The Word Rabbit


This article was written on 10 Sep 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

A (former) comprehensive school pupil writes

This blog requires the reader to hold two ideas in their head at the same time. Firstly, that I think the only schools in existence should be faith-free state schools on the comprehensive model and, secondly, that I went to a state school on the comprehensive model and it was awful. This second position does nothing to disqualify the first. It means purely that I can see the faults and how they might be corrected, indeed, probably are corrected now, in the present day. Here we go.

My school was called Kimberley Comprehensive School or ‘KCS’ in the time that I was there and had renamed itself ‘The Kimberley School’ when I left because the label ‘comprehensive’ was seen as being outdated and there was some talk of it being a brake on people getting into university. In reality, that was the least of its problems, because renaming a dog turd a ‘canine defecation product’ does nothing to change its texture or smell. It’s still a dog turd for all to see. And KCS was very much a dog turd of a school.

It was incredibly and remorselessly violent, such that from the first year to the third, you lived in pretty much constant fear of the older pupils tripping you up or just kicking your head in for the sake of it. As far as academic rigour went, for the the first two years we were treading water in mixed ability classes where the speed of our learning was dictated by the members of the class who struggled to breathe and walk at the same time, with the result not that the more able people in the class helped them, but sat there quietly hating them and the idiots got violent. The school, then, had contrived a solution in which everybody lost.

As we rolled through our miserable school careers and passed into the later years, mixed ability teaching was introduced as they knew what we were capable of, as was the plan for people in the second and third years. Two bands were brought in called, hilariously, the ‘A’ band and the ‘X’ band, with the violent idiots in the X band and the more academically able in the A band, a division which ended up being social as well as cerebral. I didn’t socialise with people in the X band, because it would have made me the only person in the school who did and if there’s one thing that young people and teenagers don’t like, it’s standing out.

One thing I want to make clear is the hatred I felt for the kids in the X band. I hated being in the same physical space as them and I hated what they represented, which is that they had been a brake on my education during the first two years at the school and cost me years that I wasn’t sure I’d get back. More than that, to my younger self, they represented the thuggish and beetle-browed people who the school, as I thought, was really for. As many of the books we used were still stamped ‘Kimberley Secondary Modern’ on the inside and I knew enough about education policy, it was clear to me that we were in a backwater because of them.

We came together for things like PE, which was a twice weekly exercise in human misery, in which thick men in singlets shouted at you, but didn’t see each other outside that. The standard of teaching varied from the genuinely inspirational, to the genuinely abysmal, with teachers like Mr Prew, Mr Bowers and Mr Jenkins who I can still remember years after I left, to others who could neither control their classes or impart any meaningful knowledge to the kids in the class. Hours rolled by in the company of these people in which we learned nothing but that school was easily derailed by people who were intent on being fools.

So why don’t I hate comprehensive schools and want grammars? Because KCS was a failed school by any reasonable measure, whether it was comprehensive, grammar or anything else. What the people in charge should have done – and here I mean the headteacher, DT Dowell, who was as much use as a fart in a paper bag, and his deputy whose name I can’t even remember, such was his level of stature – should have had a zero tolerance policy of any kind to any incident of violence and break anyone who infringed it, removing them from the general population until they were prepared to behave like civilised humans.

Setting could also have been done much sooner. Recommendations should have been sought from the children’s primary school teachers and they should have been placed into sets when they arrived, not when the school had belatedly got is arse into gear. Similarly, dividing people up into two sets called ‘A’ and ‘X’ was idiotic. What there should have been was a series of single ability classes in each subject that were porous and that people could move between as they either excelled or needed help, not some hard and fast categorisation. And there would be less dead time. It was two years before we did anything, academically, of any value in subjects whose names, and here I’m thinking of ‘Inter-Disciplinary Education,’ didn’t tell you anything about what they were for and whose content told you even less.

But I survived. And it was about survival. I got out of the school with enough A Levels to get myself to university and to get away from the fly-blown small town it was in. With the benefit of hindsight the comprehensive model its not flawed. It can be made to work, and has to work, in fact, if our society isn’t going to be ripped in half when children are 11, with some branded winners and so e branded losers. Or, for that matter, being made to hate children who the school has failed to control, as I was. Get this right, and society is fine, get it wrong and we’re all screwed.

As an aside, when I was working as a journalist I used to to work for ‘Teachers’ magazine who commissioned me to write a feature about a Scandinavian country’s education system. I wrote it. And then they changed it. What I found was that parental choice doesn’t exist. Everyone goes to their local school, with very few exceptions. You can’t opt out of the system, so are held to it and invested in it through your child or children. The violence I was subjected to would never have been tolerated and the anti-intellectual climate in which I was supposed to learn would have been viewed with complete bafflement. None of this made it into press, of course. Some New Labour apparatchik got hold of it and the lesson was that they wanted to be more like us. This was, of course, total balls.

But that is an aside. KCS and schools like it probably don’t exist anymore and, like that Scandinavian country I wrote about, grammar schools probably shouldn’t, either. Unless we see the school system as a giant social centrifuge that flings people apart early on and then wonder why society has broken up into factions, we need to make the comprehensive model work and do it quickly. Use this blog as a ‘how-not-to’ guide if you want, but for pity’s sakes, for the sake of this society, this needs attention and it needs it soon.

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