State Schools Vs Private Schools

Here in Shetland, we have a surprisingly egalitarian society.  Though extremely wealthy and extremely poor people do exist, it’s never something which is displayed at the forefront of social interactions.  During high school I never even considered the wealth of my peers’ families.  I was both shocked and incredulous to discover that, in some state schools, kids can even be bullied for coming from ‘the estates’.  We do, of course, have some areas which develop a reputation for being dodgy, but this is never a prime consideration in creating social relationships.

And, quite significantly, we have no private schools.  Every child who grows up in Shetland to adulthood, as I have, will only ever have the option to experience state schools.  We use a junior-high model*, in which schools are dotted around rural areas, gradually becoming more centralised as you progress up the ladder.  There are dozens of primary schools, seven or so high schools, and two schools which offer Highers and Advanced Highers for 5th and 6th years.  Fortunately, I believe these state schools to be among the best in the country**.  We always had access to teachers, who were generally excellent; the schools were wealthy enough to provide us with all resources we needed; and everyone could expect to leave school with decent qualifications.  I have been fortunate enough to see state education at its best.

And yet, still it pales in comparison to what I hear about private schools: one-to-one tuition; studies in Latin, Greek, most sciences imaginable; after-school clubs; exceedingly high performance rates?  I’m sure private schools like to claim they have the best students, and that it’s purely coincidence that these academically ‘gifted’ young people also happen to have wealthy families.  The concept of receiving a better education if you’re ‘willing’ to pay for it is completely alien to me and, frankly, abhorrent.  I don’t wish at all to glorify private education, but they really do seem to get results.  Not just during school, but afterwards; the impression I have – perhaps wrongly – is that private schools are determined to successful alumni in all fields, and that they often achieve this.  Therefore, having a wealthier and more privileged background very probably means you yourself will lead a wealthy and privileged life.  This strikes me as utterly unfair.

But I don’t intend to lament the supposedly superior quality of private schools.   I regret nothing about my state education.  I’m confident there are infinitely more benefits from sending a child to a state school than private.  It exposes them to a variety of views and backgrounds in the natural diversity you find in all state schools.  State schools probably give students a much healthier view of themselves; that they’re neither privileged nor handicapped, but have the exact same opportunities and potentials as their peers, and any results they achieve are solely through their own effort.  Teachers will be there because they genuinely care about education and teaching, rather than simply seeking a well-paid, comfortable career.

I do recognise that many state schools across the country are of a lower standard than the education I received, which makes me very sad.  A year or so ago, a teacher told me about a school in a rough area of Aberdeen she used to work at which was clearly failing its pupils.  It’s an imperative necessity to improve the quality of such schools, to provide a free, high-standard of education for all.  We mustn’t let wealth and privilege determine the quality of a child’s education.  If I ever have children of my own, you can be quite certain that I’ll proudly enrol them into a state school.

*The council currently seeks to close many of these high schools, much to the outrage of many in these rural communities.

**They’re also among the few schools in the country to not have school uniforms.  It really shouldn’t come as a surprise that allowing more freedom of expression produces better results all round.

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The Problem with English Lessons

I’ve been reading a brief of UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s planned changes to the GCSE system in England.  This doesn’t affect Scotland (which is introducing its own controversial changes to education) but it is still fascinating for me to read.  Some aspects I’ve always been opposed to, such as the emphasis on external examinations as a means of assessment.  I’ve always been in favour of coursework for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I do not believe that one bad experience during the exam should invalidate a whole year of work; and secondly, it’s totally unrepresentative of the kind of work people will face in adulthood (when will someone ever have to write a detailed essay in 45 minutes with no reference material?).

But I’m digressing.  What shocked me was that, for the subjects I have a claim to – English and History – the proposals to the actual course sound almost decent.  In English, the BBC put emphasis on how pupils will have to read ‘whole books’ or ‘whole Shakespeare plays’, rather than the ‘chunks’ they can get away with now.  This would be a very good change.  No wonder pupils resent English and reading so much when they’re forced to learn plots, characters, arcs, themes etc. without having had the opportunity to enjoy the piece.  I still remember my absolute horror of my Higher English teacher skimming through Macbeth, murmuring “No, you don’t need this bit, um… A major character dies here but that’s not very important…”  Sure, pupils can opt to read the whole text themselves – as I did – but realistically, with the stresses of exams, not many books are going to be read that year.

Another problem with English lessons is the uniform way in which we are taught to do it.  Formulas are driven into us (STAR = Statement, Text, Analysis, Relate) which becomes the basic way in which we construct essays; creative writing is seemingly judged not on innovation but on the number of metaphors used and the ability to follow a standard narrative.  Then, once we reached Advanced Higher level, our teachers were surprised at how rigid our approaches initially were.  I think in my case this was a particular problem because our school made Higher English mandatory for all students, so teachers were faced* with classes of pupils who loathe the subject.  Which is why they understandably react with simplification and the abhorrent STAR system.

