large family. We got to talking about schools. My new acquaintance’s children attended Dalkey School Project, and we mused on the competition to get in, how ridiculously early you have to put your children’s names down, and how lucky I am to have excellent numbers for both my boys. (The system is that you apply as soon as the umbilical cord is cut and are given a Pre-Enrolment List (PEL) number which determines your position in the pecking order for your year. By cleverly giving birth in the autumn I have obtained numbers for Hugh and Frank that pretty much guarantee they will get places.) The conversation then turned to the state of the country, NAMA, etc. My acquaintance was half Danish and had grown up abroad. He was unsentimental about this country and was considering whether to leave; he could see little future in Ireland now. “But”, he said, putting the case for staying, “we did get the kids into DSP.”

We may in fact end up tossing away our privileged PEL numbers, as Ken is quite keen the boys should go to one of the local Church of Ireland schools. The boys next door attend Glenageary Killiney National School (the cool people call it GKNS – it’s all about initials, with schools round here) and it has a very good reputation. We haven’t actually visited these schools we are thinking about, though I do intend to before little Hugh actually dons a uniform in a bit over two years’ time.* At the moment we know them by what other parents say of them. My chief sources of advice when Hugh was a baby – the breastfeeding group and my yoga class – were all for DSP. Our neighbours now and people I know from church are keener on GKNS. We gather that DSP, as an Educate Together school, is all about Nurturing the Whole Child and that means not pushing too hard on the academic side, such as reading. GKNS is apparently more traditional. Which, I wonder, will suit Hugh? Assuming he carries on as he is – not notably precocious, quite fond of books but very bad at sitting still – would he do better being Nurtured Holistically and thus not put off learning or labelled as a naughty boy? Or would he benefit from being taught as early as possible to knuckle down? These decisions are so important and yet they have to be made on a basis of guesswork, cod psychology and blind hope. At least we get to make a choice among several attractive alternatives.

My own parents were highly moral about my schooling and sent me to the local primary school in our own village. Middle class parents tended to take their children out and send them to the school down the road (or, if they could afford it, a fee-paying school); which left the local school struggling to keep up its numbers and escape closure. Two successive head teachers had nervous breakdowns. These days, ironically, I gather it’s the school in my village that’s doing quite well and the school down the road that’s taken a dive. Anyway, my parents were unusual, and would be even more unusual now, in being prepared to act for the common good rather than pursue individual interest. It’s obvious that if the parents who are committed to education compete to squash their children into a few ‘good’ schools, leaving the other schools to deal with the disengaged and the disappointed, the worse get worse and society as a whole loses out (because of the creation of an educational underclass who are harder to employ and, for those at the bottom, more likely to commit crime). One of the things I’d like to see in British politics, and am not sure I ever will see, is a party who are prepared to deal with this problem (while leaving Higher Education the hell alone). In Irish politics, however, I find I don’t yet know what I want to see. The reduction of the role of the Catholic Church, I suppose (because of the abuses, and because it’s not fair to prioritize Catholics for school places, especially in areas where there are no non-Catholic schools). Maybe I don’t yet feel enough of a part of this place to care so much for the common good; I just want my own family to get by. It’s ok here. We can get the kids into DSP.

*Eek.

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8 thoughts on “The schools thing

  1. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    Wherever you send them be prepared to teach them grammar, punctuation, the finer points of reading comprehension, and plain prose composition.
    I have yet to encounter any school in the last forty years which even attempts these consistently.
    And now for a little rant: 1.universities should not have to teach what primary schools were created to do; 2. these skills are not elitist: everyone needs to be able to express themselves clearly and to recognize the manipulation of language (and deal with it accordingly).
    I bet somebody taught Peter Mandelson rhetoric…

  2. Meri

    I know I quote Freakanomics rather a lot, but their statistics suggest that the biggest impact on a child’s learning is not the school they are sent to but the attitude of the parents and whether they value the education….

    1. Dot

      Yes, but one of the ways the parents’ attitude has impact is the care they take with choosing a school, when choice is available. It’s true a child who has good support at home is likely to do better than those without such support in any school they attend. But if your school doesn’t have a science lab, you don’t learn to use a bunsen burner. (And analogous cases.)

  3. Katimum

    I am amused to hear that you consider we were doing the ‘moral choice’ thing! For one thing, I don’t think it particularly occurred to us that Freethorpe was a better school when we first sent you to Reedham. The other is that because class sizes and and, even more, year groups were so small, the teachers did not have much choice except to give you individual rather than one size fits all education. However, you probably missed out on some of the activities a bigger school could provide. And we couldn’t afford private….. well we probably could have, but we liked eating.

  4. I think Meri has it right. The parents are far more important than the school in how the child is educated and not just because they choose “good schools”. I might even venture to say that “bad schools” are a myth.

    Many of the parents you are talking about who fight and cheat and pay to get their children into “good schools” are doing so because they are unable or do not want to contribute to their children’s education. And I bet their children don’t fare better in “good schools” than children with active, engaged, educated parents whose children attend “bad schools”.

    In secondary schooling you’re right that the facilities are far more important, especially when it comes to science. But if my kid’s school lacked a science lab, we’d either find a local university or high school lab that we could borrow, or we’d build one of our own in the garage and do some evening practicals!

    Don’t get me wrong, the quality of the school makes a difference, but the parent can and does have the final say.

  5. Personally, I’m pretty relaxed about the issue of schools for Amelia. We have 3 lower schools in Biggleswade (we are in a 3 tier system around here which confuses me to no end). Going purely by where we are located in the catchment area Amelia will be attending the same lower school her father went to.

    It has decent Ofsted reports even with a significant proportion of children from deprived backgrounds attending ( it seems that by meeting “average” standards they can bring down the overall grade of the school even though they have actually imrpoved from very low performances when they start – I was discussing this with our childminder who is a governor at the school and whose 3 children attend)

    I have no real worries about Amelia’s education there; Jon and I are very much of the feeling that we can and should add any ‘extra polish’ we feel she might need, and that as parents it is our job to do so.

    Although we may not take the read Mattingly’s Armada book over the course of a summer holiday approach 😉

  6. Belle Inconnue

    all the research shows that school has little impact on anyone’s education or life chances – it’s all down to innate ability and parents. apparantly a middle class child of 5 usually has a better vocabulary than a poor adult, and the biggest factor in favour of children doing well is their mother’s (not father’s) level of education.

    I also don’t think there’s any point sending your child to a ‘bad’ school to help the other children there. it won’t achieve anything, except the ‘good’ child will have a really hard time. the other children won’t learn anything from the ‘good’ child, they will just bully them and resent them.

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