Sunday, 22 January 2012

What can we learn from British grammar/state/private schools?

Recently in the UK there has been much written and said about the "grammar school".

Singapore has its PSLE. Britain had the 11-plus.

Those who were deemed academic were streamed into grammar schools. Those who did not do so well were channelled into the comprehensive or vocational schools.

Today there are only 164 grammar schools as most have been converted to comprehensives, taking children of all abilities.

Children who wish to have a shot at the grammars are still required to take some form of entrance exam. Otherwise children are allotted schools by postcode, except for certain selective church-based and other "government-maintained" schools.

So it does not matter whether you worked hard or not. If you happened to live next door to a very good school you get there even if you are thick. That is why property prices near good schools are much higher.

If you are clever, very clever, and your nearest secondary is a sink school, and even if your parents indicated that you would prefer to travel further to get to a good school, you often got sent there any way.

One reason for abolishing/reducing grammar schools is that it segregates and labels one group as "able" and the rest as "not-so-able". People opposed to grammar schools say they "fuel elitism".

O no, you cannot have one group of students given an educational advantage over another group based on innate ability.

A British idea of fairness? Or at least one (rather skewed) view of it.

[Compare: Lots of children are scarred by doing badly in PSLE, so let's scrap it.]

Some have argued that the 11-plus was not a true test of ability because those from better socio-economic backgrounds have the wherewithal to hire tutors to coach their children whilst the poorer children cannot even afford to buy assessment papers for practice.

Are PSLE age children not coached to death? [O, most children in Singapore are coached to within an inch of sanity, some say.]

Grammar school supporters argue that it is the best mechanism for social mobility. It did not matter that children came from poor families. If they were gifted and/or hard-working, they got to grammar schools.

Here they learned Latin and other classical subjects, learned to do serious maths, and then moved on to Oxbridge and other red brick universities.

Opponents however say, "Only a tiny proportion of grammar school pupils actually do come from poorer backgrounds."

Ergo, the social mobility argument was shot down. Even that tiny proportion who might have managed some social mobility via grammar schools are now deprived of that opportunity.

The Labour government (many of which ministers had a grammar school or private school education, I've been told) said "no more new grammar schools".

These days the new education minister (called Secretary of State for Education) Michael Gove seems to like the idea of grammar schools but has his hands tied by legislation. And so some are accusing him of bringing them back "by the back door", through allowing existing grammar schools to start "satellite schools".

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 11-plus and grammar schools may be, I think we need to examine the issue of selection.

The purpose of exams, surely, for any rational human being is to separate the sheep from the goats at some point or other. (Please feel free to disagree.)

Those who do well academically are rewarded in one way, and those who don't must be helped into areas of training that would prepare them for an independent adult life.

It pains me to hear my son complain about how he feels he is a failure on the football field. He does not like football. He does not even watch football on TV. Frankly he is rubbish at football.

He plays football because as a conscientious pupil at this school he is required to play. But he would drop it as soon as he could. If football is a compulsory exam subject, my son would be totally and utterly miserable.

By the same argument, why make a child who is not good at Maths, Science and English (or second language for that matter) continue to struggle with those subjects at a level of competence that they would not need to assure their chances of personal and career advancement?

Ergo, selection is a good thing.

On the other hand, when we do not reward children appropriately, when we give them nothing to aim towards, it becomes a race to the bottom. Why work hard? If no matter how hard I worked I would end up in the nearest sink school , why bother indeed?

All around me I see parents desperate that their state schools are not looking after their more gifted offspring.

If you are middling or not so clever, you're OK, but if you are gifted, or of above intelligence, or are just keen to learn, you have a hard fight in a class full of children who do not wish to learn.

I "taught" a group of young secondary school age children at Sunday School. I could not get a word in because they are not used to sitting quietly to listen to someone else expressing an opinion.

"Is this how you behave at school?" I asked.

"Yes," they chorused in reply.

In the last couple of days we have Failing secondary schools placed on list of shame. It highlights how schools ignore the needs of gifted students. Instead they focus on the borderline C-D pupils, trying to push the Ds into the Cs so that the school appears to do OK on the "A to C" league tables.

