‘I sometimes think that the grades are the least of what you learn in school’

By | 26 August 2021

There’s nothing like a pandemic to give you time to think. Life as we have known it – personally, individually and in common with others – just stops. No, you can’t go out. Yes, you must stay in. We have certainly lived through revolutionary times. I wonder if more is possible.

In particular, I wonder if we might actually transform schools as we know them, go the whole revolutionary hog, and keep them open all year. Think how that would put a spanner in the works of all the holiday firms which double their prices as soon as the school holidays begin, ditto the private rentals on the coast or tourist cities.

School for 52 weeks a year – choose your dates, as long as you manage roughly the same number of weeks learning as happens currently in our three traditional terms.

And how about another version of revolutionary thought: imagine being able to pick and choose your schools to go with a child’s interests and schools’ evident provision. Freedom to decide, “I go to school X for the sciences, but I do languages with school Z – wonderful Spanish there – oh and I found Latin at school Y, a bit rare, that, but it’s going well.”

Imagine finding a maths lesson on the web, as good as a Ted Talk, and repeatable in the quiet of your own home as often as you need to feel in command of the method and detail, without ever having felt like the dunce in the class – “Please sir, could you just go over that again?”

I am reminded of a maths teacher of mine who ended lessons with what he considered tough questions – whether to cause head-banging-on-desk despair in those of us who had struggled with the whole lesson right from the get-go, or to reward the two or three pen-twiddling, “I intend to become an actuary”, smarty pants in the front row.

“I’ll leave you to think about that one,” he beamed, and ending with the throwaway line, “You girls won’t be able to do this.”

So, a maths lesson which I could repeat if I wanted to, and might even understand if I did (not that I am still hung up on my shortcomings in maths, you understand) sounds infinitely preferable to the unpredictable, unforgiving, baffling ‘real thing’ in a classroom.

I expect that a Zoom lesson is not (usually or predictably) better than a ‘real’ in person lesson, but I suspect there’s a good proportion which are.

Just occasionally, in the olden days, I taught a lesson and felt a righteous glow at the end – “Now that went well, it really did!” and I’m off to the staffroom beaming and vaguely wondering if it was replicable for other sixth form sets doing the same text while one of my colleagues might do a shift on Milton for me. A hard sell, Milton. But imagine spreading my broadcasting wings. My stint on Hamlet available to any English class in the country – wow, I shall be on telly after all!

It’s a giggle to imagine, but tempting as it is to pursue, and no doubt it will happen in due course – have you seen the shortages of mathematicians? – but if it does, we will come to realise that schools are not, in fact, just about lessons. Good, bad or amazing as they might be if we were all on our very best form, not hassled, or harried or hungover, lessons are not the whole of what a school offers. I sometimes think lessons are, in fact, the very least of what schools offer, and a Ted Talk might well do that better.

In my lifetime in and out of schools, they have been transformed. They were formative places when I was a schoolgirl, but I remember it as if they did not really know it. I don’t think pastoral care had been invented when I toiled through the years from 11–18, often unhappy and sometimes even suicidal, and convinced that no one noticed, let alone cared.

Years later, when I asked my head why a new head of year (pastoral) had been appointed on a higher pay scale than subject heads of department, he told me simply that she would have to work a lot harder than any head of subject, and, in truth, what she did mattered more.

“You will get them the grades,” he said, “she will keep them alive.”

And she did, through court cases and family traumas and ill health and everything that could threaten a child’s wellbeing. I am so glad that the importance of pastoral care has been recognised and that schools now acknowledge their ‘watching brief’ on all their pupils. ‘Doing well’ acknowledges ‘How are you?’ as well as ‘How’s the learning?’

In fact, I sometimes think that the grades are the least of what you learn in school – like a passport you need, check, but then you have to live in the country to which your passport admits you. A school which encourages effort and involvement and action and participation and contribution to the life of the whole, as well as the lives of the individuals, is a good school.

I remember the progress ‘off-piste’ made by diffident students who blossomed when competing in Young Enterprise teams – a fortune being made for charity by three girls painting little faces on pebbles and selling them as perfect birthday/Christmas/Halloween/Easter/Valentine’s Day presents.

Another student, the power salesman again in Young Enterprise, is now a leading salesman for an international confectionery firm. I have a son who discovered cross-country running before it became ‘a thing’ and was an early marathon runner. And a daughter whose school lacrosse took her to Canada. School is not just about classrooms and grades.

A preparation for life is what schools offer – to meet others and value them no matter how different; to push boundaries and grab experience even if you hate it (abseiling – aargh!) because then at least you know; to help others – even with algebra – and be helped when necessary.

They offer care and consideration while students grow into their possibilities – now more than ever, when mental and emotional health are high on the agenda in all of them. Great though parents may be at the ‘school game’ many have been forced to play during the pandemic, the ‘all’ of what a good school offers cannot be met simply by parents – no matter how educated they are.

Imagining education for the children of our brave new world is a seismic shift from the old days. Seven years of writing timetables – “No, you can’t give home economics an afternoon slot, the teacher only does mornings,” or “No, you can’t give sixth formers maths on Friday afternoon, they will be too tired,” – has me rather liking the prospect of “Here it is, catch it when you can, and Zoom as often as you need it.” These may be very good times indeed.

This post originally appeared at https://ie-today.co.uk/comment/i-sometimes-think-that-the-grades-are-the-least-of-what-you-learn-in-school/

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