Learning

Yesterday I completed a six week long psychology course that I signed up to through Futurelearn, a subsidiary of the Open University, that offers a variety of free, on line courses. On completion I was offered the opportunity to sit an external exam which could lead to a qualification. Although not exorbitant, the cost of this was enough to put me off the idea. I have no need for any extra qualifications.

Over the years I have earned the right to include a long string of letters after my name. I use none of them. If I were applying for a job I guess I would list the various accreditations on my CV, but they are no longer relevant to the life I lead now.

I signed up for this psychology course purely out of interest. It is the first time in my life that I have studied with a respected organisation, in this case the University of Warwick, purely for pleasure. The exams I studied for in my younger years were carefully selected to offer me the best chance of getting a well paid job. I get the impression that this approach and aspiration has fallen out of favour.

When my children’s school asks them to consider careers they are encouraged to think about what they enjoy. Whilst I think that it is important to take into account personal interest and ability, I also believe that the usefulness of the qualification should have some significance in the decision making process. It costs a great deal of money to go through higher education these days. A university education has become much more of an investment than it was in my day.

Had I chosen courses that interested me then I would have studied philosophy with, perhaps, a few modules of psychology and sociology thrown into the mix. I have always been fascinated by these subjects. Because of my interest I do a lot of related reading in my own time. I took modules in philosophy at university and excelled at the subject. I had to work stupidly hard at my main degree subject, computer science. The study of philosophy never felt like work.

I didn’t, however, consider that I could land a well paid job with such a degree, and that well paid job mattered to me. I wanted to be able to afford my own home, a car and to travel. For that I needed money. As a student I hated not having enough money. It instilled in me a determination to do whatever it took to earn enough to pay for the life I wished to lead.

I was also lucky of course. When I was going through the system a university education was still funded by government. By the time I graduated there were jobs available and house prices, although climbing, were nothing like as stupidly high as they are now. No matter how hard they work, my children will not have as easy a time as I had getting themselves established.

Perhaps this is why they are now encouraged to pursue their interests more than a potentially high earning career. Perhaps the days of debt free, home ownership have gone except for the uber wealthy minority.

Of course, economics fluctuate wildly over time. When I was studying, unemployment was high and jobs scarce so I knew that I would have to work hard at a sought after subject if I was to get to where I wanted to be. By the time I qualified though, the Thatcher boom years were in full flow and I undoubtedly benefited from that. Whether or not your politics considers her rule a triumph or a disaster for the country, those of us who were starting out when she was in power had the opportunity to reap rewards at the time.

I encourage my children to think about how they will use their qualifications when making choices. If they are going to incur a huge debt then they need to consider how they will pay it back, and whether it is worth getting into debt in the first place.

I have friends whose intelligent children have opted not to go to university because they do not wish to live under the shadow of a massive student loan. With the government currently selling off these debts, it is unclear how interest rates will be affected and how much will eventually be needed to pay them off. I can understand why a university education no longer looks so attractive.

I find this quite depressing. Whilst I do not consider further education to be a right, it seems sad that some of the most academically able choose not to attend purely because of the huge cost. With so many graduates unable to find jobs the incentive to get a degree in anything other than a sought after subject diminishes.

There are no easy answers. We cannot be held accountable for the times into which we are born, all that any of us can do is to work hard to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves. I wish that I could offer my children more, but ultimately they will have to find their own way and cope as best they can.

Whatever they choose to study, I hope that they retain a love of learning. It is possible to pursue what interests them as well as that which can be practically useful. Learning for learning’s sake can be a very satisfying pastime.

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Reality check

There are many things about the British state education system over which I despair. The teachers seem to be expected to work in a constant state of flux as governments meddle with the curriculum in an attempt to fool the electorate into believing that standards are rising. Hard though it may now be to actually educate our young people, it is the kids who suffer these ill thought out attempts at quick fixes as the exams they work so hard for become discredited. It doesn’t help when the teachers encourage our young people to expect too much for too little.

My children attend a large, mixed gender, state comprehensive school. Today my daughter was discussing career aspirations in class. Her teacher was emphasising the importance of aiming to do something that could be enjoyed. She told the class not to consider the remuneration but rather the pleasure to be gained from a career. Whilst I would certainly agree that money is not as important as happiness, and having money does not lead to happiness, not having enough money to cover essentials is going to put anyone in a very unhappy situation. I did not consider that the teacher was giving realistic advice.

Unless one has a vocation or another source of income, choosing a career can be a very tricky decision, not least because there is rarely only one path to each destination. Most people will go out to work because they need to pay their bills. They will want a few extras on top of the essentials and these must also be paid for. The money has to be earned.

In an ideal situation a person’s job would be enjoyable and fulfilling. However, in reality, most people will have to compromise in order to achieve a lifestyle acceptable to them. To suggest that the first requirement of any job is that it should be fun is to ignore life’s basic economics. Having to go each day to a job that one hates may be miserable but so is being unable to pay for food or heating. It is to be hoped that the choice need not be so stark, but not all jobs are well paid and the implications of that need to be understood.

Our young people are put under pressure to constantly work towards exams but are not given good advice about which subjects will be well regarded by prospective employers. They are encouraged to aim for tertiary education but are not advised as to which courses lead to jobs where there is demand for trainees. These things cannot always be known, but to encourage a young person to start their life with a huge debt and a qualification that few employers will want seems to me to be unwise and unfair.

I would never wish to stifle a young person’s dreams, but I believe that we do them a disservice if they grow up believing that what they want will happen just because they want it. Most things worth achieving take a huge amount of effort and dedication as well as a degree of luck. Having a back up plan which may not be so enticing but is more realistic should be considered.