As for the social mobility argument, it has been observed that many Labour politicians and teacher leaders who have benefitted from a grammar school education, benefitted from social mobility, have raised the drawbridge once they got "inside".

[Is this the same picture in Singapore? Are past scholars now making it difficult for other non-scholar families to access the privileges they received?]

I write as one born into a family which would have been considered very poor. Passing my PSLE well and going to RGS completely changed my life and aspirations.

And I want the same for every young boy and girl who is able to have a chance to go to a school like RGS, both in Singapore and the UK.

Some pupils make it to grammar school after intensive tutoring. And then they struggle. Worse they could actually slow down the progress of the more able students, dragging the whole school down.

The headmaster at my son's school advised: if your child needs tuition to get to a [certain highly academic] school, then it is not the right school for your child.

How wise.

I would ban private tuition. But of course this is not possible. Or children who have had tuition should be marked differently from those who have not.

Only when we level the playing field could the truly able children from whatever disadvantaged background be given the chance to get to a grammar school and then to university.

Because there is no reward commensurate with doing well, or attempting to do well, UK schools have failed many of our brightest children.

OK, perhaps it's not fair to select merely on academic ability. What about selecting on the basis of natural talent in art, music, drama, sport, DIY skills, etc.

[It heartens me to know that there are some Singapore schools already selecting on such bases. But we need more of these.]

If your child happens to be shortchanged even by those criteria then what about selection on the basis of good behaviour? Or helpfulness? Then at least some schools have a chance to teach those who really wish to learn.

Of course the minimum skills in Maths, Science and English, knowledge which help us to function as normal human beings cannot be overlooked. Not many of us need to have an intimate knowledge of calculus to go through life. Maths, for example, could be taught at a slower pace for those who are less able.

The problem with British schools is the race to the bottom means many pupils leave school without the minimum skills required to do any job to any degree of competence. (I've been told that there are school leavers who wouldn't know that 0.5 and 1/2 (half) are equivalent measures.)

A school is not a factory. What I like about the ethos at my son's school is their firm belief that every child is gifted. The teachers try to identify these (sometimes hidden) gifts and nurture them.

It is a school where the teachers know every child by name. Senior Science and Maths masters go down to read books to the youngest children. This is especially important for boys so that they do not think that teaching/learning is a female thing.

The staff are able to discuss the progress of every child at meetings due to the small size of the school. They also get to know the parents well.

The size of classes vary from a high in the mid-twenties to single-digit numbers (in the upper classes when children leave to go to other schools, countries, when parents can no longer afford the fees, etc).

Economists preach the economies of scale. I don't think this works in the ideal school context.

If the aim of schools is to make carbon copies of items, then yes, let's talk economies of scale. But identifying the innate gifts of children and nurturing these gifts is a totally different mission.

Schools can try economies of scale in different ways.

My son is going to a school with nearly 700 pupils. It is not big compared to many schools, but the boys are looked after in groups of 60. There is a constant figure (and two assistants) to see to the pastoral needs of each child throughout his five-year stay in the school.

Mum used to say yaat yeung maai sek choet baak yeung yan (Cantonese: one type of rice feeds/produces 100 types of people) and hong hong choet zhong yuen (Cantonese: you can produce a "scholar" in every occupation).

My vision for the new Dragon year? An education system that would nurture a "scholar" in every field, to support every child into a career that will be respected by a gracious society that does not only worship the academic, the rich and famous. I wonder if that would make happier, more creative and confident children, and therefore happier parents.

If you wish the school system to improve, perhaps you could copy this post to your MP or the ministry of education.

Saan nien faai lok! Sum sheung see seng! (Cantonese)

[Akan Datang: a post on why boys should transfer to secondary school later than girls.]

A green light for more grammars?

Grammar schools 'to expand' to meet growing demand

The new academies are a revolutionary force in British education

The creeping return of the grammar school ("creeping"?)

So who is good enough to get into Cambridge? (first hand account that might interest parents and young people)

No comments: