Sunday, 26 January 2014

I want a school!

I want my own school.

Beyond my ambitions around work, one of my more outlandish fantasies is to have and run my own school. And I don’t mean, I want to be a head teacher of an existing one and, Julie Walters-like, parachute in to make it an OFSTED success story.

In essence, I want to do a Toby Young, and have a free school. One where I can set my own curriculum and even more radically, dispense with the whole GCSE system and furnish my pupils with an education that equips them for life in the real world and make them a killer team member at a pub quiz. I’d go as far as to say, there may not be a single protractor or compass in my school at all.

Much of what I learned way back when has long since seeped from my memory. God bless those teachers who did their best to install a detailed knowledge of arable farming into our malleable minds and I thank Mrs Cook, my exuberant English Literature teacher who desperately tried to nurture in us an appreciation of First World War poetry. Had Wilfred Owen’s work had the simplicity of the great Baldrick, I might have been more interested “Boom, boom, boom!”

In hindsight, sometimes, it feels like the exclusive purpose of our learning was to pass an exam in that subject. It’s like that old adage that the only reason we study geography is to create more geography teachers.

It’s not that all the information was useless but I reckon there’s more useful subjects our young people could be studying than a detailed history of the Beo frigging tapestry.

I get why our education system is the way it is and given all the mitigating circumstances it probably couldn’t be any other way. But sometimes, it feels like it’s trying to squeeze kids, sausage meat-like though the process, attempting to create an identikit, one-size-fits-all education, with its success measured in reports and stats, exhausting our poor teachers and creating this bureaucratic nightmare for them.

Get as many kids through as possible, a system in which the average student will do just fine but the gifted or the challenged suffer due to too little or the wrong type of stimulus.

In my early days of acting, I undertook a dreaded T.I.E job (Theatre in education). This couldn’t have been further from my glamourous notions of entering the world of thesps. Up at 6am to meet in central London, we then drove to some godforsaken corner of the city to perform in front of a pack of braying year 9s.

Luckily, most of the time, because the kids were excited to not be in a classroom setting they were pretty agreeable to what this travelling troupe of ‘players’ were peddling which in our case was an abridged version of Twelfth Night interwoven with a reasonably fun workshop (the term ‘fun’ being used in its loosest form).

Time and time again we saw that there were often kids that, in the normal class room environment were labelled the difficult or disruptive one but in this environment, flourished. Unencumbered by the prejudiced view the teachers already had of them and being allowed to express themselves creatively, an outlet they felt much more confident with than the restraints of the academia foisted upon them, these kids would flourish – or at least not muck about as much as they normally did.

But I’m not na├»ve. I know that schools are cost centres and that supporting challenging students takes a huge amount of resources. On another T.I.E job (sucker for punishment), me and my co-worker were sent to a place in South-East London, which was essentially, a last stop before borstal. Security was tight. Not like a school but more like a nice prison. There were high fences but the walls were painted a pleasing mint green. We were there to do a drugs awareness programme. Embarrassingly the kids knew more than we did and when we showed our smorgasbord of (pretend) drugs, the kids immediately spotted it was all fake. “Heroin isn’t that brown” one said plainly. “Right” I said. “But we can all agree it’s wrong, right guys?!” I chirped like an over-enthusiastic Christian youth leader.

The point is, the ratio of teachers to pupils in this class was something like nine to four. Nine pupils to four teachers. That was the level of attention wayward kids can require, if they make it to a facility such as this. So I get it.

But what about my school? Well, like I say, I’d love to dispense with specific qualifications and provide a more organic, full curriculum which begins at inception and ends at gradation aged 18 with a diploma. I believe this is similar to the America model.

English language AND English literature would be a constituent part, furnishing my kids with an appreciation for all forms of the written AND spoken word, things that are accessible to them. from Wilfred Owen to August Wilson, Milton to Macklemore. How awesome would an English literature class be if you got to study the lyrical brilliance of Kanye West one week and Kafka the next? Over the course of their studies, the students would acquire a comprehensive overview of the history of English literature, not limited to a particular time or nation.

In terms of maths, we’d learn what we need in our practical, everyday lives. Yes, mental maths, yes percentages, even a little long division and multiplication but no to algebra. I don’t think I’ve used algebra once since leaving school and I’m not sure I’ve ever used a protractor or a compass.

