Friday, 21 October 2011

Independent No Longer - The Decline And Fall Of Independent Education

A few months ago I published this post by Edward Spalton. This is a follow-up article from Stephen Beet and although it relates to the English public school system, much of it is relevant to Scotland.  This fellow blogger and myself have agreed to publish it.

Parents are paying thousands of pounds per annum in fees to secure an independent education for their children. But are they getting what they are paying for?  Stephen Beet taught for many years in English Preparatory Schools, but after becoming disillusioned by restrictive legislation, and political correctness left England to teach in Russia.

     The story of my career could have been lifted straight out of the pages of children’s literature. The headmaster, a kindly and eccentric man in his forties, owned the school outright.  Everyone was known either by his surname or a nickname and Matron’s word was law. Together, she and the head maintained a firm but fair discipline, and whilst corporal punishment was rarely used it was still generally believed that a boy needed the threat of a beating in order to ensure the emergence of a polite, well brought up, gentleman at the end of his school career. It really was the world of Jennings and Derbyshire, midnight feasts and hilarious anecdotes, all of which if written down would be dismissed as pure fiction.

     My first form of eighteen eight-year-olds was housed in a room lacking adequate heating, a watertight roof or any useful furniture other than the desks at which we sat. Every morning after PT, Chapel, breakfast and dorm inspection, lessons began with the repetition of Latin verbs, continuing with Arithmetic and English.  After an hour’s break, during which the boys, unsupervised by adults, ran clubs and societies, classes continued with History, Geography, Scripture and other subjects, all still unaffected by the recommendations of the Plowden Report which had already destroyed the finest state-education system in the world.  Desks faced the master, boys were tested every fortnight and order marks sent home twice per term.  Games were of such vital importance that those who fell short of the required standard were not allowed to appear for the school, but lined up on the touch-lines to cheer on the First Eleven.  Highly coveted team colours were awarded only to the best which were – “forty years on” -  still prized more highly than any MBE.

      House points were given and house points were taken away and sometimes if one boy offended all felt the consequences. Discipline was a ‘whole school’ affair; team spirit and competition the order of he day and ‘splitting’ or telling tales was unheard of. 

Lesson preparation took the form of notes in an exercise book, leaving ample time for careful marking.  Every mistake was noted and discussed with the boy in question and it was thus so that we managed to bring even the slowest boy up to the exacting levels required by the Common Entrance Board and the brightest to the heights of the Eton Scholarship. In short, parents were glad to fork out the fees because they could see that they were getting value for money.

     In History we began with the Romans and worked our way up through the gory and scheming Middle Ages until we reached the reign of Queen Anne.  When one compares this approach with today’s ‘topic-based’ Common Entrance Syllabus, which now slavishly follows the dictates of The National Curriculum with all its emphasis on source material and empathy with the past, one wonders what parents are paying for today. Traditional 35-minute teaching periods have now also largely been replaced by fewer 70-minute periods.  This is convenient for the teachers but not good for the boys: not only is intense concentration limited but also one can cover much more material in four single periods than in two doubles.

     Moving to another school in 1995 was a complete culture shock for me and I was immediately forced to make educational concessions, but I did manage to hold on to my black board and chalk. White boards and markers I found to be bad for handwriting and hard to see from the back of the room.  Unfortunately, I was compelled to plan lessons according to unsound National Curriculum guidelines, an educational straitjacket, laying down unnecessary structures.   Out went the traditional reading period, the exciting History lesson, and no longer was one able to devote a period to completing an essay or in exploring an English topic by improvisation.  So after many years of teaching in a school in which my classroom was referred to in jocular vein by the second master as ‘that little corner of Old England’ I realised that the time had come to leave before until I was forced out.  A position in Russia was a tempting prospect and one which has exceeded all expectations!

     It’s hard to pinpoint just when our blissful and truly ‘child-centred’ world of Jennings and Derbyshire came to an end, but the erosion began, I believe, in the late 1970’s when the threat of a future socialist government abolishing private education began to receded.  Complacency set in and with it entered a new generation of teachers.  Mainly state trained and indoctrinated, some were barely literate or numerate and as a result the teaching of the three R’s was particularly affected, creating tremendous learning difficulties in later years.  One needs only to study the Entrance and Scholarship papers sat until the early 1970’s for evidence of a serious decline thereafter.  Those responsible for the setting of standards, the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS) now draws its influential committee mainly from trendy Oxford or London Prep schools and has succeeded in effecting root and branch change, bringing schools completely in line with every aspect of the state system. That an Independent Inspectorate now inspects schools further strengthens government control over the whole sector. What governments could not abolish by legislation they have now changed by stealth, and even those schools which had set their faces as stone against the changes have now been forced to capitulate. 

     The world of the English Prep Schools was, until the early 1990’s one necessarily set far apart from society.  Today teachers are responsible to a line manager, a senior management team, and there will be a governing body and an association of parents.  The headmaster, now merely an employee is completely at the beck and call of parents and governors.

