In Epsom we were very lucky that we had a genuine choice about whether or not to privately educate. We could afford fees (in the short term anyway) but we were also in the catchment area of at least two well-regarded state schools. Jenni has been extremely successful following her state education, but perhaps she might have benefited even more from a private one. My experience of private school was comparatively disastrous, but that can be attributed to factors that wouldn’t apply to our children.
Regardless of our experiences and research, the decision was always going to be largely based on assumptions we have to make, because there are only so many objective facts that are relevant. Other than recent exam results, facilities, and how much a school currently costs, there’s really only hearsay, marketing and opinions that your own prejudices can selectively pick over when justifying a decision. In the end we opted for one of the state primary schools and we’ve never had cause to regret it.
Three years on, while editing photos that date from before our move, I’m reminded of one set of assumptions that I’ve since had to revise. They’re around competition, whether academic or otherwise, how much of it there is in schools and how it’s handled.
In Stanley’s school in the UK there was, as I expected, little importance attached to being ‘top of the class’, and I was quite happy with that. I have personally experienced or witnessed how pernicious the long term effects can be of basing self-worth on a ranking within a group. There’s heightened temptation to break the letter or spirit of the rules in pursuit of a conspicuous result (commonly known as cheating), and unhappiness that can be wrought by negative perfectionism. People can be conditioned to react to adversity by immediately apportioning blame, or come to regard every setback as a catastrophe. And that’s just the kids who do well – you only have to watch an episode of The Apprentice to see teams of ‘high achievers’ being entertainingly dysfunctional in a competitive environment. For anyone languishing at the bottom of those endless lists that are invariably cast into the public domain via a noticeboard in the Quad, their challenge is to avoid succumbing to an arresting fear of failure or a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling negative expectation.
Of course not everyone is affected like that, and there are plenty of ways enlightened teachers and parents can help children avoid the pitfalls, but there’s more to it than simply remembering to say ‘healthy’ before ‘competition’ whenever it comes up. The way Stanley’s school in the UK approached this rather impressed me. I assumed moving away from classroom rivalry would make it harder to benchmark how well Stanley was doing, but this wasn’t the case at all. Children (and their parents) were fully aware, if they wanted to be, of how they compared to the rest of the class and the wider population, but encouragement was given for progress and was therefore available to anyone. There were still competitive games in lessons, and various prizes, awards and certificates, but they were managed in such a way that effort was rewarded without anyone being held back.
Furthermore, the abolition of competitive sport in UK schools, as periodically announced by the Daily Mail, seems to have been greatly overstated if Stanley’s last day at school in England (it happened to be Sports Day) was anything to go by.
Kids don’t win cups named after deceased alumni for coming first, but they do score points for their house, which seems to be motivation enough, and saves everyone from sitting through interminable presentations at the end of the day.
In Florida, I’m prepared for the change. Circumstances are different and we’ve chosen a private school. Furthermore, this is America, where there is little reserve when it comes to celebrating the success of the individual. I’m not unduly concerned, however; it’s only for a limited time and it will be interesting to see how Stanley responds to a new approach. Besides, I feel confident that I’ll spot and be able to mitigate any issues he might have.
It turns out that I’m completely wrong. We’re only a few weeks in, but it seems that Stanley’s new school takes a very similar approach to his last, in the classroom at least. What I had assumed to be a set of values peculiar to the British state school system, appears to be a reflection of a more enlightened approach to education globally. While this revelation (if it is indeed true; I don’t have the time to properly research it right now) would not have changed any of the choices we’ve made so far, it does serve to remind me how hard it is to test all your assumptions before taking key decisions on behalf of the children.