“Wot, no white kids? Help!”

Oh dear – another guilt-inducing Oliver James article in last Saturday’s Guardian. Small class-sizes are demonstrably better, especially for the youngest schoolchildren; if academic success is your goal (and whose isn’t?) private schools offer smaller classes, ergo private schools are better. Also, the fewer non-English speakers and non-middle-class kids (both of whom, you see, demand inordinate teachers’ resources) in the class the better, so ditto. Private schools can be counted on to keep both types of undesirable to a minimum. No amount of teaching assistants, tests show, makes any difference at all.

My child’s primary school, which has hitherto impressed me beyond my expectations, fails on every account: large class with (lovely) teaching assistant; check. Large number of foreign-language speaking children: check. Tiny group of white-middle-class nappy-valley types. . . Check. Seems like I should have taken out that second mortgage for my baby’s prep-school after all. Silly you, I hear a chorus of smug private school parents crowing in the background. Not rocket science is it?

Well, no it isn’t. And that, I’ve decided, is my best line of defence. It’s actually so obvious, it’s suspicious. Social life is complicated. Particularly when we are trying to anticipate the social dynamics of a future generation, we will always be playing catch-up. A simplistic fixation on the assumptions of the recent past is likely to lead us astray.

I think Oliver James may suffer from that common white-middle-class blinkeredness when it comes to the potential of anyone else’s kids. The truth is, many white-middle-class people, of which I am inescapably one, spend their entire lives with very little contact to, er, non-white-middle-class people. What little contact they do have (assuming they live in London, say, where some minimal sightings are unavoidable) is fleeting, superficial and often (as is the case, perhaps, with lawyers or professors) based on a client/professional dynamic. In this way the prejudices with which we were raised can persist unchallenged, are naturally reflected in choices of schools for our children, and, I believe, in James’ views above.

I would recommend anyone who cares to challenge the limitations of their own upbringing to spend some time volunteering in a school like ours. In it, you will find that the most ambitious, committed parents are often precisely those non-English speaking ones; that the brightest, sharpest kids are often the ones with the furthest metaphorical distance to travel. It’s early days for us yet, but I wouldn’t be without the range of cultures, nationalities and languages present in my son’s reception class, and not only because as a mixed-race kid he fits right in. I am sure it is stimulating for his white-middle-class friends as well. However, if their parents eventually decide otherwise and shift them into local prep schools, that’ll be sad, but less than the tragedy I dreaded when I first applied to the school. (“Wot, no white kids? Oh help!”) They won’t be so much missed, actually. Because though they are all, in my reading-volunteer experience so far, thoroughly competent, they’re not the best, nor the keenest, nor the most motivated, and nor necessarily are their parents. Silly me, for having ever assumed that they would be.

And on the subject of large classes – the more diverse the group of children you work with, the more athletic, I would imagine, becomes your own pedagogic technique. Certainly my son is benefiting from the polishing in his classroom of my own early-reading skills, quite apart from the kick it gives him to see Mummy on the floor with his mates. Good state school teachers are better, brighter, more in-tuned and more on the ball, I believe, simply because they have to be. And those skills will serve them in any teaching situation, even on one-to-one.

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About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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2 Responses to “Wot, no white kids? Help!”

  1. Thank you for this. I agree completely. My older son, who is now 19, spent all his school years in a state school. He has a wide range of friends from all classes, different backgrounds and many nationalities. His experience of the world is broad and his attitude to all people is egalitarian and open. I’m proud of that. Maybe his academic career has been less stellar than if he had gone to Eton (hypothetically) but I feel I was able to add informally to his education in so many ways by being a concerned and involved parent. My toddler will go through the same system. There is more to life than academic hothouses, filled with people who are all the same.

    • marytuda says:

      Thanks rosie – lovely to get nice comments & great to hear reassurance from the other end of the “parenting” experience. Of course there’s more to education that academic hothousing, though as others have pointed out to me, the parents play a big role too. But that is partly why I admire our primary school so much; the efforts to get parents on-side and engaged in the classroom process is constant. They may be fighting a losing battle in some cases, but given the current climate, with so many esp. round here under or unemployed . . . volunteering in one’s own child’s classroom is rewarding from every point of view.

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