      Social workers, with an anti-establishment agenda have right of entry into schools to meddle in affairs that should not concern them. Unnecessary health and safety regulations have forced some smaller schools to close. Petty rules govern the hours children may work, the number of beds that can be put into a dormitory, and no longer may older boys be placed in charge of younger.  All this has contributed to the very fabric of the public school system being systematically and deliberately destroyed, and it beggars belief that it could have been allowed to happen; in fact one may form no other opinion than it has come to pass as a result of the work of those propagating a dangerous political and feminist agenda.  Even that champion of ‘Children’s Rights’ and founder of ‘Childline’ Esther Rantzen writing in The Daily Mail recently expressed horror at the monster she had unleashed when she established the organisation.  Gone are the days when a schoolmaster was considered to be in loco parentis, and now accidents are not allowed to happen: someone has to take the blame for them!

    The children of tomorrow will either be so protected by their parents that they are not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied or they will be left roaming the streets with nothing to do.  Having never known the company or friendship of any adult other than their own family members, they will be utterly unprepared for life.  What a plot this would make for an apocryphal novel.

     While some traditional schools seem determined to continue, my old prep school is no more -- closed shortly after the admission of girls onto the grounds where mothers once feared to tread. The headmaster ended his career teaching in a state comprehensive and a posh ‘gels’ school has invaded the buildings.  It has a new roof, indoor swimming pool, carpeted dorms and a ‘state of the arts’ science block. The chapel has been deconsecrated and turned into a computer suite and the National Curriculum ‘plus’ is de rigueur.  The outside doors have locks and alarms and the latest security devices. There is not a spot of dirt or dry rot to be seen anywhere. But where are Jennings and Derbyshire?  Certainly not to be found within those hallowed portals!

Stephen R. Beet, October 2011

Editor's note: The links are mine.


Macheath said...

A thought-provoking piece!

May I add something on the changing profile of parents? Where once they placed their child in a school because they valued and supported the ethos, we now see increasing numbers who regard themselves as paying customers with every right to dictate terms.

The pupil who refuses to help a teacher clean the board or carry her books - "My parents pay you to do that sort of thing" - used to be an exception and would be soundly told off; these days, it's not unheard of for parents to say much the same thing.

The Head is not merely at the beck and call of parents; they expect him or her to pander to their whims and those of their offspring because the customer is always right.

I could give many examples but I'll stick with two of my favourites: firstly, there was the boy who pompously announced "I don't have to learn this; my parents are paying you to teach it to me".

And secondly, when I recommended a particular book to the mother of a pupil, she demanded that I give her my own child's copy; "I don't see why I should buy this book when you've got one in your house - after all, I'm paying your wages".

(The mother in question is married to a top-flight sportsman and is worth several million; it just goes to show you can't buy class.)

pa_broon74 said...

His second last paragraph is particularly apt.

I see that quite a lot. Parents make their kids feel so special, eventually the child comes to assume they are.

When they hit the real world (everything beyond the end of the garden path) they behave as if they still are the most important thing ever.

The young folk who I know genuinely do not know what it is to come last or lose. I was a wee bit dumbfounded by it, it just did not compute for them.

I also read Steven Fry's Moab is my Washpot, an account of his life up to age 18 and found the old English Prep School idea to be completely fascinating.

Anon said...

It's not that the private schools are all that good (most are disappointing), it's that the state schools (90% of them) are shockingly bad.

A very average boy from the private system may end up running a company or branch of the government.

A bright boy from the state system, having endured years of disruptive behaviour and low standards, may end up driving a lorry.

- Aangirfan

Anon said...

I would agree with Macheath about private schools.

An increasing number of private schools have little in the way of discipline or manners.

They have headmasters who appease the worst of parents.

A good school insists on good manners and kindness.

- Aangirfan

Observer said...

A very average boy from the private system may end up running a company or branch of the government.

A bright boy from the state system, having endured years of disruptive behaviour and low standards, may end up driving a lorry.


Not in Scotland.

Eck, Nicola, Kenny - all state educated. As indeed was I & although I don't run Scotland I don't have to worry about paying the bills.

I appreciate that some parents think that paying for a private education is a sacrifice worth making, but it is entirely possible to make a success of your life even if you went to a state school. Most Scottish parents choose it for their children, even those, like me, who could afford not to.

English Pensioner said...

In this area, where there are a number of private schools, the trend now seems to be for parents to send their children to the passable state schools and then employ private tutors where necessary. A friend of mine is a retired maths teacher, and spends most evenings and Saturdays coaching pupils for their A-levels. She has more potential pupils than she can manage, so can afford to pick and choose. She tells me two teachers from the local grammar school have retired early because they are fed up with the paperwork and are now doing much the same thing. For parents, it can be very cost effective solution compared with private schooling.

subrosa said...

Interesting about parents Macheath. I have experience of private schools and back in the 70s that attitude applied to just a few but it seems as if it's the norm nowadays.

Very true, you can't buy class or character.

subrosa said...

Another problem with private schools pa, is that some children are so sheltered they are unable to hold their own from a street-wise angle. Some Prep schools were excellent back in the 70s but others had poor educational standards. I suppose that still applies today.

subrosa said...

Good point Aangirfan.That used to be the main selling point of private schools - teaching good manners and respect for your fellow man.

My regular contact with schools here has long gone, but when I did have contact there were a couple I would never have sent any child to - even on a bursary.

subrosa said...

The standard of state schools varies widely Observer - even in my neck of the woods - and a good private school can make a difference. I'm thinking of the High School in Dundee compared to many state schools there.

Eck and Kenny are of the generation pre comprehensives. That could make a difference.

subrosa said...

Interesting EP and I should think it also saves boarding fees if they were necessary.

Related Posts with Thumbnails