I do not know who it was who first promoted the idea that our school days are the best days of our lives. I do remember thinking as a teenager that, if this was true, then I had little to look forward to. Thankfully my life has improved immeasurably from those days of cold classrooms, endless lessons and unfathomable peer rules. Primary school, secondary school and university each had their moments, but I was very glad when I could finally escape the clutches of academia. I did not at the time consider that having children would require me to embark on a whole new relationship with the educational establishment.
A parent’s relationship with their child’s school is a tricky one. On the one hand the parent wishes to be visible so that it is clear that they care about their child’s education. On the other hand they do not wish to interfere as the teachers need to be allowed to do their job unhindered. I believe that my children would be rather embarrassed if I were to contact their teachers without an invitation. Thus, I attend organised meetings about trips away or subject choices, but talk one to one with individual teachers only at the annual parent/teacher interviews.
I do not enjoy going into school for any of these events. The classrooms are no longer cold, but the atmosphere brings back too many bad memories. Just as in my day, some teachers are approachable and some are interesting. However, many of them can still make me feel that I am not quite behaving as I should. I no longer concern myself with being judged by my peers, but the pupils who accompany them, their children, can be a daunting prospect. I do not wish to embarrass my children in an environment where standing out in any way provides ammunition.
Whilst my views may be coloured by my own negative experiences of school I do believe that they are necessary as a means to provide our young people with a good, academic or vocational education, and to allow them to practise basic social skills. I do not adhere to the notion that they should be engineering social change. At one interview with my child’s English teacher I asked what she should be reading to assist her in writing about current affairs. He suggested the Guardian newspaper. I was not impressed. When we got home I suggested that she should read the Guardian, Telegraph, Independent and Daily Mail to see how the same news item could be interpreted for a perceived readership. I then cautioned her to take all of what was written with a large pinch of salt. Whatever views and beliefs my children grow up with I want them to be able to make up their own minds. I will share my views but will not tell them what to think. Rather, I want them to learn how to think, to listen, consider, question and decide for themselves based on knowledge and a rational judgement.
I wonder if there was such a strong emphasis on moulding young minds to a particular way of thinking when I was at school. It is, of course, not a new concept. As Stalin famously said, “Education is a weapon whose effects depend on who holds it in his hands and at whom it is aimed” and “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.” What does seem to have changed though is the emphasis now given to providing the right answer for an exam rather than to considering options and arguing a case. Questioning the approved orthodoxy is strongly discouraged and disapproved of. Children who ask too many questions are regarded as difficult. Teachers, it is the question that is difficult, not the child.
For my secondary education I attended a fairly small, girls grammar school, whereas my children attend a large, mixed comprehensive. I believe that this will expose them to a more typical social mix than I experienced, and I see this as a good thing. What would be better, in my view, would be if the teaching profession could attract more liberal thinking individuals, and if the curriculum could allow them to teach to their abilities rather than to a set of rigid rules. Greater variety could make lessons so much more interesting. Perhaps school days could then even be considered, if not the best of days, at least satisfactory to good.