State school was a bad idea

In the climate of political correctness, Mary Farquarson thought that it was the right thing to do to send her son to a comprehensive school. He has never forgiven her
Click to follow
The Independent Online

My oldest child says that he will see me in hell if I ever say it was a good idea to send him to the inner-London comprehensive, which he left with nine GCSEs. He sees himself as having been sacrificed on the altar of my political correctness.

My oldest child says that he will see me in hell if I ever say it was a good idea to send him to the inner-London comprehensive, which he left with nine GCSEs. He sees himself as having been sacrificed on the altar of my political correctness.

He has a point and makes it forcefully. Now 20, and in the second year of a degree course at Bristol, he is happy in the academic and social setting he sees as his appropriate one. In his comprehensive, which we chose because it was co-ed and academically as good as its comprehensive neighbours, he struggled to find a peer group in which his sharp wit and inquiring mind were assets. He started to find it in Year 10, when the thug element began to truant seriously, leaving the academic liberated.

He does say that the social, racial and cultural variety of his secondary years have equipped him with knowledge and maturity that stand him in better stead than undergraduate peers from more sheltered schools. It is the straw to which I cling.

While he was fighting to study without being attacked as a freak, we struggled to provide back-up academically. It gave me insights into the folly of some of the demands that successive governments have built into the curriculum. There is no way that William Shakespeare is an unalloyed good thing for 15-years-olds when few have parents with books, and a majority speak English as a second language.

The teachers did not lack the skill or the desire to teach. But it was so much more usual for pupils to have learning difficulties that most of the school's efforts were channelled in that direction. The Government now, with Excellence in Cities, is trying to ensure special help for the bright. I cannot see how that is going to work, since it will tend to be middle-class kids who stand out as bright.

In our children's school, the essential predominant concern for disadvantaged pupils showed in many ways. Willy Russell was a favoured author because he could be a role model for many working-class kids.

We helped our kids when teachers did not have the time, or possibly the strength. Since that has been the same for all my children, I now feel as though I have done GCSEs three times in six years.

When my nephew, a year younger than my oldest, started at a grammar school outside London, it became glaringly obvious why an academic school was easier on parents. Coursework is less of a burden where teachers have a rigorous academic programme and like-minded pupils with a well-founded academic background. My nephew did most of his coursework in school. My children have done most of theirs at home.

My third child achieved 11 GCSE passes and has moved by his own choice to a sixth form in the next inner-London borough to our own, which is part of a consortium including three former grammars.

He has media studies among his AS-levels. The difference, he says, between media studies at his secondary school, and media studies at his new sixth form is obvious and nothing to do with the course. Most students in his sixth form "have a parent in the media; journalists or scriptwriters for example. My old school did too. But only working in the canteen or sweeping the floor of media businesses."

The school we sent our children too is essentially good. Its GCSEs fall somewhere just below national averages, but not at crisis level. Kids with an educated background can survive, particularly because it is London and is cheek by jowl with league table front-runner schools within which - as ours did - they have friends from their primary days against whom they continue to measure themselves.

They all have found - the oldest with the most pain, the second most slowly because he chose to run with the anti-learners - a level within school that has suited them.

The migrants, who increasingly colour inner-London schools and who often have educated backgrounds, provide a vital leaven. Son two is currently studying AS art with a Brazilian who has just taken himself to Madrid to see the Prado. My son is envious. True, at my nephew's grammar school, kids flew off to Spain, but there is a questing independence about the migrants that I am happy to see rub off.

My kids' school is definitely not what my country grammar school was. It is certainly not what I expected when we chose to keep them in a comprehensive. I will skate over some of the horrors, from feeling like a pushy fool, worrying about stretching the bright, to the muggings, the drugs and the sheer ugliness of the poverty. But they are terrifying. Drugs are as bad anywhere. But the crime is much worse.

A letter home from son three's sixth form let me recognise how much pain we have lived with. It said two subject teachers were complaining about punctuality. I could have kissed them. The relief of knowing that someone else would be nagging about coursework was overwhelming.

Whether, given my time again, I would still opt for an inner-city comprehensive I honestly do not know. The increasing divide between rich and poor and the distortion promoted by the league tables are polarising schools even further. There are upsides in the sheer vitality of the racial melting-pot, but for every benefit there is such a huge risk.