Remembering school

In the London Review of Books the other day, the academic Laura Finlayson wrote a short memoir on her school days [1] . She was very far from happy and she explains:

When I was thirteen, I left school and never went back. I don’t remember much about my last day. I don’t remember what lessons I had, or what I did when I got home. I only remember trying to make a mental recording as I walked down the corridors, into the foyer, out the automatic doors and onto the bus. I’d made a decision not to tell anybody I was leaving and waited until the end of the autumn term so that nobody would know what I’d done until the new year. It would be my own secret, daunting escape. My private anti-climax.

I was jolted reading her account as it took me back to my own feelings about school, which were similarly negative, and my belief at the time that there was something going on in the everyday routines of schooling that had little to do with learning. I also identified with Finalyson’s uncertainty in dealing with authority. As she put it, she had ‘little appetite for a confrontation I knew would be futile.’

Like Finlayson I left school early (at 16) and enjoyed learning in adult education and further education. However, my path diverged strongly in that I became a school teacher, though like many of my colleagues at that time more by accident than design.  Unexpectedly, I became a fan of school. I was fortunate that in my first post I saw some excellent teaching and not the kind of arbitrary power that knocked me off balance as teenager.  I wrote about  some of these experiences in reflection on technology and teaching:

What struck me was the deep moral compass of the school.  It had, at the time, a remarkable mix of students from different ethnic backgrounds and it sought very much to create a sense of belonging for all students and for the wider community. For example, music teachers promoted a strongly inclusive steel band, ‘community’ languages were taught, some post 16 teaching was open to the community and at Christmas lunches were put on for local pensioners. Many teachers spent a lot of time mentoring youngsters both informally and formally. I saw impressive ‘active’ tutorial work and a constant appeal to students to behave responsibly and be reasonable when considering other people.  Those struggling for language or other reasons were given whatever boost to self-esteem and self-confidence was possible.  I remember one girl, let us call her Shahira, an eleven year old who had been working with a teaching assistant in one of my mathematics classes. The assistant sent her to me to show off some work she had done. I said ‘thanks that was good, well done’. Perhaps it was a shade perfunctory and Shahira looked a little disappointed. The teaching assistant picked up on this and said: “well done Shahira, this is very good, you are pleased with it? Mr Hammond is very pleased with it, shall we now show the head of the department and see if he is pleased with it?”. Shahira duly went out to show her work to the head of department and was told, with more enthusiasm than I had mustered, how well she had done. The point is that the teaching assistant understood Shahira’s fragility as a learner in a way that I did not. She would not let Shahira go until she had been convinced about the value of her work and was willing to accept that she had the capacity to learn. I know this kind of reinforcement is maddening for conservative commentators who see explicit ranking of performance as core to the work of a school and ultimately in the best interests of students themselves. However, the liberal ethos in my school was very inspiring for me and very different from my own schooling.  I had never properly understood what it might be like to struggle academically before. 

Later I was involved in teacher training and what saddened me most in Finlayson’s account is that she was referring back to the late 1990s when I was regularly visiting schools and observing new teachers. This was, I firmly believed, the start of a golden age of teaching and by 2010 Ofsted (the inspection service) claimed that we had the best trained teachers of a generation; unusually I thought they were right. So I came to love many things about schools and remain instinctively defensive of teachers and teachers even though now my work has taken me into different directions. This defensive has only increased during COVID as I am very aware of the work teachers have been doing, not just to keep learning going, but to make sure children from deprived areas have access to food [3]. Yet, I welcomed Finalyson’s account and I am very conscious that schools do not work for everyone and for that matter did not work for me.

[1] Finlayson, L. (2021) I was a Child Liberationist, London Review of Books, 43, 4 [online] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v43/n04/lorna-finlayson/diary

[2] Hammond, M. (2014) My work among the keyboards: Remembering the early use of computers in the classroom in (Eds) A. Tatnall Reflections on the History of Computers in Education. Berlin: IFIP Springer.

[3] Butler, P. (2021) One in five UK schools has set up a food bank in Covid crisis, survey suggests, Guardian, 4 March, 2021 [online] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/mar/04/rise-in-food-banks-in-uk-schools-highlights-depth-of-covid-crisis-survey

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