Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Some Have An Education, Some Don't

I absolutely MUST begin with a disclaimer. The moment I get on this topic people assume I'm bitter and resentful about it. I'm not. But I think it's important, if we are ever to change anything, is to acknowledge that a poor education is never a GOOD thing. One can do that without being bitter and resentful.

So, I was born in in 1962, in a suburb of London, England, to a comfortably-off, albeit working class family, and my education began early (before my 3rd birthday, in fact) in a private school, where I was identified as above-average and placed into a classroom with children 2 years older than myself.

And it all went downhill from there.

My grandmother was a lovely woman who believed children should play and be free. She thought this educational hot-housing was all wrong and she persuaded my mother to take me out of there and instead she took me to the park and encouraged fishing and bike riding. I come from a long line of tomboys.

Why didn't my mother fight back? She just wanted me to be happy. That was all she ever wanted. My grandmother convinced her I wasn't happy. I honestly don't remember whether I was or not, kids that young are adaptable and just go along with whatever is presented as daily life. But I have an inkling what was behind it all.

My mother had wanted to be a history teacher. But my grandfather made her leave school and get a job. She was an intelligent and well-read woman, but she wasn't given a chance.

My grandfather in his turn, had been one of the younger children in a family who owned a shipyard. He was a reader too, always had his head in a book. His elder brothers inherited the family business, but he was sent to work at the docks at the age of 14.  Did he resent that and not allow my mother to get on as he'd been unable to? Maybe. In any case, he married beneath himself. His family had servants, my grandmother was a servant. I'm not altogether sure you know, that she could read much more than a knitting pattern. I never saw her pick up a book. I may be mistaken. But in any case, her humble background certainly didn't give her any reason to think I needed to study geography at the age of 3.

Of course she didn't stop me being a bookworm, and once I turned 5, I entered the state school system already able to read fluently. Every teacher I had decided I was above average, and they all tried to "challenge" me but none of them really knew what they were doing, quite honestly. Above average kids are often difficult. Just because they learn easily doesn't mean they want to learn what you want to teach them. Plus, if you aren't teaching them the right things, they aren't going to pluck it out of the air.

The sad fact is, nobody told me what I was there for. OK, to be fair, maybe they did, and it didn't sink in, but that's where you try another angle. And you keep on trying, because otherwise children don't get it. The message they get is that they must do this and they must do that, but they don't understand why.

Left to my own devices, at home or in the library, I opted to learn much more than they ever bothered to teach me. But it goes without saying, totally unguided learning is never complete, otherwise all we'd ever do with children is teach them to read and leave them to it. No, we have teachers and curriculums, and some of them are rubbish.

When I was 10 years old, we did a special test called the 11-Plus. The object of this test was to see how intelligent you were, not what you had been taught in school. If you passed, you went to a school for clever children. They didn't call it that, it was called Grammar School, and was described, if you pushed it, as a more academically oriented school. What it really meant was, these kids will go on to college or university. The rest? Factory fodder. So, it was an aptitiude test. It contained questions like:

My best friend is tall and dark. I am nine and he is ten. He is one of these four boys below. Read the following sentences and write down my best friend's name. Harry is younger than me. He is short and dark. Dick is ten. He is a tall boy with fair hair. Tom has dark hair. He is older than me and is a tall boy. Frank is a tall boy with dark hair. He is nine.

I aced it. Unfortunately they then decided to scrap the whole idea of streaming us at that age, and my results were void. We all went to the same school for two years. Two years is an eternity at that age. By the time they next decided to stream us I was very settled where I was, and while it was recommended that I go to Grammar School, I didn't want to go.

Nobody made me. Nobody said don't be a fool, that's obviously the best choice for you. They shrugged and allowed a 12-year-old to decide her entire educational future. How stupid is that?

When I tell this, and the remainder of the story to people now, they say "Well, you can't blame anyone else, these were your decisions, this was your foolish attitude." I know that. But do you honestly believe kids really know what is best for them?

So I got "left behind" in a Secondary Modern, instead of going to Grammar School, and I wasn't the only one. All the clever rebels that stayed were herded into T class, T for Top (it wasn't really, but it may as well have been) and treated thusly. But they didn't really know what to do with us. We had some reasonably good teachers, certainly, but if they had been the best teachers they wouldn't have been working there.

One problem was that it was an all-girl school. Some people will tell you single-sex schools are a good idea, less distraction, and that may be true. Certainly the Grammar School was also single-sex. But because they were expected to Do Things With Their Lives, they got a full range of subjects offered. We did not. There was no physics, all math was taught together, and great emphasis was placed on typing, cooking, and needlework. Be a good little woman, that sort of thing.

I rejected typing, because there was NWIH I was going to spend my life at a keyboard! Ha! (Laugh NOW, damn you!) Instead I took a language bias. And I did well. I argued with teachers a lot, but I got the precious certificates.

In fact, because we were given the opportunity to take O Levels as well as, or instead of, CSEs when it came to our exams at the age of 16, we could actually have made it to college or even university, but there was one tiny problem. Nobody told us that. And you only know what you know.

Not only were we oblivious to this, there was no other encouragement. A very stupid Careers Officer, who, having asked me what I liked to do, and I had said writing, suggested secretarial work.......When I rejected this, one teacher with a gram of initiative, asked me if perhaps I fancied journalism. I even got a tour round the county newspaper offices. It looked as boring as hell and I think they gave up on me at that point.

