Today I listened to Paul Smith, CEO of Future Academies, talk about his ambition for the young people who attend the schools in his Trust. He said he wanted them to be able to go to a ‘nice’ restaurant, feel confident about ordering and be able to have a 90 minutes conversation about current affairs. This might seem a pretty modest wish, but I have taught very many children who may never have this kind of experience.
I never really thought about my ambition for children in quite this way before. I’m not sure that going to a restaurant is exactly what I’d choose, but there’s something important about being able to point to something concrete and say, “That! That’s what I want children to be able to do.” I think the restaurant is a proxy for the kind of choice and opportunity I want young people to have. It could just as easily involve any other unfamiliar cultural experience.
A few years ago I ran a debate club at my school. After it had been going for a short while I convinced the students to enter a competition held in a local independent school. When we arrived, it turned out that our team was one of only two from state schools. My little group felt hugely intimidated by the other students. They kept asking me things like, “Why do they sound like that?” and “Why is their hair like that?” When these other children spoke they were confident, controlled and articulate, but what really set them apart was what they knew. They all seemed ferociously intelligent. When it was my students’ turn to speak they were nervous wrecks. Needless to say, we came last.
I’ve no idea whether these other children really were more intelligent than my students, but it didn’t matter. The power of knowing things struck home. Being clever and being knowledgeable may not be the same thing, but, as was clear to me and my students, knowledge trumped all else. The way I thought about what I did as a teacher shifted profoundly. At about the same time my eldest daughter was born and I began asking of the education I was providing, “Is this good enough for my own child?” Increasingly, the answer seemed to be no.
The kind of education I want my own children to have is the same as I want for all other children. I want my daughters to feel comfortable enough in the world that they can risk the unfamiliar; to be able to step outside the comfortable bubble of what everyone else does and do something new and different. I want them to be able to choose from the widest range of options available and to know enough about the world and how it works to be able to make a success of whatever they choose.
This all sounds a bit high falutin’, so let’s make it ab it more concrete. As a youngster I never learned to play an instrument. As far as my parents were concerned there was neither the money nor the inclination to make it happen and, frankly, it wasn’t something I though about until my adulthood. My wife had a different experience and persuaded me that as educated, affluent parents we should pay for both our daughters to have music lessons. My youngest daughter struggled through Grade 2 clarinet and promptly quit. My eldest daughter has persevered with both singing and piano lessons (and has also taught herself to play guitar.) These experience and choices are, in large part, down to us valuing the ability to play an instrument and being able to afford it. But, advantage is compounded. My eldest daughter’s singing teacher recommended that she audition for the National Youth Choir. She found it very intimidating at first as most of the other choristers are from much more privileged backgrounds and most go to independent schools. After successfully auditioning she’s sung in several classical music concerts and has come to love the music she’s been exposed to. She now has the opportunity to perform in Carmen at the Royal Opera House.
Obviously, it would be absurd to say that I would like all children to perform in an opera, but, because of my own education and because my daughter goes to a school that values and supports the arts, she has that choice. In a perfect world I’d love to think all children could have a comparable experience, but maybe wanting them to be able to go to a restaurant and not feel intimidated is a reasonable starting place?