State schools seem to be so intent on treating all pupils equally that they have forgotten how to manage expectations. There are careers that will suit the more academically able and careers that will suit the more practical students. Ability will not change just because it is not discussed. There are different routes into many careers for those who may not be able to manage exams successfully. In my view, explaining these alternatives and possibilities serves the child better than encouraging them to foster unrealistic ambitions. If a child wants to be an astronaut he can be encouraged to work towards that but with the understanding that being an engineer or scientist could also be pretty awesome.

The most important lesson that we can teach our children when they are considering a career is that they will have to put in a lot of effort to get where they want to be. It is not going to just happen. Suggesting that work should always be fun ignores why people are paid; the incentive is needed. None of this is to suggest that a career that is of no interest whatsoever should be aimed for just because it pays well. There is a balance to be reached between fulfilment and remuneration. Both matter.

Encouraging a culture of self entitlement is going to lead to dissatisfaction. Encouraging an attitude that accepts a bit of humility and a lot of drive to learn and succeed through hard work is more likely to take our young people to where they want to go. There will always be a few who get to live their dreams. For the vast majority it is possible to live a pretty good life by working hard and enjoying the rewards this brings. A great deal of satisfaction can be gained from knowing that achievements have been earned through an individual’s effort and commitment. I would rate a feeling of self-fulfilment over temporal fun.

Money Queen

Why I became an amateur teacher

My three children all attended the local primary school in the village where we live. The school gets impressive reports from Ofsted inspections and holds up well in the government’s school performance league tables. Most of the pupils come from relatively affluent homes and have intelligent parents who care about their children’s education and well being. Interested and supportive parents can be a double edged sword for teachers who need space and freedom to be allowed to teach, but compared to many other establishments, teaching in this school should not have been too much of a challenge.

It is unfortunate that the school has a culture of bullying. Not the violent, frightening, obvious bullying but the insidious, misery inducing, mental bullying of the powerful, popular protagonist. It starts in the early years with minor threats such as to exclude a child from a party that everyone else is invited to if they do not do as they are asked. This continues through the complex iterations of development as the bully realises that he can get away with his cruelty and thrive. The staff at the school were either unaware or disinterested. Perhaps they thought it was just something that the kids needed to learn to put up with. Thankfully, not all schools are so accepting of this type of behaviour.

To say that none of my children enjoyed their time at primary school would be to seriously understate their feelings on the matter. I was not aware until well after the older two had left just how much they had disliked the place. Much of this was down to boredom and the helplessness felt when they observed innocents being blamed and bullies rewarded. As their parent I tried to talk to staff at the school about particular issues when they directly affected my children but things rarely improved. This situation finally came to a head when my youngest son was nearing the end of his penultimate year. Whilst trying to have a discussion with the Headteacher she went red in the face (a sure sign that she was angry) and told me that I was a bad parent.

I would never hold myself up as a shining example of good parenting but I know for sure that I am not and never have been a bad parent. I considered carefully this breakdown of trust between the school and myself, looked at how particularly unhappy my child was, and decided that I needed to remove him from the cause of his misery. I believed that he needed nurturing, to have his confidence in himself rebuilt, and to catch up academically after  years of neglect. I took the decision to home school him.

It surprises me that not many parents are aware of the rules surrounding a child’s education.  In the UK, education is compulsory between the ages of five and seventeen, but attending school is not. There are a plethora of resources available on the internet which provide all that is needed to plan interesting and challenging lessons for all ages and abilities. Although state schools must follow a national curriculum this is not a requirement for those being educated outside of the system.

When I first discussed with my son my idea of becoming his teacher he asked a few pertinent questions and then, showing great excitement, wanted it to happen immediately. So it did. The next day I delivered the required letter to the school, he went to say goodbye to his teacher and friends and we left. Rarely have I seen him happier. I ensured that he was aware that if he did not work hard at his lessons for me then he would be sent back to school (a different one), but this was never an issue. He was focused, diligent and cheerful in his work. We had a lot of fun.

During this time, my older two children were attending a secondary school in one of our nearby towns. They had taken a little while to settle in after their experiences at primary school but seemed to have found friends and were doing well academically. I was not convinced that I would be able to teach my youngest son much beyond primary level so he was aware that he would only be home schooled until he was old enough to join his siblings. The only request he made was that he would be put in a class away from any of the pupils he had known at primary school. The secondary school acquiesced to this request and in due course he made the transition as smoothly as I could hope.

My son thrived being home schooled. We went out and about a great deal, studying local history and geography in situ. These field studies formed the basis for many of our other lessons. With one to one teaching concentrating on the areas he did not understand so well he would whizz through my lesson plans. It was incredibly hard work for me. As I had never taught before I would spend hours preparing the lessons, teach the lessons, and then revert to being mum at the end of the day. I had to ensure that the rest of my family still got my time and attention. It was challenging and exhausting but so rewarding.

One of the things that has surprised and somewhat saddened me since I took the decision to home school is the response I have had from other parents. Local parents have all said they understand why I did it – and several have commented that they wish they had the courage and confidence to do the same. Other parents have approached me for advice as they are seriously considering removing their children from school. How sad that the system is failing so many. I was always aware that other parents had issues as each year there would be a trickle of local families moving their children to another school, not because of family circumstances but because long standing problems were not being dealt with. I guess there must have been some satisfied parents but I have yet to talk to them.

Home schooling will not suit everyone. It requires time, effort and infinite patience from the teacher and a willingness to learn from the pupil. As a result of our experience I have met a number of other home schooled kids and they appear so confident, articulate and pleasant compared to their peers. Perhaps it is the type of child who suits home schooling as much as the method of education. Taking my child out of the emotionally toxic environment of that school was certainly right for him.

Homeschooling schedules

School days

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.

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