Friday 17 June 2011

State Schools learning from Public School Boys?

Our government cabinet are mostly public school educated - how does their education influence their policies?  Is there anything in their education which can help turn around the past decade of growth between the richest and poorest?  OECD  have researched the growing gap between rich and poor, and recently suggested UK pupils are 'among the least likely to overcome a tough start.'

From my public school education I remember the average temperature in Quito (15 degrees Centigrade).  Quito was one of the easier South Amercian cities we rote learned (it's on the equator, so the same all the year).  Why do I remember Quito, and not where I left my jacket an hour ago?  I don't know, but subjects taught generally bore little or no relation to me, and did little to encourage me to learn.

Recently I was recommended to check out The Prince's Teaching Institute - an organisation which exists to support subject led teaching.  While I hope encyclopedic knowledge of average temperatures in South America is no longer so important, subject led teaching, like my schooling,  is about viewing the student as a vessel to be filled with important stuff.  It's also something being talked about again to improve all our schools.

Me, drawing giant fruit at school
A project on the life of St. Wilfred, for me, was an educational exception.  In my first year at Repton, for a holiday project, I chose to research patron saint of my home town, Ripon.  He was a medieval monk, spin-doctor type.  Not the obvious choice, but having been a choirboy in his church for the last four years, I guess I had an affinity with him.  It was very much a topic led project, directed by my own interest, and we moved on quickly to the serious stuff of examinations.  Another formative learning moment was probably not at school, but in contrast to it.  As a 'scholarship boy' there was a 'poverty gap'  between me and what felt like the rest of the school.  I needed some extra dosh, so when I got a chance to work in a chicken factory at 16...well I took the job anyway.  Apart from turning me veggie, it made me question the difference and similarities there were between me and the others there waiting for their CSE results over the summer.

Back at school two years later 12 of the 100 in my school year would go on to Oxford or Cambridge.  I don't think it was better than average results, brighter students, or even the subject led curriculum that got so many Reptonians there.  On leaving Repton I was invited to meet the freemasons - I guess something everyone in school was invited to do.  Not everyone rolled up their trouser legs, but our teachers, our parents, everyone around us, were very well connected.

There are obvious advantages of network and wealth which it's hard to even imagine 'education' alone addressing.  
So how can we improve the chances of the poorest in the UK?  The OECD think education can and has (in other countries) made a big difference - measures like teaching for 'resilience', 'self-confidence', ''personal internal drive'. 

For 'resilience and 'self-confidence', my learning happened in 'extra-curricula' school activities, which were varied and incredible.  Chosen and often directed by us, and supported with bags of money, kit and staff, being part of the wider 'Repton School Community' made me feel like I can do anything.  State schools may never have the money, kit or (as many) staff, but when it comes to learning developed with students, meaningful learning opportunities within and outside school  - 'fostering motivation and self-confidence' - This is something some public schools do well, but looking to 'subject-led learning' is looking in the wrong place.

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