When I was at school, which seems like aeons ago now, I could be quite loud at times but because I was fairly bright and did my homework, my teachers didn’t really tell me off.
Thank God it wasn’t the 1950s, when 0.00001 per cent of the teenage population took O Levels and 1 per cent of those passed as the rest ploughed fields or set about hitting machinery with a spanner: oh, what halcyon days, I can hear the Tories yawn on. Either GCSEs were easy, we were taught well or we were fairly intelligent, perhaps all three: it was all ok in the end.
School was fun. I did my work – and if you didn’t want to they didn’t really pressure you: by 16 it’s your choice – and I got a clutch of semi-satisfactory GCSEs. Then I went to sixth form college and spent most of my time pottering about, mostly reading or talking in the library, and got into the LSE.
So my education wasn’t too fraught. Whatever happened, happened. My parents might have put occasional pressure on me to do my homework rather than playing on the computer, but that was about it. Doing subjects, at least at A Level, that I was interested in meant that everything was relatively straightforward – and that I didn’t need to constantly harass my teachers.
Now, however many years on, everything about the current Government’s education policy is driven by elitism. Everything. Free schools require parents to be elitist enough to want to create their own schools because they presumably perceive A Comprehensive School down the road is not good enough for Horace, Maurice and Boris. Education standards are in the process of being cranked up to such an elitist level so that independent schools or (what are perceived the) top grammar schools don’t leave the A Level system, even if Eton and other places are using alternative examinations already.
There are a few things that this Government really must start to realise. Of course, it’s difficult, since most of the following things highlighted next probably refer to 80, 90, if not more than 90 per cent of the Cabinet, but they can at least try. Firstly, not everyone can fit into a grammar school or an independent school: comprehensive schools are required. Second, not everyone, can fit into Oxbridge or a Russell Group university. Third, some people might not even want to go to Oxbridge or a Russell Group university.
Some do, obviously; some have a vision that Oxbridge is like some educational Utopia. Some don’t really mind – I was ready to go elsewhere if I got turned down by LSE. Some obviously don’t care too much and have their eyes firmly set on whether their university town has a Hooters or an equivalent. (However distasteful I find that, I don’t think that should be a reason to deprive people of a university education – and there are plenty of people like that at the esteemed LSE, I can assure you.)
And so it’s with interest that I logged into Twitter today to find out that (a very select sample of) the internet seems to have gone mad over a piece written by Jonny Griffiths, a Maths teacher at Paston College in North Walsham, Norfolk in the TES.
Since my Dad’s a teacher, I can recognise how Griffiths feels. My Dad’s always happy to help people out – always – but it can get draining for him when he’s been asked by the same student eighteen times in one week whether he’s definitely going to get an A, when someone’s seeking not your expertise but your opinion which you’ve already given.
Griffiths writes of his encounter with ‘Michael’ after the learning day has finished. (Presumably Michael’s not the pupil’s name, otherwise the teacher’ll no doubt be up for a disciplinary meeting pretty soon.) He’s so driven that it’s quickly become tedious for Griffiths to hear his sob stories about how he wrote this and that in the wrong place in January’s AS Level exam. ‘Michael’ talks of how he ‘only just got an A’ in his exams, how that’s clearly unsatisfactory and how his ‘heart’ is so ‘set on’ achieving an A, he’s covered his bedroom wall with Post-It notes. This is clearly a student so keen to go to his university of choice – Cambridge – that he will ask anyone at any time about it.
But Iain Martin and others have set about Griffiths, labelling him a lazy teacher for daring to suggest that ‘Michael’ should enjoy being 17 and stop fretting about his prospects of further education, when clearly there is no real need to worry; they suggest that the teacher is flattening his student’s aspirations.
What would they prefer? The student to be totally on edge about his future at Cambridge, something that might not happen if he has a bad exam? Or be like Michael Heseltine, his future written down on a napkin: Cambridge don by 26, Nobel Prize winner by 28… and be distraught when he only ends up going to Durham?
Griffiths writes that he told ‘Michael’ that it would surely be better to go to Bangor with three Cs at A Level and be happy than go to Cambridge with three As and hate it. Griffiths is charged with damaging his student’s prospects in the future again: Bangor is, for some reason, deemed sub-standard, not good enough for the pupils that should, because they have Post-It notes around their room and are fretful, be off to Oxbridge.
There is nothing in the piece that suggests that, as Martin says, Griffiths acts with ‘smug shamelessness’. What’s shameless about wanting someone to calm down about their future prospects when they seem to be too het up or reassuring them about their forthcoming exams? Nothing.
While Martin is right to say that there is an increased share of privately educated students taking up (what are perceived to be) top positions in Britain like they haven’t done since grammar schools were introduced across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, the reason for that isn’t poor standards in comprehensive schools. Far from it, it’s because quality is seen to be so entrenched in the universities which Martin holds with such regard.
Why, for example, shouldn’t the Prime Minister – (forget, temporarily, the fact that he is an Old Etonian, but rather that he went to Oxford) – have gone to Bangor University or have done a BTEC? There’s the social mobility problem right there. The more people from independent schools who go to Oxbridge, Russell Group universities and leave others places at what Martin would no doubt class lesser universities, the more unequal British society gets. As a Maths teacher in a sixth form college in Norfolk who no doubt knows this and that there’s not much he can do about it safe of teaching tens of teenagers a year and is bored of hearing the same rubbish from one student over and over again, that’s certainly not Jonny Griffiths’ fault.