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.