British Education: Tom Brown’s Alumni of Angst

Caricature of Thomas Hughes M.P. (1822-1896). ...
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Purchase via the Bankside Book StoreThe British Education system has spawned a myriad of literary classic masterpieces over the centuries. There is probably non more famous than Tom Brown’s Schooldays and it is my belief; this genre of the written word may well be responsible for distorting our general views about education in the UK…

I, like many others, am the product of the British education system but unlike many, the product of a system that is (arguably), not what it used to be. I have experienced (or endured dependent upon your viewpoint), both state and private school.

I went to several different schools during the 1960’s and 1970’s, in both the South and North of England. Four different state funded primary schools and two separate secondary schools, the first of which was state funded and the latter privately so.

But despite a modicum of juvenile chastisement, which many kids endure during their school years, every school be it public or private, generally has it’s very own Flashman types. The bully has always existed and unfortunately, continues to do so, it’s how that bully is dealt with that matters.

I also undertook higher education, in later life, in my own time and at my own expense, as opposed to the ‘normal’ state funded and full-time method. A route often seen as something of an expected right of passage. That latter expectation also appears to be something that must be available to all; irrespective of social or academic background, or financial ability. Up until more recently that is.

To the majority of people, the two most important factors of our education system are; (a) the actual quality and standards of the education being delivered and (b), the ultimate capabilities of those graduating from that process.

Despite this almost given fact, it appears a great deal of public opinion around our education system is mostly born out of sociopolitical rhetoric. Much of it often finds its roots in little more than puerile and inane class warfare. A media-fuelled synthetic battle between the perceived have’s & have not’s, mischievously perpetuated by politicians for personal and/or political purposes.

In The Guardian this week George Monbiot, author of several bestselling books about our society wrote;  The British boarding school remains a bastion of cruelty – “While condemning global injustices against children, we fail to examine the ethics of removing seven-year-olds from their families” (read more).

Monbiot’s piece appeared to be (mostly) examining the psychological impacts upon children and apportioning blame to their parents. Charging them with being responsible for the perceived ‘trauma’ experienced by those children who are packed off to boarding school and removed from the family unit. In addition, some of the wording partly suggests some sort of Dickensian methodology or Victorian family values and standards at play in the overall process.

In my experience, and that of many of my old school chums (I describe them as such purposely to placate the expectations of the usual critics), contrary to what is o often espoused; time spent at boarding school is not actually as ‘traumatic’ (or Dickensian) as the ‘class warriors’ would have you believe, at least not for most. For many graduates, the often realised more personal and practical advantages in their adult life outweigh the negative ones. And I’m not referring to the old school tie club comment, such a favourite of the rhetoric!

Despite all the general perceptions of public school education, and with the exception of very few establishments, this type of education (at almost any school) is usually available to most, whatever their social background. Yes some may involve higher fees than others but that can usually be offset by grants and scholarships.

Financial factors aside, the vast majority of non state funded schools select and accept their prospective students purely upon scholastic potential and/or ability. It is probably one of the major reasons why – so many are consistently placed in the higher ranks of academic achievement. It’s also a factor which provides evidence as to why so many parents are prepared to invest in their children’s future.

A recent article from The Telegraph points out; Independent schools have parents queueing at their doors in spite of the troubled economic climate” (see here). Private boarding schools may well be the most expensive form of schooling in the UK but the number of pupils enrolled in boarding schools is actually in the ascendant. It’s all about standards and quality and nothing to do with class warfare.

A major failing in our state schooling for so many years has been the dumbing down of the education process, despite what politicians and government statistics would have us believe. Couple this with the vast mountain of ancillary issues around funding, teacher training, ability and pupil ratios et al and you should start to understand some of the problems.

Irrespective of all these issues impacting upon the quality of education being delivered to our children, all most parents actually want, simply and understandably is, the best possible education for their children.

Many of these problems have their roots in decades of bean counting management, just like many other areas of the public sector (see here). That and the almost continuous political pandering to the, mostly self-imposed, educational underdog. For far too long it has been politically correct and expedient to cater for those who mostly chose to slide along through the system, students and teachers alike.

Earlier this month, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) announced plans to simplify procedures for handling inadequate teachers (see here). These proposed changes will mean that a headteacher will be able to remove poor performing teachers far more easily. Despite the concerns from teaching unions, who obviously have a vested interest in the contrary, is this really such a bad thing?

This week the government’s new chief inspector of schools for England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, also announced; he is going to get rid of the “satisfactory” grade for schools. He (and many others I suspect) believe too many schools are just “coasting” along.

The head of Ofsted, told the BBC that the category will be replaced with “requires improvement”, which would entail more regular inspections. Whether or not this is a good move is also open to debate. Many teachers would say the whole process actually has a negative impact upon the system however; should those who are performinf well actually be worried?

Whether or not more robust and regular inspection regimes will deliver the required enhanced results is questionable. As the inspections will continue to be driven by targets and statistical information, that mostly ignore the needs or results of individuals, I hardly think it likely.

Despite my lack of formal qualifications as an educationalist, I spend a lot of my time talking with people who do, I’ve also always had an interest in the overall subject. When you spend every day of your working life interacting with the products of that system, it very quickly becomes a relevent and important factor in how you do your work.

Whatever your particular memories or thoughts on education, Thomas Hughes and Flashman actually have a lot to bloody answer for. And all that before you even start to consider the government derived failings in the system…

3 thoughts on “British Education: Tom Brown’s Alumni of Angst

  1. Problems in education arise because 50% of our kids can’t really benefit much from what’s on offer in our schools. Report after report states that all kids do better where discipline is good (often called ‘focus on character’ these days), but this is so obvious one wonders why we need to demonstrate it through “research”. My own guess is that universal education as we have it has failed and we need a brave new approach. Schools and universities are now stat-juking as “reliably” as ACPO.
    I’m pretty sure we need less school and national service at some stage from 14 to 21 for all – though not the old form.


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