Rhoda Koenig: The poverty of expectation that cripples the English

Myparents were Americans and Jews, so believed success was possible
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The Independent Online

Alan Milburn sounds like a very nice man, and so do his colleagues, except for those who are very nice women. Their Unleashing Aspiration is a very nice report, full of very nice recommendations on helping students from state schools go to university and become professionals. It reminds me of the very nice English primary-school teacher I once knew who told me of her bewilderment at her pupils' low grades.

"We thought," she said, "that instead of force-feeding them a lot of facts, we would empower them by giving them tools for learning. But for some reason they're not using these tools to get the information they need from the books they have at home."

My own parents, doubtless like many of this teacher's charges, had no book at home but the telephone directory. They, however, were Americans and Jews, and so believed that success was possible for anyone who worked hard, and that education was the key to it. Until I was nine I went to the state school in the run-down New York neighbourhood where my father's wages provided only a small flat above a shop. My grades were good but nothing special – I was bored.

My mother then got a job, and my father got a second one, working evenings and Saturdays. We moved into an even smaller flat in the catchment area of one of the best schools in the city. My grades shot up, and, several years later, I was accepted at the City College, which had been founded in 1847 for the children of the poor. It charged no tuition, and counts among its many celebrated alumni nine Nobel laureates. I graduated with honours, and, though I think I'll have to forget the Nobel, I have had a very satisfying career.

In an ideal world, the vouchers recommended by Alan Milburn's report would be used by every parent with a child in a bad school to shift him or her to a better one. This might create something of a problem, but I don't think we have to worry that the good schools will be besieged. The proposed reforms are likely to produce a result like that which puzzled my young friend: we gave them the tools – why don't they do the job?

The difference between England and America can be expressed in two words: "low expectations". This may not be so on a personal level in the case of culturally distinct groups (Jewish, Indian, Chinese, among others) or any others who are industrious and determined. But it is true of all England in the expectations we have of our society, coupled with our eagerness to avoid unpleasant truth – that many parents are indifferent or hostile to education.

We can see their attitude reflected in the vicious bullying suffered by children, especially poor ones, who have the nerve to be intelligent – bullying far more widespread and severe than any of the usual playground-jungle viciousness toward ugly girls or weak boys that I knew in New York.

We spend fortunes on our schools but, as their leavers show, we expect little of pupils and teachers alike. The report's recommendation of "guidance and mentoring from primary-school level onwards" won't help in such schools as my local one: I considered becoming a mentor there until I was told that it had a policy of not correcting spelling errors, as that would put too great a strain on the children.

Nor could I stomach the smile-face encouragement of "self-esteem" as a prerequisite rather than a by-product of learning – if one has any notion of how much there is to learn, how could one approach education with anything but humility?

Mr Milburn would also have the universities "take account of the social... context" of students' grades. The calculus of compassion that this would involve would be as amusing, and specious, as it would be infinite. Should a point be granted if the applicant is the only Muslim in his neighbourhood? Should it be taken away if he is the most popular boy in it? Would a child's trampy single mother, his drunken father, or his own chronic illness have more weight on the scale? One point, at least, is certain: by dealing with students who are convinced that university is a good thing, the scheme would not require confrontations with the anti-education set.

If our society and our government really wanted to help children, we would stop cringing before the bullies that infest and assail state education; the dreadful teachers; the wretched parents; the disorderly children. We would pay primary school teachers enough to show that we take the job seriously and expect them to do so as well. (How many professionals, after all, can claim the amount of wealth creation that results from a generation of one school's children earning twice what their parents expected?)

We would teach every child, as soon as he can read, that knowledge is beautiful and good, and is big enough to include something for everyone. We would not expect the universities to make up for those who did not face the bigger and harder tasks early on. That way of applying effort to the wrong end is likely to be as productive as feeding a dog by shoving its dinner up its backside, then calling its starvation one of the unavoidable failures of a policy with good intentions.