Update: Some people have asked about my use of ‘high’ school in an English context. We had (and to a great extent still have) a three-tier system in Northumberland.
My parents, who live five miles away in the house where I grew up, are having a long-overdue clearout of their attic. A few days ago they brought round my National Record of Achievement. It’s a faux-leather folder with embossed letters that we used in high school to collate, well, anything other than demerits.
I opened mine and flicked through the meaningless bronze and silver awards, the certificates for things that didn’t need certificating, and the various proofs of things done I’d long since forgotten about.
Then, near the back, I came across my Year 11 report from the February of my last compulsory year in school.
Let’s have a look at some highlights, shall we?
English – “Although he tends to waste time in class, Douglas has produced all the coursework required so far…” - I wasted time because I finished all the work set and the lessons were formulaic in the extreme. I was forced to think ‘inside the box’ and I was bored to distraction.
Biology – “Douglas is able to grasp topics very quickly and shows a very good understanding. I have always been worried by his arrogant attitude…” – Why? Because I dared to go beyond the textbook we used every lesson? Because I asked hard questions that the teacher couldn’t be bothered to answer?
Physics – “Douglas shows interest in some topics but he prefers to get involved in ‘idle’ chatter too often. He has ability in this subject but he must be prepared to work harder.” – Physics was one of my favourite subjects. I just didn’t like working in an atmosphere where silence was expected (if rarely achieved) *all* of the time.
French – “In discussion with Douglas [notice never 'Doug'] he agrees that so far this year he has been content to produce work that is just satisfactory and shows the minimum of effort.” – That might be because the closest we got to real-life French were laughably outdated videos. The (compulsory) language class felt like an irrelevance.
Life Studies - “Douglas has understood the issues raised and contributed sensibly to some of the discussions but he has not yet fully learned that there are no simple answers to complex issues.” Ouch! I saw this teacher a few weeks ago for the first time since school. I went out of my way to thank her for lending me a copy of Sophie’s World, which eventually led to me studying Philosophy at university.
Senior Tutor – “Well done, Douglas. This is an excellent report, I am sure you have a bright and interesting future ahead of you.” – Well, it *wasn’t* an excellent report, and I ultimately underachieved, but the ‘interesting future’ bit was spot-on.
The rest of the teacher comments were mainly bland and generic, focusing on me needing a revision plan and to work harder. I don’t really blame my teachers – it must have been a fairly tough place to work.
When I talked through my report with my wife it was interesting how we came at this from different angles. Given that I’ve gone on to achieve a doctorate and done reasonably well career-wise I saw the above as evidence of the disconnect between school and ‘real life’. She on the other hand, wondered what I could have been.
Of course, we’ll never know the counter-factual. We’ll never know what would have happened if I’d gone somewhere different than a school where only 25% achieved 5+ A*-C grades (the national average at the time was 45%). And, anyway, what would have constituted a ‘better outcome’? More money? More status?
I’d wager that the biggest differentiator and predictor of ‘success’ in life (whatever that is) is parental expectation. OK, so my father was Deputy Head of the high school and my mother worked in the school office, but it wasn’t their presence that kept me on the straight-and-narrow.
What kept me honest was the expectation that I would attend university. And to attend university you have to jump through the flaming hoops of examination systems. So I jumped through the hoops. I may have almost burned my bollocks a few times, but I got through in the end.
Others didn’t. Primarily, I’d argue, because they weren’t expected to.
I’m still thinking through all this and what it means for my own children, so in lieu of a neat conclusion I’ll leave you with the wise words of John O’Farrell:
Children from advantaged backgrounds are going to do much better wherever they go to school – that is module 1 of a GCSE in The Bleedin’ Obvious. If you read to your children from an early age, if the poor things are dragged round museums every other weekend, if you have the time and energy for them and are not leaving them at home alone every evening because you have a second job cleaning floors at Heathrow, then your children will do better academically. If your local comp got 50% five A-Cs including English and maths, that doesn’t mean that your child has only a 50% chance of achieving that over-simplistic benchmark. What parents generally perceive as a “better school” usually means a school with an intake that is easier to teach.