In fact I think it's fair to say that the only teacher who really paid any creative attention to my future was my languages teacher. I really admired and respected her, she'd made a career simply out of being a polyglot, and she got us very interested in travel by taking us on trips for every single excuse she could find. Living where we did, Paris, Amsterdam, and Brussels were nearby, so off we went every few months. She even wangled a trip to Munich for us, by plane. These were not your average school trips. She was cool.

She told me my future lay in two possible areas, government service overseas, or the travel industry. So when I finally fell out with the school and left prematurely, I went into the civil service, with some vague idea of working in a foreign consulate eventually. It never happened, because in my first placement with the Ministry of Defence I did that thing where all plans change, I fell in love.

Once married, I had to stay put, obviously, so when I got promoted I transferred to the Department of Employment, but it was as boring as hell, and so I did that other thing that changes all plans, I had a baby. And another one. And I never went back.

Let's now jump forward a few years. I found myself needing to return to work to make ends meet, and I applied for a job in a travel agency. Guess who also applied for that job? My old languages teacher! And guess who got it....yeah, me.

All my admiration for her - GONE. All her skills and experience and I got it instead? Maybe they simply wanted somebody younger.

So, one night in a bar in Austria I was talking to a very glamorous older lady who had been in the travel industry her whole life, had been everywhere, following her dream career, and I realised two things. One, I wanted to be at home with my kids, and two, it wasn't really that glamorous at all. She spent all her evenings sitting talking to strangers in bars. That's fine on holiday. It's no way to spend a life. There's no depth at all.

I quit. I got a 9 to 5 job in a delicatessen, the following year I had another baby, subsequently 3 more, and I have never had a proper job since. I opted out of the rat race.

I do not regret my barefoot and pregnant years one bit. I enjoyed raising a family to the nth. Coming to Canada even made it affordable. Buying the farm took it to another level.

What did I do for myself during that time? I educated myself. I read voraciously. Once I discovered the internet 17 years ago it became even easier. And an interesting thing happened, and continued to happen. The more I learned, the more I discovered I had a lot more to learn. So I learned more. I studied hard. I learned quite a lot about all sorts of things. I found I was quite comfortable discussing things with highly educated people. I could hold my own, even with experts sometimes.

Most of all, I learned about learning. I discovered some people had 2 or more degrees but still couldn't spell. I learned that really very succesful people, in their field, could manage without a ha'p'orth of common sense. I learned that doctors could be complete bozos on nutrition and the history of public health. I learned that geniuses could be clueless about where things were in the world, and not even realise that Britain was an island. I learned that engineers couldn't cook or tell the difference between a rooster and a hen. I learned that all of us only ever know what we know.

So, what I really learned is that it's not what you know that counts, but how you learn. It took me decades to understand certain aspects of science that I could have picked up easily in 3 years in college. No guidance, you see.

I have learned that if my teachers in school had taught me why learning mattered, I'd probably be a professor now. But I'm OK that I'm not, because what I did instead was amazing.

That doesn't mean it's OK for children to be allowed to miss out on an education the way I did. Sure, their lives may turn out just fine anyway. They may end up as happy as I am.

AND THEY MAY NOT. They may be miserable, they may even go hungry. They deserve the chance.

It is our absolute duty to the next generation, and those to come, that EVERY child reaches his full potential whatever that may be, to follow his bliss, and yet to be guided so that he may be able to follow it effectively. Especially, above average children must never be allowed to rot. We face incredible challenges in the future, and we need innovation, we need wisdom in the young, and we need it now.

When I grow up, I want to be a writer. Everything I have ever learned up until now is being channelled into that. And now, in my fifties, I'm playing catch-up academically, and studying more topics, and even more intensively than ever. The only thing I can do now is to share whatever I've picked up along the way, hopefully it'll benefit somebody else. If not, at least I enjoy learning. Thankfully they never poisoned that well.


  1. Just because they learn easily doesn't mean they want to learn what you want to teach them.


    In one of my online profiles, I wrote "Once I left school, I discovered a love for learning."

    I hated high school. College was better, but I don't feel that I got much out of it other than debt. Getting an education at a recognized institution may give you a fancy piece of paper and maybe even some letters to put after your name, but in many cases this just turns out be be a waste of money.

    I think that as long as we don't squash a child's love for learning, they won't rot regardless of what kind of education they have or don't have.

    I agree that we need innovation and we need wisdom, but I don't think that school is necessarily the way to get it. Without going off on a tangent about the quality of our school system, I'd argue that creativity and wisdom has really nothing to do with education.

    Unfortunately, a lack of formal education can completely block a person from following certain paths in today's world. I think that is what needs to change. I think we need to find ways to go back to the "old days" of learning on the job. This still happens for some jobs, but it could be applied to many more.

    1. Ah yes. I may be a little biased here but my husband and son have both served apprenticeships and I'm a great advocate of such. Both my son-in-laws did not complete their formal education, went into jobs "at the bottom", learned the ropes, climbed the ladders, and are doing very well now.

      The problem is that with "job hopping" being the norm now companies don't want to invest in training - what they fail to understand is that employee loyalty is built that way. They've got the symptom and the cause back to front.

      Something has to change, that's for sure.