My Spanish sister (well, her passport still says she’s British but she’s lived longer in Spain than she ever did in England so I’m no longer sure) nominated me into a game on Facebook. Unlike the build-your-own-farm type of games which I take no interest in, this one involved posting photos of your childhood, so for once I accepted the invitation. Searching through the photo collection for something relevant, I found a picture of my primary school class: close on 50 children!!!
When we started teaching, back in the early 70s, we were busy agitating for the reduction of class sizes to below thirty. We thought we had made progress but class sizes have crept up again. My daughter tells us of primary school classes that she’s come across in the upper thirties. Head teachers manipulate the figures so that their teacher-pupil ratio looks ok but classes still remain large. So, nothing has really changed.
My fifty-strong class was so large because we were the top class and expected to behave. Our school had four classes in each age group and the less able had smaller groups, more manageable and allowing for more teacher attention. We in the top class were expected to sit still and silent unless answering a question. Art lessons and sewing lessons (yes, sewing lessons; we combined with the class below ours and the boys did woodwork while the girls did sewing) were the only ones that were slightly more relaxed and a modicum of chat was allowed. Astounding!
The writer Alan Bennett has been joining in the education debate recently, declaring that private education is fundamentally wrong, creating a privileged class to lord it over the rest of us. OK, I’m with him on that; if everyone had to go to state schools you’d soon have pressure groups pushing to improve things. Mind you, there would still be that post-code lottery thing going on and some schools would still achieve more than others but it could be a step in the right direction.
Mr Bennett also made his opinion plain on university fees. Had he had to pay for his university education, he said, he simply could not have gone. His parents could not have afforded to help him out and he would have had to get a job on leaving school. He’s not the only one. On many occasions we have declared ourselves the fortunate generation (despite my super-size primary school class) because we had a free university education and plenty of jobs to fall into when we graduated. And no-one insisted on teaching us British values!
Of course, there is a problem at the moment with defining British values. It’s all very fine to say schools should ensure that their pupils adhere to them but everyone has a different idea about them. Talk of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs is bandied about but no-one yet knows how to incorporate this into the national curriculum. And some people are now saying that a concrete definition of “British values” might lead to those of some faiths not being able to be governors of schools. Where does that fit in to tolerance?
Hugh Muir writing in the Guardian pondered about who would, or indeed should, decide on the definition. Should it really be just one man? Should it be Mr Gove? Hugh Muir wrote, “He (Michael Gove) preached a doctrine of returning schools to local communities, but it apparently never occurred to him that Britons other than those he might encounter at evensong might avail themselves of the opportunity. The contract was signed. Retrospectively he adds the fine print.”
How much simpler life was back in my huge primary school class!