Letters: ‘The Human Cost of Education’

envelopeDear Orkney News,

The Ruth Wishart article in the National (Monday 10th August) was a breath of fresh air on the subject of education.

Politicians across the UK have shown themselves to have more concern for the integrity of “The System” than for the well being of young people. Square pegs and round holes does not begin to describe the cruel stupidity on display around the issue of exam results.

I don’t have children myself, but I would like to give a personal view on education using a literary link. In 1968 Barry Hines gave the world what I consider to be the greatest working class character in the English language, namely Billy Casper, in A Kestrel For A Knave. In the following year he was made flesh by Dai Bradley, when he gave a stellar performance as Billy in the film Kes.

Having been born and raised in a Pit Village in the East Midlands, Kes is a documentary not a film and I always wonder after watching the film, “Where did Billy go from here?”. For a brief moment a teacher noticed that Billy was much more the bag of rags hunched at a desk, but was that his one and only day in the sun? Some contemporaries of mine who entered the daunting world of education on the same day as me, were already sentenced by their family circumstances and the blindness of the state system to eleven wasted years, staring blankly at a blackboard, as ever larger quantities of facts, figures and dancing numbers were shovelled at them. Only a tiny fraction of us had the good fortune to come into the orbit of a teacher who saw the spark of genius we all carry. For the vast majority of us, it was a case of make the best of it if you can, take it or leave it. I was lucky in catching the reading bug early, which has left me reasonably literate, but if I was put up against an eleven year old and tested on Maths, I’m sure I’d be handed my arse on a plate. I’m aware that state education is much better than when I experienced it in the 70s, but it could still room for it to be much, much more.

So here’s a challenge for all elected politicians across the UK. Do you think state education should produce worker Bees or rounded Human beings capable of making sense of the world around them, armed with the skills to navigate the real world?

If it’s Bees (or Sheep as the House Martins sang about) you want, then carry on with “The System”. If not, then use the opportunity of this horrible year to reshape education provision from the cradle to the grave.

Have a slow, play based introduction to education. Delay any formal education until children are 7 years old. Introduce languages early in a play and song based setting, as starting on foreign languages at eleven and delivering them as subjects, leaves them as dead as Latin or attic Greek to most youngsters. Make music a core part of school life from the beginning. Make the timing of any exams flexible in accordance with the uneven nature of development in young people. And finally fund a lifetime education budget, which would allow those who for whatever reason, could not make the most of their formal education years, to have an educational “Booster Jab” when it best suits their needs.

Can we stop for but a moment, a minute or an hour, and view the world with wonder as we once did as a child?

Or is our fate to blindly dig like a Mole Rat underground?

Yours, Jon Southerington, Orkney

school pupils

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4 replies »

  1. Jon, you’ve got me remembering – primary school – ‘Time & Tune’ on the radio – that’s how come I know those old folk songs. Dancing lessons, actual dancing lessons, all kinds of dancing – ‘Music & Movement’, again, off the radio – that’s how come I know lots of dances.
    Then – the big one – I did the 11 Plus, passed, and got to go to Grammar school. Then…..I got a full grant to go to Uni.

    My Dad was a school caretaker, my mum was a school dinner lady and cleaner. I was lucky in that my nursery school, primary school and secondary school, all had, let’s say, an expansive attitude to what education meant.
    I was very, very lucky to get the chance to take the 11 Plus. Then, without a grant, I couldn’t have gone on to further education. To me, one of the very worst things was when that grant system was cut – mostly, now, it’s Middle class kids who get to go to Uni – and don’t they just! It seems like every blessed one of them – Gap year then Uni, with Mum and Dad paying through the nose for everything.
    Having to manage living on a grant, was a good preparation for managing your finances, in ‘real’ life.

    As an aside, my generation were also the lucky ones, with orange juice provided for pre-school children, then school milk. Who remembers ‘Maggie Thatcher The Milk Snatcher’?
    And yet there is a view that things are so much better and easier now – that there are more options open to us in our lives. I doot it.

    My goodness, you have brought back memories – and got me thinking, yet again, of how lucky my generation was. Not to mention the NHS, without which, I’d be dead.

    I don’t know if I’ve done anything particularly note-worthy with my life, but – I got the chances, and had the world laid before me, through education. A wide education, based more on learning, than on ‘productivity’.

    And, you mention ‘Kes’ – indeed – a truly grim picture of what life was like for so many. The two things which stay with me from that tale, are….when he gets the strap, on his hands, when he hadn’t done anything – the Headmaster just wouldn’t listen to him. And – when his big brother kills the bird. Both are to do with un-fairness – and that’s what a lot of it comes down to – unfairness. Things got fairer, for a time, and now….????

  2. PS

    Going back one more generation – my Dad won a place at secondary school, but Granny couldn’t afford the uniform ( she was a widow – I’m not sure if there was a widow’s pension in 1922). So, he left school at age 11, and worked on the family farm until he was old enough to go over to England and as an itinerant farm worker. Then, various bitty jobs until he landed the caretaker job, which, compared to his previous jobs, was quite a cushy number.
    Why I’m telling this tale, is – it’s not just school that gives you your education. If you are fortunate enough to have lively minded parents, they teach you, too. Dad was an intelligent, thinking man, and he taught me a lot about wildlife – plants and animals. And a certain kind of attitude to life, too.
    Mum left school aged eleven, ironically enough to go looking after a rich person’s children. And yet, she could spout Shakespeare – not just learnt by rote, but understanding the meaning. For example, we’d be observing someone’s behaviour, and she’d lean over to me and say “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much, such men are dangerous.” You get the idea? A kind of code which we used about what we were observing. And reams and reams of poetry, too. A lot of W.B. Yeats.
    Parents can help with our education, too – but for those who don’t have lively minded parents – who encourage lively minds in their children – lively minds, and the acceptance of lively minds at school, are essential.

  3. Good thoughts.and totally agree about the numbers game. I wish we could have a proper national discussion in Scotland about education.

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