I am really glad I was born when and where I was, because my formative years were spent in a country under wartime rules and regulations, with shortages of practically everything and little or no entertainment except that which we generated ourselves.
Having few choices is surprisingly relaxing and when you are encouraged to use spare time to learn a useful or enjoyable skill, boredom is not an issue!
We learned to go without, not only luxuries but many so-called necessities. Food coupon limitations meant parties were next to impossible to cater for, and clothing coupons meant wardrobe contents were down to basic essentials. As children, our body measurements were regularly checked to ensure that the faster growing of us got extra coupons to enable us to purchase larger sizes!
As the war ended, our government changed, and they, in turn, changed the rules around education.
In England, pretty much everything is decided at national level, but services are delivered by County Council authorities – which are massively more numerous as governing instrumentalities than are the Australian States and Territories, but the largest of the counties are smaller than Australia’s largest capital cities.
Education policy was determined at central level, with university entrance standards set by regional groups of universities, which then supervised the setting of external examinations. But funding and authority for implementation of the policy was delegated to the County Councils. So local politics might influence choices between, for example, having single sex or coeducational schools and between comprehensive or selective secondary schools.
In general, I am speaking of the England in which I grew up which will have certainly changed in many ways since my youth!
Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Cheltenham Ladies’ College were among the better-known Independent schools referred to as Public Schools but, unlike similar private/independent schools in Australia, they receive no ‘public’ funding, relying on endowments and fees.
Just as a matter of interest – my life as a maths teacher in the UK ended with teaching part-time for just over 3 years at Cobham Hall, an independent school for girls, with both boarders and day students. And minimum teachers’ salaries in ALL schools were determined according to the Burnham scale, with private schools able to offer more!
The building itself was historic. The setting was magnificent and its mainly female teaching staff included several young mothers who were accommodated by an on-site crèche.
But I digress!
In the early years of Clement Attlee’s Labour government, the multitude of smaller, independent – and therefore fee-charging – secondary schools were invited to be funded by the government under a scheme whereby they could still follow their original charters – they were mainly, but not exclusively, founded by various Christian sects – provided they followed the national curriculum.
Most of them – like Hogwarts! – were based on the Public School model, with school Houses competing in sporting and other areas, Head Girls/Boys and Prefects.
Because the Public Schools are predominantly boarding schools, the House system was linked to personal development. In the junior classes, a student might be appointed as a blackboard monitor or a homework monitor, with the associated responsibilities, so that by the time a senior student became a prefect, they might be put in charge of a junior class during a private study period.
Thus, a sense of social responsibility was generated, along with an awareness that students, by receiving a free education, were privileged, as compared with those who attended a local secondary school which only educated them up to school leaving age.
I believe that much of this has now changed, with a majority of schools becoming comprehensive and fewer remaining selective.
At the time I completed secondary school, passing final exams with sufficiently good grades meant automatic eligibility for a Major County Award to cover tuition fees at a tertiary college or university, as well as a grant towards the costs of travel or accommodation (income related) and textbooks.
This added to the sense of obligation to the community which had enabled this access, based on ability with financial help adjusted according to family means, to what was essentially free education from infant school to ultimate graduation with tertiary qualifications.
This meant that those entering professional careers also felt a social obligation to put back into the community – a very different environment from that preferred in the USA and – IMHO – one with the potential for a much more cohesive society.
Out of all this, my message is that we need to look much more closely at systems which encourage the development of ability, irrespective of background. In the early 60s in the UK, I had a student who was brilliant – not just in maths but across the curriculum.
The school had needed to persuade her parents to let her stay on at school after she reached school-leaving age as none of her parents or siblings had ever done so. She did extremely well at 16 in the ‘O’ Levels and again there was a battle for her to stay on for the 2 more years to ’A’ levels.
Needless to say, another battle was successfully fought and she passed the entrance exam for Imperial College, London – from which I had graduated a few years earlier.
I left the school not very long after but I heard later that she had graduated with first class honours!
Not exactly a ‘rags to riches story’, but an encouraging example of how education should be available to all – which means it has to be free if everybody is going to have the opportunity to develop their skills and talents to the fullest – irrespective of family assets and expectations.
From a financial perspective – it is an investment in the future benefits to the community.
And – having learned to live with severe restrictions, I am well aware that, if we had a government which had the guts to put us on a war-time footing in order to fight climate change, we could do it!
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