How about exchanging that stuff for life skills such as Money Management. Wouldn’t a young person be better off learning financial literacy than trigonometry?

Another part of my curriculum would be Humanity. It would incorporate a range of subjects including sex education, elevating it from a discussion of mere biology and legal age limits, and including the intangibles such as sexual politics, the complexities of relationships, sexual health. Humanity would also encompass citizenship skills, faith studies, the law and morality.

Another mandatory subject would be Economics and Politics. Yep, every kid would be furnished with a basic understanding of various global systems to help them comprehend the world as it is today.

When I was studied History at secondary school they must have been prepping us to be the Simon Sharma’s of the Second World War such was the emphasis put on it. I know the UK is hugely identified with this war and I get it’s important, but NOT to the level we studied it, forsaking other equally significant events.

I would want my pupils to have an understanding of global history, giving it all equal importance, to help them understand how it  affects all of us today.

I recently watched the History Channel’s Mankind: The Story of All Of Us and was totally gripped by this compelling documentary series. It contextualised as well as informed on so many historical events I’ve heard referenced but never had any idea what they were. The Crusades sounded like fun, they sounded like a good thing until I discovered, via Stephen Fry’s eloquent narration, that it was a horrid, religion-based massacre - oh. Why didn’t we learn about that at school? I think that’s important.

We barely touched on slavery, civil rights, the middle east, ancient Egypt, the foundation of America and so many other significant key times, why – because we were learning, in great detail, about the Obas of West Africa….

We would of course, include general science study that, again, had practical application. For example, as well as learning the basics of chemistry, physics and biology, the kids would also see how intrinsic chemistry is to cooking, or observe human biology in relation to health management.

How about this, let’s add life skills to the body of study. Needlecraft, basic electronics, car maintenance, culinary skills, how household appliances work. Fuck me, that would probably prevent a few house fires and catastrophes!

 Learning a language would be mandatory. I wish it had been at my school.

And of course, the arts.  As I’ve described in other blogs, the arts is a way of giving voice to those kids who are never going to respond to academic stimuli. I may be biased, but I don’t think this aspect of development and learning is given nearly enough importance. Art is not a nice add-on, it’s a way for us as people to stay connected to our humanity. 

Pupils today could be the artists of tomorrow and artists have the capacity to shape the world, with their words, their books, their music, their poetry and their passion.

On top of this I’d want every kid to work with a careers coach right from the beginning and if they have an aptitude or interest in something in particular, then they’d be given a schedule that accommodates that.

So perhaps there’s ten sessions a week which can be adapted to that students particular needs or desires. So if you want, you can spend ALL OF TEN OF THEM on the athletics track, in the chemistry lab or practicing the guitar. Why does the pursuit of excellence have to be something done outside of normal school hours?

Why not work with their gifts right from the get go? I wish I’d been encouraged to pursue my love of athletics and the arts. I’m no better at maths than I would have been had I been training with the Essex Beagles regularly as part of my core curriculum.

I know that my proposal for a school is almost impossible to realise because, as I’ve said, the system is about getting as many people through it with as decent an education as you can for the cheapest price possible. And look, I'm not saying the system is failing and that those dedicated to education aren't doing an amazing job.

I couldn't be a teacher in this current system, I know that much so I have massive respect to those who have chosen it as a career. What a huge responsibility it is to educate our young. These teachers are literately shaping our futures.

So it's easy for me to make all these bold statements about how it should be done but with a following wind, I’d definitely be up for giving it a go after all, as I saw on a Facebook meme this week, we spend a lot of time talking about leaving the world in a decent state for the next generation of kids, but we also have to remember to leave a decent generation of kids for the world.


  1. I agree with pretty much everything you have said/raised there. When I left school in 1989 I was so under prepared for work it was comical, not one employer wanted to know about the history of medicine or hear me talk about coastal errosion. Children NEED to be learning proper life skills (how to complete a CV, how to attend an interview etc etc) And an extra language should certainly be mandatory these days. On a lighter note if you were my teacher you would get an apple a day without fail :-)

    1. I also think that the best teachers are the ones who do think outside the box, for example instead of algebra teach kids how to budget a household. It would be so much more help to them.


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