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spires from Carfax

A tale of two schools

It's early days yet, even for the UK where children start formal schooling between 4 and 5 years old, but we've already started thinking about schooling for Helen, and as part of that we visited two primary schools. The first was our local state school, the one we're actually in the catchment for and (since it's just around the corner) could be relatively confident of getting a place in (due to a baby boom, there's such pressure on schools that even being in the catchment is now no longer a guarantee of a place). The second was the prep school for a prestigious private Oxford girls high school. (I won't name either school, but anyone in Oxford can probably identify them.)

Our local primary school was much like primary school as Camilla and I remember it. We were given a half hour tour by the deputy head, and it felt like it was full of people busy playing and learning. Particular pluses for me included:

  • an emphasis on outside learning: they have allotments nearby and use them, they also have (half a day a fortnight?) Forest School. And there's a huge playing area, with lots of grass.
  • a topic-based learning approach, where they slice the National Curriculum "sideways" as it were and teach it reaggregated around topics. (And there were some other indications that the teachers, or at least the leading ones, were interested in pedagogy.)
  • no sign of any ranking boards, stars, and so forth.
  • the school has a sibling school in Uganda and (while we didn't get a feel for how sensitively that was done) clearly puts some weight on the relationship since it was mentioned by our guide and there were several displays about it around.

The downside is (at least potentially) the "wrong kind" of diversity, with more families with relatively less interest in education, and children less interested in learning.

The private school we visited was rather different, and this was my first encounter with this milieu, so I write about it at more length. We went along to a formal open day, and visited both the K-2 site and the 3-6 site.

First of all, the pluses.

  • they offer specialist science, music, and French teaching in what looked like well resourced separate classrooms.
  • there's a strong emphasis on sport, with a wide variety of options.
  • we were shown around by two fifth grade students, who were reasonably confident and articulate (though this is possibly not random sampling).
  • they put a big emphasis on play-based learning in the K-2 classes.

It apparently varies with the demand for places (and thus the financial health of the upper middle classes), but the school is only moderately selective. There is a selective intake at several levels in the primary school and going into the high school, but students who start in Reception have automatic progression, except for "a handful" who are told after year 5 that the senior school "wouldn't suit them" (as it was put to us).

The downsides:

  • there was no grass anywhere and a constrained playing area. (They have access to playing fields and so forth, but some distance away.)
  • there were no signs of rankings, stars, and so forth per se, but they do have a house-based competition, with some kind of tally system.
  • it was a bit unnaturally quiet (though this was possibly a special "stay quiet for the open day").

Which brings me to my bigger concerns. Firstly, even if there are academic advantages to single-sex schooling (which is debatable), it is quite clear that it has downsides as well. So I was hoping for some acknowledgement of those and an explanation of their attempts to ameliorate them. But when I asked if they had a sibling relationship with a boy's school (my own single-sex high school had a sister-school), the response was along the lines of a blunt "we believe single-sex schooling is the best of all possible approaches, and if you disagree you should go elsewhere". (The head teacher, who I rather took to and who had taught in the state system, suggested that with children maturing earlier even primary school girls now found boys distracting in the later years. But what evidence I've seen there is for single-sex girls schooling having any advantage seems specific to particular subjects in later high school.)

When Camilla asked about their bullying policy, the response was something like "we don't have a problem with bullying because we teach the girls the right way from the beginning". Which to me means either that they've managed to indoctrinate their students or, more likely, that they've just pushed any problems out of sight. There was also an extraordinary comment along the lines of "we set a good example ourselves". Presumably at less dignified schools the teachers persecute one another or even beat each other up in public?

There was a big emphasis on the individual empowerment of the students. This was accompanied, especially in the written promotional materials, by a song and dance about their alumni network, their network of schools, their Oxbridge preparation, and so forth. But there was no mention, in the talk or anywhere in the materials we were given, of any kind of social or community engagement, or of any importance attributed to teaching the children anything along those lines. (Though hunting through the web site for the network of schools involved I did find a mention of links to two academy schools.) I came away with a much better feel for how the children of UK elites can grow up without any understanding of the social and financial privileges they possess.

