Spot the difference!!

on .

My great grand-daughter is now into her second year at “big school”.  She will be six in a few weeks' time.  The other day, she came home after an art lesson, and told her mother excitedly that they had learned all about Van Gogh – about his self-mutilation, his friendship with Cézanne, the way his moods influenced his choice of colours, and so on – and they had all been invited to choose one of his paintings to copy.  This is at a normal Church of England Primary School, not some sort of private establishment for precocious or abnormally gifted children.  Crickey!  I doubt whether I had even heard of Van Gogh until I was in my Forties!

Her mother has just sent me a copy of a notice which has gone to all the parents about this Term's activities.  History will include the causes and consequences of the Great Fire of London, which will be backed up by an examination of the equipment used then and now for fighting fires, and a visit from the Hampshire Fire Brigade who will tell the children what they do and how they do it. 

I am still shaking my head in disbelief at the gulf between this and my experiences   eighty-odd years ago at Lydd Primary School.  My recollection of art is that it was a lesson in which you had to wear a kind of smock to prevent your clothes being covered in paint while you produced a grotesque Picasso-like image of an unidentifiable rectangular animal with four legs, all on the same side.  And the really important thing about the Great Fire of London was that it happened in 1666, one of the easier dates to remember in our learning-by-rote programme.  I was completely unaware of any relevance it might have to life in the 1930s. 

As for finding out what I was doing at school, I was the only source of information for my parents – and a pretty unforthcoming one at that, no doubt.  “What did you do at School today, Graham”?  “Not much”.  “Yes, but what lessons did you have?  “Sums.  I HATE sums”.  “Better not let your father hear you say that.  Wash your hands.  Your tea's ready”.

This whole episode has prompted me to wind the clock on a little and to reflect on the differences between life at Borden today and in the pre-World War II period when I was a pupil.  And in many ways the gulf seems to me as large as, if not larger than, it is in primary school education.  In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, I had the good fortune to be a School Governor, so I was able to observe some time ago the remarkable changes which have taken place over that time, but they haven't stopped happening since I retired. 

For the less well-informed, a quick glance at the School's excellent Website and the Diary of Events will give you a flavour of what life is like for both Staff and Pupils these days, even if it is only a superficial one.  You will see references, for example, to the History trip to Berlin, the Geography trip to Teneriffe, a Spanish trip to Barcelona, a Ski trip and visits to Stratford and to the Central London Synagogue.  In my day, we had one outing a year – typically, to the Southern Railway Works at Eastleigh!

There are references, too, to the Kent Schools Speaking Competition, the School Council, a guided visit to Cambridge, to subjects at A-Level such as Film Studies, Photography, Psychology and Sociology.  Instead of a solitary play each year – Ian Hay's “The Housemaster”, for instance – there is a musical, “Miss Saigon”, a pantomime and the Battle of the Bands.  In due course, the drama facilities, it is hoped, will include new rigging to make light changes easier, motorized curtain and backdrops, a new technical suite with new lighting and sound equipment, and new comfortable auditorium-style chairs.  In  my day, poor old Reg Goff had to paint a wobbly bit of scenery when he could find the time!  If you haven't done it, I can really recommend a meander through the BGS Website, which after all is only one click away from what you are viewing now.  It's an education in itself. 

So what do I conclude from these comparisons?  Ah, that's more difficult!  Is education 'better' than it was three generations ago?  Well, it is certainly richer – in the sense of being much, much more varied, in the classroom and outside it.  The availability of all these extra opportunties means that it has moved away from the strictly academic, which it tended to be, to a more rounded experience, designed to open the children's eyes and stimulate their imaginations.  I find that immensely exciting – and very encouraging.  It is equipping Bordenians with the attitudes and mental skills which I am sure will enable them to face the increasingly complex problems and challenges of life in the 21st Century. 

Am I envious, or, looking back, do I feel I in some way short-changed?  No, not at all.  I think that what I learned and how I learned it did a pretty good job at preparing me for what was to come.  I once heard someone comparing the effects on the environmental observation habits and abilities of people living on flat, featureless plains with those surrounded by soaring mountains.  Their powers of observation are fundamentally the same.  It's just that the plain-dwellers are more conscious of things happening at a distance of a few feet, rather than miles away.  Perhaps that's not a very good analogy, but you see what I am trying to say?  In those distant days at school, we probably had  to work a little harder to find our own way and to create our own stimuli, but at the time, the help we had was all we could reasonably expect, and often more.

And here we come to a paradox : how is it possible to reconcile the picture I have painted with all the horror stories we hear of literacy and numeracy deficiencies among school-leavers, and of how far down the international educational league tables we are in this country.  Well, I won't pretend to know anything about the daunting and intractable problems of schools in deprived or ethnically-diverse areas.  I am not sure whether there is any substance at all in what I have said, and in any case I would strongly urge everyone not to treat these remarks as generalisations. 

All I can say is this.  I have never been more optimistic about the future of Borden Grammar School and its pupils than I am now.  In the BGS OFSTED Report last autumn, the inspectors commented on “the fierce pride” which pupils have in their School.  When the School Roll is three times the size it was 70 years ago, I don't know why, but that surprises me.  And cheers me no end! 


Graham Barnes