One couldn't accuse Michael Gove of being the equivalent of the shy, retiring boy sitting quietly at the back of the political class at the moment. Our increasingly extraordinary Education Secretary seems to have a one man mission to hog as many headlines as possible. Top of the Gove news coverage pops (this week at least, we're sure he'll trump this with another hair-brained idea next – compulsory boarding school from age seven perhaps?) is his desire to make state schools indistinguishable from their private counterparts.
"My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England, standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it's in the state sector or a fee-paying independent," declared our nation's head education politico honcho.
Putting the general ridiculousness of this aim aside (where would the extra facilities and funding come from? One journalist calculated that to match public school Marlborough College's teacher/ pupil ratio nationally would require tripling the teacher workforce to 1.3million), is it even desirable?
Of course the state sector can learn plenty from its independent counterpart – and hopefully vice versa - but the idea that our state schools become so akin to private ones is based on a false assumption: that the grass is always greener over the fee-paying side of the fence.
Well I'm sticking my stake in the ground – that's into a scruffy little patch of grass outside my kids' primary by the way, as there are no acres of manicured lawns here - to defend our state schools. Of course they aren't perfect, but there's plenty to love about them the way they are. So, Gove, hands off!*
*with apologies for some sweeping generalisations. I'm merely following Mr G's example.
Why I don't want state schools to become like private schools...
1. My younger primary-school-aged sons get to wear comfortable, practical CHILD-FRIENDLY clothing rather than being trussed up like little City gents in fancy blazers with shirts and proper ties (no elasticated ones allowed). Why make six-year-olds dress more formally than the average office worker does these days?
A polo shirt and sweatshirt combo can still look smart and is infinitely more appropriate for hurtling round playgrounds at break-time (although I suspect at some stage Gove plans to phase out break-times as they involve FUN and we can't have that sort of thing if we're to beat the Singaporeans in those pesky PISA international league tables).
2. Unlike the straw boater topped girls from our nearest prep, or my friend's son with his canary yellow blazer, my children are not the subject of sniggers down the local high street for those 'quirky' uniform garments beloved of some independent schools. I went to private school and believe me, we had so many uniform howlers that I really do know the humiliation all this can involve. Of course Mr Gove probably thinks that's character-building.
3. Staying at school for nine or 10 hours daily? Pah, they can look forward to those sorts of working weeks when they're grown-ups toiling away. But for now, we like our 3.30 finish. More than anything, we have a choice. For those of us who work there's an optional after-school club, for those who don't, our kids get to come home at 3-something o'clock, leaving plenty of time for activities, Brownies/Cubs, or just good old-fashioned chilling out. Unlike my poor niece who is stuck at her prep school, doing her 'prep' until 5.30pm every day. Stick your homework at school until 6pm ideas, homework has the word home in it, in case you hadn't noticed, Michael.
4. My prep school mum friends spend Saturday mornings shivering amid muddy playing fields, watching their equally muddy children play in sports fixtures, following a bright and early 8am start to get there on time. Give me a Saturday morning slobbing about the (warm) house en famille anytime instead. Not that we don't do our fair share of sport, but when we do it's from our own choice – not just rugby or cricket - and is at a local club that's part of the community.
5. Another uniform win: I can purchase an entire set on the high street for about the price of that fancy blazer alone in the private school's 'Official Outfitters'. And no-one cares if I label with a laundry pen rather than proper embroidered name tapes either.
6. Whilst some of my friends with children in prep schools get class rankings in their termly reports (reports three times a year, now that I would like), they might have no context as to where they fit in the wider world. Their offspring are ranked versus the 15 or so other kids, regardless of whether the others are all utter geniuses or a less bright gang. State school kids are benchmarked against national levels and not just compared to whoever shares their classroom (well, for now they are, as Mr Gove is scrapping the current system of levels this September).
7. Thirty pupils in the class might mean less teacher attention but it DOES mean more potential playmates and a greater chance of finding like-minded friends, even if your child is into something really quite obscure. Handy if you want to maximise your chances of them finding a kindred spirit stamp collector, trainspotter or...Crystal Palace fan.
8. A serious one now: if my children had special educational needs that had not been spotted before they started school, they would not then face being booted out if they didn't literally made the grade. It doesn't happen in every independent school – plenty are nurturing and welcome children who need extra support - but in some, it does and it must be soul-destroying for parents and pupil alike. Far better to be in a state school where even if provision can be patchy, it's there and you are embraced for who you are and not asked to leave just because you aren't going to pass the 11+/Common Entrance or get all grade As and Bs.
9. I don't have to play the competitive fashion show yummy mummy game at drop-off each day. Our school does not have any supermodels, footballer's wives or heads of design at some swanky Bond Street brand and there's no compulsory Chelsea Tractor rule.
10. Last but not least: IT'S FREE!
Article by Emily Smith.
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