I didn’t think much of this at first, however . . . It is certainly true that an optimal education does not look the same for every child, and that’s partly to do with the different home backgrounds. Working class children need academic rigour, says Diane Abbott. Middle-class children, on the other hand, can get by with a sloppy overemphasis on extra-curricular stuff, is her implication. Thanks to their “social capital” they will access good careers irrespective of their academic performance. Well, some will, some won’t, but she’s right, they won’t starve or end up homeless, or alcoholic. Not usually, at any rate.
Some primary schools round here with a uniformly deprived intake do very well indeed academically on what is clearly a rigorous curriculum after Gove/Abbott’s heart. A slightly more “mixed” school like ours risks getting pulled in contradictory directions and can end up sitting uncomfortably on the fence – or falling – splat! – between two stools. On one side their need to cater for those families entirely dependent on the school for contact with and their children’s guidance through the minefields and expectations of professional British life. On the other, for those like me (who tend to be most vocal) for whom school is just a kind of supplement or backbone to what our children do at home mostly anyway.
I admit to feeling slightly irritated at the numerous “contests” devised in the classroom and on school grounds: to encourage good behaviour, regular reading, good eating, extra-curricular activity of any kind, anything positive; starting with sticker-charts, moving on to certificates, competitions and other awards. I think it may distort motivation away from the reward inherent in any activity in itself, towards viewing every single enterprise as a competition to be won, a box to be ticked. Especially sad when applied to activities, like reading, which can in no way be classed as competitive sports. It could distract from the long slow process of acquiring competence in anything complicated and is probably detrimental in the long run. It’s missing the point.
There’s nothing controversial about that, is there? But I’m looking at it, I can see, from the thoroughly middle-class perspective of a parent whose child does the necessary activities anyway, by example as much as anything else. What I want from our school is, not so much academic rigour, with its clear hierarchies and patronising incentives, but more space to explore the same things we do, with a teacher’s resources and professional overview.
It might be different, if I were a recent immigrant with very little English and no books at all in the house, and nowhere to for my child to play imaginatively outside or in. I might despair at my child’s addiction to the TV or our next door neighbour’s play-station – or worse. I’d probably welcome all the academically rigorous homework and school competitions going, if they stood a chance of distracting him from undesirable local influences. Reading to fill your sticker chart, or to win the class prize, is infinitely better than not doing reading at all.