Monday, 25 November 2013
A necessary evil
I find myself this week enduring torments worse than those accorded to traitors and oath-breakers in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno. I have, in short, been working in a school! This is perhaps a just punishment for me and I dare say that I may expect little sympathy from readers.
Two things struck me today, while working with a group of ordinary nine year-olds in an unremarkable maintained school. The first was that while much of what was being done was worthwhile and sensible, it took an enormous length of time. For example, a large part of the day was taken up in teaching the children about newspapers. They were encouraged to distinguish between fact and opinion, look for direct quotations and identify various other aspects of newspaper reporting. They did this by looking at old newspapers and highlighting things like facts and opinion with felt tips. This is brilliant and is of course the sort of thing that many home educating parents might do with their children. After that, the kids had to write an imaginary news item about the discovery of a new planet.
Now all this is absolutely fine and very good for children of that age. The trouble was that this activity began at ten past nine and did not end until twenty to two in the afternoon. Each child produced perhaps half a page of written work in this time. Working with one child, this whole thing would have taken no more than an hour; perhaps an hour and a half at most, if done at home.
This wasted time was the first thing that struck me very forcibly, but as for suggesting a remedy; that is quite beyond me. Twenty seven children, two of whom speak no English at all, four of whom have learning difficulties, four more who were so tired that they kept falling asleep and at least half the children simply did not have vocabularies great enough to be able to understand much in the way of ordinary language. Believe me, getting anything done with these children is slow and tedious work. I can’t think of any way to improve this system of education, unless we were suddenly able to allocate every child an individual tutor.
The second matter which occurred to me was this. Most of those children would be hopelessly lost without this daily experience. It is wasteful, inefficient and hideously boring; but at least it imparts the rudiments of literacy and numeracy to those children. Would it better for them if the school wasn’t there or the parents told that they were themselves responsible for their children’s education? Almost certainly not. Many of these kids come from homes where there is quite literally no printed material of any descriptions; not even a magazine or newspaper. They have no set bedtime, routinely staying up until midnight or one in the morning. The only thing they know is a constant diet of television and games consoles. All their vocabulary is taken from television and computer games. Their language is impaired and impoverished, because their parents seldom hold conversations with them. I used to do a lot of home visiting and was able to see the results of this. Small flats where three televisions blaring out in different rooms vie for attention, where nobody actually talks to anybody else.
The chances of the parents of these children being willing or able to assume responsibility for their children’s education is virtually non-existent. Take school out of the equation and these children will probably not learn to read or handle fractions. Imperfect and inefficient as it is; school represents the only hope for these children of rising beyond their day to day life.
So there it is. I cannot abide schools and would not have dreamed of letting my daughter go to the sort of establishment at which I am working this week. On the other hand, places like that fulfill a very useful and necessary function in society and it would be a tragedy for many children if they were to be deprived of the opportunities present there. Squaring this particular circle is beyond me, but perhaps readers might have some thoughts on the subject?