Bitter experience has dissuaded me from ever bringing up two topics of conversation at dinner parties and social occasions – the NHS and Public Schools. I guess religion was not the most comfortable of discussion during the Reformation and politics were probably best avoided during the Civil War. In the 21st century, I have learned, the NHS is the new religion; it is sacrosanct and therefore beyond criticism and equivocation. Why, we even go out to worship every Thursday evening as we used to go to church on a Sunday. Public Schools, by contrast, are the very devil and any apologist is deemed a heretic, fit only to be hauled off to be burnt at the stake.
As a grammar school boy who attended a redbrick university and who taught in a public school, I always reckoned that I had a foot in both camps. In defending the raison d’etre of public schools, I could always produce my rabbit out of the hat by pointing out I was not a public school boy myself. Each side could learn from the other, I contended, if only everybody would get off his high horse. Public schools could open up and share their wonderful facilities and state schools could up their game and seek to emulate, not abolish, best practices of their cousins on the other side of the hill. Swap lessons, swap teachers, swap coaches, swap musicians, artists, directors of studies, of drama, of sport, of anything. Surely it would be in everybody’s interest - in both senses of the word – to foster better reciprocity and insight.
Well, that never happened. Then along came Covid 19 and I thought I saw a chink in the wall of prejudice. Lockdown, self-isolation, social distancing, curves, spikes and squashed sombreros – all the vernacular of the ‘new normal’ – would surely bring the two sides, private and state, closer together. As all schools were shut, the privately educated pupils would no longer have access to their spanking new gymnasia, their well-appointed theatres, their manicured cricket grounds; everybody will be learning at home. It will be a level playing field, as it were.
That hasn’t happened either. Far from lessening the gap, Covid 19 has opened up a chasm. It is calculated that over two million children are currently doing no schoolwork at all. Whereas pupils attending private schools, albeit ‘virtually’, are following their usual timetable and being taught their appointed syllabus. All right, it can be justifiably claimed that privately educated children are more likely to have computers and their parents are more likely to insist on ‘attendance’ and homework. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. For such a hastily-assembled apparatus, currently in operation in the private sector, to work, great dedication and resourcefulness have been required of teachers….and they have responded cheerfully and willingly.
A friend of mine who teaches at a private school told me that his timetable has not changed since the lockdown. He logs on to whatever piece of wizardry the IT specialists have cooked up, takes a register and…hey presto, teaches. Not ideal but miles better than nothing. The lady who runs the village post office tells me that her son, who attends the local comprehensive school - with a high reputation in the area, please note - has not heard a dickie bird from any of his teachers for three months. “The work he has been doing off his own bat,” she said, “has been piling up and nobody at the school is taking a blind bit of interest.”
All right, this is anecdotal evidence and hardly a genuine survey but I was both fascinated and horrified by the story that recently surfaced of a head teacher who had been sacked because she dared to speak out about some of her lazy colleagues who were doing nothing but sitting on their backsides during lockdown. Apparently, she was in “danger of bringing the school into disrepute”. In danger of telling the truth, more like.
I have no doubt there are many teachers in state schools who are doing their damnedest to keep the ship afloat by keeping in touch as best they can with their pupils in the most difficult of circumstances. We should be applauding them.
Yet this leads to the question that must be on everybody’s lips as the lockdown eases. Why are kids not back at school? You see them flocking to retail outlets, to the beach, to amusement arcades, to theme parks, to street parties, to illegal raves, anywhere for a bit of fun. As I look out of my window in our village, I can see a cluster of children playing happily in the road (it is a cul-de-sac). It is a charming little scene. And yet, they’re not at school. Why? There is no logical reason for schools to be closed and for the education of the next generation to be put on hold.