As for history, there will supposedly be a greater focus on essays for GCSE level, which I also think is a good thing.  Answering questions is alright as an introduction to the subject, but teaching pupils to construct reasoned, developed arguments as early as you can is not a bad thing in my opinion.  That said, it’s incredibly difficult to do just that during exam conditions and, although a good idea on its own, will most likely exacerbate the problem of focusing entirely on exams.  I’m also not too keen on a move away from ‘World History’; the Scotland-centric curriculum I’ve had to put up with, as much as I enjoyed them, became rather repetitive.

Make no mistake, I think Michael Gove is making a terrible Education Secretary – I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard a news headline: “Teachers vote of no confidence in Gove” – and I’m extremely glad he has no power over education here in Scotland.  Yet, some elements of education do need reform.

*Using past tense still feels incredibly weird.

Advanced Higher English Exam!

Yesterday I sat the second exam of the May 2013 Block: Advanced Higher English.  We only do one essay in the exam due to having submitted a creative writing folio (both will be published online on the 6th August 2013… And one might even end up in a paperback anthology a little later!).  The writers we’ve studied over the year are William Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra) and Carol Ann Duffy (16 plays – I can’t bear to name them all).  Duffy was always meant to be my back-up question, so I went for Shakespeare when the question looked possible:

“Iago and Octavius Caesar are each, in their own ways, obsessed with power.”
Keeping this assertion in mind, compare the role and function of Iago in  Othello with the role and function of Octavius Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.
(30 marks)

I know that looks like an easy question – and it was – but I struggled with it.  Sounds silly, but I hadn’t expected to be asked explicitly about the antagonists.  I had the knowledge to draw together an answer but not the time to properly plan and bring all the evidence I needed together (I expect the examiner will be amused by my desperate scribblings on the front page; if not amused, then at the very least they might pity me).  Looking back, I did essentially answer the question, which always helps, but I did so in such a clumsy and digressive way that I don’t expect to have done fantastically.  Hopefully enough to have passed, but…

Still, the exam only constitutes 30% of the overall grade, and I don’t need it for anything besides pride – since I’m doing English Literature at university, I feel that I really aught to be handling this.

Coming soon: Geography and RMPS Higher!  Then freedom and boredom (and probably more interesting blogs as a result).

My Varied Week

Warning: this post goes into detail about the ups and downs of my past week.  May involve mild feelings.  If you’re of the irritating belief that we should all be living ice people with stiff lips then you may find this vaguely offensive, though there’s nothing too obscene.

One word: Prelims.  If you know what this means I expect you to be recoiling in horror right now and if you don’t, well, you are envied by many.  Basically, preliminary examinations which act as a kind of practice run before the final exams.  They do count for getting into courses which start before you get results for the final exams, and can also be used in appeals, but I’m in the fortunate position of relying on neither since I already have the grades I need.

So, why was it so Hellish?  Simply, all four of my exams were scheduled between four days of one another.  I am, of course, grateful that I have the opportunity to sit any exams – but did it have to be so stressful?  I’ve spent most of the last month either doing research for my history dissertation (“How great an effect did the pressures of foreign countries have on Apartheid policies between 1960 and 1984?”) and NABs (other horrific ‘unit passes’, which you need to pass in order to sit the final exam).  So basically, I had no time to revise for the exams.

Then I caught a cold.  And snow swept across the island.  It’s as if the world has been conspiring to make me perform as badly as possible in the Prelims!  It’s fair to say this past week wasn’t an enjoyable experience – particularly the three hour Advanced Higher history exam… I still shudder at the thought.  But, somehow, I managed to get to all four of my exams and actually seemed to do alright.  Not had any of the results yet – not that they’re very important at this stage – but I performed as well as I could have hoped.

The most varied day of all was Wednesday, the Hellish history exam.  I genuinely felt in a state of mild shock afterwards, consumed by numbness, unable to get my head out of Apartheid South Africa (not the nicest of places).  A couple of people described me as ‘shell-shocked’, amusingly.  I guess the length of the exam, the longest I’ve ever sat, took it out of me.  I hear exams at university typically last three hours… *another shudder*.  Interestingly, St. Andrews chose that day to let me know they’d offered me an unconditional place to study English.

I HAVE A PLACE AT ST. ANDREWS!!  How did that happen?  That’s so amazing!  I’m so lucky!

And I’m probably going to turn it down.  Hah.  I’m not sure yet, and wouldn’t like to say anything for sure.  I guess, having grown up on a remote island, I’d prefer to live somewhere well connected like a city.  And St. Andrews, for all its prestige, has a very negative reputation of royalty and privilege – neither of which I’m a great fan of!  I’ll have to visit, of course.  It’s exciting to tell people I’ve been offered a place, anyway.  Someone told me I would be ‘mad’ to turn it down.  Am I?

So yeah, that was my dramatic week.  How was yours?