The final session I attended was proposed by a school librarian who had experience of working in both an affluent grammar school and a struggling academy school. The main driving force behind my interest in this career is feeling strongly about the role librarians can (and should) play in widening access to education and promoting better levels of equality in our education system. As such I was incredibly excited about this session.
The librarian who proposed the session started things by talking a little about her two very different working experiences. Her current role is as the librarian at an academy school and is worlds away from the experience she had at a grammar school where resources were plentiful. In her current role, the library does not have its own designated space and has very limited stock. Crucially, she doesn’t have much of a budget and often finds herself having to come up with innovative ways to manage the collections. Obviously, the picture painted was a rather extreme but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth making a lot of noise about, and the following will be my thoughts which came of hearing about these two such polarised experiences.
It seems fair to suggest that it is unfair to give children, who have absolutely no control over their social and economic situations, a serious advantage or disadvantage straight away in life based on their schooling. Perhaps, as I am not a parent, it is difficult for me to understand the drive to provide ‘the best’ for your child, but when ‘the best’ for your child comes at the expense of another’s then we start to get some serious problems.
The facts and figures are all there, showing that although a very small proportion of young people in the UK are privately educated, they make up a significant proportion of undergraduates attending the top universities. Although there are a number of factors, I imagine, that affect a persons likelihood of being accepted at university rather than it simply being a matter of which school you attended, but the school helps, because private schools are more adequately equipped to provide the pastoral care and support required to help their students be successful in life. Michael Rosen, writing in the Guardian quite rightly says ‘private schools are wonderful. [They] have glorious playing fields, theatres, music blocks, state-of-the-art laboratories, fantastic IT provision [and] a stunningly generous teacher-pupil ratio…’ but this is only the reality for a privileged few. Education is a right and all children should have access to it.
Of course, this is a complex issue, and there’s no perfect solution to solving it, but something that came up in discussion was that (and I only have anecdotal evidence of this) students at private schools are instilled with a sense of value in society which helps inflate their self worth. From my personal experience of state schooling, value is very much attached to academic aptitude. For me, I excelled in the state school system because from an early age I had natural academic ability and as such was treated as though I was special. Being sent to extra classes, entered for exams at a higher level than others, registered as ‘Gifted and Talented’, awarded school prizes, murmers of me being a ‘potential Oxbridge student’, for me, and the host of other naturally academically gifted people I grew up around, school was ok because we were told to assume we’d do well in life. However, not everyone is gifted academically and that isn’t a bad thing, but it seems although it is recognised that there are different forms of intelligence, schooling in the UK has failed to get up to speed and adapt itself appropriately to provide the right kinds of teaching, support and encouragement to all pupils.
Another piece of anecdotal evidence, my school offered NVQs in Hairdressing and such as alternatives ot studying GCSE’s.
‘Only the thick girls do that…’
‘She’s doing hairdressing? She’ll probably drop out and have a kid by 16….’
‘Why doesn’t she do a ‘real’ subject..? What a waste of time…’
It was definitely looked down on as a subject that only a certain ‘type’ of girl would do, but hairdressing is a profession that requires skill, creativity, hand eye co-ordination, good interpersonal abilities amongst other things. If you’re in the business for long enough, you may end up running your own salon, which can be incredibly, incredibly lucrative – doesn’t seem like such a waste of time does it? Moreover, back to the point about the certain ‘type’ of girl, has anyone considered that nobody ever looked at these girls and told them they could do any better? (Although better here is subjective…) Probably not. A good friend of mine more or less failed her first year of A-Levels and I am sure she referred to herself as ‘thick’, yet she’s just qualified as a mental health nurse and has started her first job post-qualifying. Definitely not the domain of a ‘thick’ person, just somebody who isn’t necessarily massively engaged with reading classic books, learning long mathematical and scientific equations, or memorising facts and figures from across history.
And who can blame her for not engaging? I followed an academic path because it was always what people made me feel I was supposed to do. I love my job, and I am so glad I’ve ended up where I am, but sometimes I question what contribution I’m really making to society, whereas my ‘thick’ friend is out there helping some of society’s most vulnerable people to get the care they so need. I look at her with such admiration because I sometimes struggle to see any lasting, obvious impact I have in my role and I want more than anything else to truly help people and make positive changes in society, like my friend is doing.
It makes me really sad to see people putting so much pressure on academic intelligence as the be all and end all of what will make you a ‘successful’ person. Another person I know is incredibly, incredibly smart and close to sitting her A-Levels. Her school place an insane amount of pressure on her that it’s making her unwell. This article from a 16 year old explains the worrying side effects our current education system has on young people, which suggests the case of my acquaintance is not in isolation. The ridiculous thing is (and this I do know from experience) is the sickening pressure you put yourself under to do well in your GCSE’s and A-Levels can be really damaging, and then once you graduate university you realise how little relevance your GCSEs and A-levels have on the rest of your life. I have never once been asked at interview about my secondary schooling. I was made to feel like my life depended on it, but it was really just a means to an end so I could get into university. Even then, I am asked about my degree almost never.
The session highlighted the discrepancy between the standard of education that happens in private vs. state schools. Sadly, it seems people see this and think ‘my kids will be better off sent to private school’, rather than considering how we can solve this issue so that there is high quality, state education for all children, so that everyone can start life on an equal footing. As long as a radical overhaul of the education system isn’t a viable option (sigh) then state schools need to be recognising the value of their pupils through recognising the diversity of intelligences each state school has. Rather than writing off the hairdressers as ‘stupid girls’, the artists as ‘not studying a real subject’ and such, it would be better to foster an environment that allows students to develop and nurture their own innate abilities. Because without a stable sense of self worth, it is incredibly difficult to envision a successful future for yourself. Schools are a place where children go to learn, but they shouldn’t be the place where kids who aren’t intelligent in a mainstream sense go to learn they’ll never succeed in life.
Following on from the final session, we had a plenary to briefly go through what had been discussed thoroughout the day, then off to the pub and out for curry. All in all, an absolutely spectacular weekend – eye opening, engaging and informative. I learned a lot, met great people and I am already looking forward to radlib16!