Please Sir, can I have a better education system?

Demolished Crown Woods

During a recent trawl of the internet I happened upon an article by my A-Level English teacher, Patrick Yarker. His piece for Workers’ Liberty lamented the death of Crown Woods, my old elephant man comprehensive, and its replacement with a selective quad of colleges, built by business and tailored to its mercenary preoccupations. For Yarker this was the death of the comprehensive dream and the commodification of childhood.

I found my old teacher’s attack on edu-business sound; no parent worthy of the name wants their son or daughter’s textbooks sponsored by Pepsi (Coke, perhaps), nor to have their child segregated according to specious points of differentiation. But as a sprog who spent three years in the school Yarker venerates, I found many of his conclusions regarding comprehensive education naïve, which is what we call idealism that’s been tested against experience and found wanting. The following is a response to the piece you can read here.

Dear Patrick,

As my former English teacher I hope you’ll take responsibility for any errors in spelling and grammar below.

You began with your first experience of Crown Woods, so let me briefly tell you about mine. I came to the school from Humphry Davy, a former Cornish grammar with an intake of 800. In my first two years there I was educated on a “lower site” with a small group of around 150 pupils. That school felt like a community, everyone was friendly and personable – in short, it felt like a school as I imagine a school to be. In contrast Crown Woods was impersonal and anonymous. In addition to being unwieldy I thought it was an ugly sausage factory, not a building one could take pride in or forge an emotional connection with.

This is superficial of course but it speaks to something fundamental, namely how the ethos of a school, as manifest in its intake and space, informs the psychological disposition of the children who attend (then later choose not to). You lamented the destruction of the school’s “classrooms, labs, gyms and workshops” but they were characterless spaces and it’s just possible they fostered characterlessness.

You talk about the values of comprehensive education, but I suggest the delivery model was at odds with the principle. Comprehensive education implies, perhaps demands, a full or total education, but in the last century we rightly came to distrust any system prefixed by “total”. Social integration, which must be a part of any total system of development, seems noble in the abstract, but how can such a system be tailored to the needs of individuals? You say Edu-business reduces children to an abstraction – an “it”, but doesn’t a catch-all model do the same?

No one, buoyed by idealism, would create a system that wilfully segregated children, but here schools are fighting social forces far stronger than a state education provider. Trying to rally against such forces using state power is like holding an umbrella up to a tornado. Social segregation begins in the home; it starts with domestic indoctrination, class consciousness, and whatever passes for parental values. In the playground children self-segregate for the most part – they’re compelled, in a bid to shore up their fragile identity, to seek out children ostensibly similar to themselves.

It would be sublime to believe that kids can transcend their “type”, that they can break out of the straightjacket they’re put in at birth, but as children get older they begin to note the fabric of this straightjacket on other kids, delineate the edge of the straps. Typically young bucks and does that grew up with a mixed group of friends will hone their process of selection in late adolescence, looking for those who share their outlook and interests as they socially position themselves. In other words, by the time comp-kids are adults they’ve typically rolled back the forced integration of their school years. All they have to show for the experience are memories of children that they found either effete or degenerate and senseless. This is a child’s one true shared experience: playground streaming.

I’m cheered by the idea that there’s no such thing as general academic ability; that everyone’s born with limitless potential. No child feels that, you understand. The pupils of the old Crown Woods had an intuitive understanding of intelligence, honed from primary school onwards. Of course innate ability, whatever that means, isn’t something other kids can measure. If it’s not known to the children themselves, as it’s uncultivated, then it won’t be obvious to other tadpoles.

Yet kids aren’t bad at reading what’s behind the eyes, at sensing who’s curious and who isn’t, which child’s thoughtful and which are forever struggling to catch up with their mouths. In a comprehensive you’re bedfellows with those whose temperaments are anathema to your own. Were the kids of Crown Woods wrong to follow their instincts, categorise and self-select, based on what they found? Or could it be that if potential isn’t cultivated from the get go, it soon becomes limited, like (and here comes a cliché, so apologies, I may get marked down) a muscle that’s never used. Perhaps we’re unfixed at birth, but at fifteen? Thirty? When is it too late to take Danny Shunk, with his scatological fixation, propensity to flash his genitals, and belief that Shakespeare’s a type of weapon, and turn him into a genius?

You alluded to the benefits of the comprehensive principle. As a product of that system I don’t accept I’ve enjoyed any social benefit. I may integrate more easily with people from different backgrounds, but this malleability hasn’t led to an embarrassment of social riches. At Crown Woods these kids almost wasted as much of my time as I did.

So what of students helping others to learn? The basic problem for educationalists that put their faith in that idea is this: every precocious child who takes time out to help his less focused, less thoughtful peer, is a child who’s not been challenged. If the classroom is out of balance; if there’s fewer curious children than curious, student-talk is subject to the compulsory pressure of peer groups, which will often veer toward the tangential and trivial.

In a culture where curiosity is viewed with suspicion, because it makes the incurious insecure, the opportunities for kids that want to learn are significantly reduced. The default assumption in your piece is that these structural principles improved schools but I saw no evidence of an intellectually stimulating environment at Crown Woods, just a place where the curious struggled to get on.

If you want to beat the “fixed quantum” principle you need a more holistic education system; one that compels parents and households to be part of the developmental cycle. There has to be a constitution; one that each family is obliged to sign up to – including fundamental principles like social difference as an injustice (if fixed as a problem early, perhaps kids would grow up compelled to solve it, rather than perpetuate it) and the child’s right to learn, in other words, each family would be responsible for the uninterrupted learning of every other, a policy that by extension would prohibit impediments such as bullying and intimidation.

Only by instilling this principle from the start could you hope to address the cultural malaise that sank Crown Woods. No child should be written off young, or labelled, but that requires a nuanced and individuated approach to teaching that the comprehensive system cannot accommodate. In fact, given it’s an exercise in collectivisation, it’s hard to see how it could ever succeed on that basis. Each and every one of us is unique; we have different psychological barriers and respond to different kinds of learning. Crown Woods College isn’t the answer, but nor was the school it replaced.




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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. When were you at Humphry Davy, Ed? The lower site was great, but it has all gone now; all years are on the same (upper) site.

    • Hi Ade,

      ’88-91. Yeah, I know of all the changes, I still go back from time to time. They built houses on the lower site, the bastards. It was a lovely old school building. It’s a shame it’s gone.

  2. Have now read your piece about Penzance so I realise you know about the school!

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