One of the teachers (who had something of the feel of a bank salesperson) kept talking about our "investment", as if enrolling children in a school was like buying into a managed fund. The promotional materials weren't quite so obvious, but did have something of the same feel to them. Which suggests to me that they are targeting parents who actually think like that... this would be the wrong kind of diversity too.

I'm not convinced that (above a certain point) having better resources or specialised teaching matters too much in primary school, at least for most subjects. And where it does, £10,000+ pounds a year will buy a lot of one-on-one language and music tuition. (What would be an indicator of teaching quality for me is how much they are paying their teachers and what their working conditions are like, but I was unable to find any information on that.)

We'll look at more schools, but based on this the local school is looking good. High school may be different, as specialised teaching and an academic orientation will start to matter more then. (Though I actually find it off-putting that the private high school in question recently ranked 6th in the entire country for their GCSE results: I want a school that focuses on learning more broadly, not one that pressures its students into performing well on the particular exams that feed into rankings and metrics. And how do their figures for anorexia and suicide attempts compare nationally?) If Helen wants to study Latin or Greek when she's 11, for example, that would be a concrete reason to send her to a school that taught them.

Update: On Facebook, someone asks, quite sensibly: "How much is prior, and how much is likelihood?" The terminology here is taken from statistics, but this is basically suggesting this post is as much about my preconceptions as about my experiences on these visits.

Most of this post is actually about things which surprised me, or which I wasn't expecting, not about things I knew or had decided in advance. Yes, I started from a position skeptical about single-sex schooling, but when I asked about a sibling school, I was expecting an explanation of what they did to address possible problems arising from that, and I was quite taken aback by the "damn the torpedoes" response I got. (There was also a bizarre comment here along the lines of "most of our girls have brothers, or at least fathers".)

And I wasn't expecting anything terribly useful from Camilla's question about bullying. At the local school the response had been an outline of what seemed like a reasonable set of policies and procedures, but the devil is in the implementation with this kind of thing and in this day and age I assumed any school would have at least a superficially sensible policy in this area. So I was totally gobsmacked by the "we don't have a problem" response we got at the second school.

Technical aside: Anyone who thinks humans are naturally subjective Bayesians should read Cosma Shalizi's piece "I was of three minds, / Like a tree / In which there are three blackbirds" and the paper that discusses. Basically, all the experiments which have purported to show this are actually counter-evidence: with a population of Bayesians everyone should make the same maximising choice based on the posterior, rather than exhibiting a distribution of choices which matches the posterior.


  1. After reading your thorough analysis of the elitist private school, it makes home-schooling a very attractive alternative.

    Comment by DL — September 2015
  2. I am a little confused. You ranked the the public school with no ranking , stars etc, as a plus. yet, the pricey school with no signs of ranking, stars ....as a downside.

    Comment by DL — September 2015
  3. The minus is for the house system and the associated point-scoring system.

    Home-schooling is a another option.

    Comment by danny — September 2015
  4. It would be fascinating to quantify mental health problems in these schools - I bet there would be an inverse correlation with exam success! Thanks for your thoughts, as always very interesting :-)

    Comment by Ilana — September 2015
  5. Obviously the state school, Danny. Any extras, such as French, tae kwondo or whatever you can arrange yourselves, and let's face it, you will be providing as much intellectual and other stimulus at home as any child could want or absorb. Not home schooling - the socialising aspect of school is important. And even sending the kid to scripture class so that she knows what everyone else is learning. I love being able to sing along with those great Methodist hymns.

    Comment by Gabi Duigu — September 2015
  6. Gabi, that reminds me of one of the other things we liked about the local school. They're not a CoE school, and the deputy said they had no doctrinal instruction and taught comparative religion - and there was what seemed to me quite sensible material on wall posters about Buddhism. Genuine exposure to other religions in a non-normative context is probably the best innoculation against religious fundamentalism going.

    Comment by danny — September 2015
  7. Danny, what are your thoughts on home-schooling, beyond it being an option? What are the pluses and minuses as you see them?

    Comment by Alistair — January 2016

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