Good Schools

Tessa Blackstone

  • The Changing Anatomy of Britain by Anthony Sampson
    Hodder, 476 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 340 20964 X
  • An English Education: A Perspective of Eton by Richard Ollard
    Collins, 216 pp, £9.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 00 216495 7
  • Survival Programmes in Britain’s Inner Cities
    Open University, 224 pp, £6.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 335 10111 9
  • Liverpool 8 by John Cornelius
    Murray, 177 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3975 7
  • The Other Britain edited by Paul Barker
    Routledge, 276 pp, £9.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9308 X

There is probably even more ill-informed punditry around about our educational system and its contribution to Britain’s decline than there is about the trade unions, management and industrial relations. Everyone thinks he knows what schools should do. However ignorant about the practicalities of teaching in the 1980s, people are willing to launch forth into diatribes against our state schools for failing to do this, that or the other. There is an ever-increasing list of demands made on the schools, some of which conflict with each other, so that it is hardly surprising that some of them sag under the weight of it all. At the same time, their clients become more critical, more hostile to authority and less manipulable.

We expect our schools to turn out pupils who are literate and numerate. We expect them to give their pupils some experience and understanding of their cultural heritage. We want them to know something about science and technology, including the principles of computing and how to make use of the new technologies derived from the silicon chip. We expect them to prepare young people for the world of work and to provide good advice about the range of possible careers. Preparation for parenthood, for domestic roles and for citizenship all feature among the requirements. There is a clamour for multi-cultural education and for schooling which will improve the opportunities of girls later in life. The list is inexhaustible. In the background, there is a relentless refrain, like a drum that never stops beating, on the need to maintain academic standards. As if this were not enough, we hear our school system being blamed for Britain’s industrial decline and for the perpetuation of serious inequalities in the distribution of power, status and wealth.

Let us look at some of the progress that has been made over the last twenty years or so. First of all, the system has been considerably expanded both to take in the products of the boom in the birth-rate and to take in groups which previously did not benefit from education at all. Rapid expansion always puts strain on a system as it struggles to grow fast enough to accommodate increases in numbers. Yet that expansion took place relatively smoothly and without much evidence that quality was sacrificed to quantity. Difficult categories of young people have been incorporated into the system. For example, not very long ago, severely handicapped children were considered ineducable and were written off as such: this is no longer so. Large numbers of young people finished their education at the age of 15, never to return to any form of further education or training, full or part-time: this is no longer so. The school leaving age has been raised to 16, without the dire consequences predicted by some, and more recently the Youth Opportunities Programme has provided some post-school education, training and work experience, in an incredibly short space of time, for the ever-growing numbers of unemployed school leavers.

Secondly, our schools have become more sensitive to the needs of the ethnic-minority groups and of girls. Two decades ago the notion of multi-cultural education was virtually unheard of: children from minority groups were expected to assimilate the majority culture, with little attention paid to their own linguistic or cultural needs. The numbers of minority-group children have, of course, grown since then, as has the range of backgrounds from which they come. In the Inner London Education Authority alone there are 50,000 foreign-language speakers, covering 130 individual languages. The growth in the number of minority-group children has been a factor in forcing greater attention to their needs. But there has also been a change in attitude on the part of the authorities and of teachers. Two decades ago no one worried about the fact that a considerably smaller proportion of girls than boys was staying on at school and taking A Levels, or that girls were opting out of science subjects at the age of 14. Now there is concern about this, and steps are being taken to try to deal with the subtle and sometimes subconscious forms of discrimination that may have undesirable effects on girls’ aspirations.

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