Keren David

What I’ve learned from my children’s schools

Keren David's children have (she hopes) finished with school. What has she learned over the years?

July 12, 2018 11:17

My son, like many other 18-year-olds, is celebrating the end of his A level exams in Europe, interrailing from country to country with friends. So far they’ve reached Croatia, via Italy with few mishaps, beyond a broken key, a lost phone, and a forgotten rail ticket.

His absence gives my husband and me a chance to reflect on the end of our children’s schooldays (I’m assuming here that no retakes will be needed, although with the lottery that is A level marking, nothing is certain) All being well, from now on we can take our holidays in term time, and we’ll never again have to wait in line at parents’ evenings accompanied by a child hissing “Don’t say anything embarrassing, OK?”

In nearly 20 years our (two) kids have been to nine different educational establishments, overlapping only once for four years. Four were private, five were state; four were Jewish, five were not. One had a Montessori curriculum, one taught the International Baccalaureate programme, the others all stuck to the British curriculum, with their own variations. We’re not serial school-changers, but we moved countries twice and both went to sixth form colleges. It did give us a very wide view of different systems.

In some schools our kids mixed with wealthy and privileged children, in others with pupils from deprived areas and disadvantaged backgrounds. They’ve been in classrooms where children come from all over the world, and others where everyone comes from a narrow sector of affluent north London Jewish society. Their friends come from all backgrounds, nationalities, races and religions and live all over the world.

What have we learned? Well, first, don’t believe what you’re told. One school wooed us with promises of individual attention, expert advice and tuition and pastoral care. None of it materialised in fact, quite the opposite. The careers advisor seemed to believe that her brief was destroying dreams. Luckily, our child ignored her efforts. Another school stressed its dedication to comprehensive ideals and wide opportunities but turned out to have a secretly elitist ethos which saw children selected over others in random and damaging ways.

A school may boast good exam results, but they tell you nothing. Often those excellent grades are delivered by the parents spending thousands of pounds on tutors. In Jewish schools, which tend to be more affluent, and where parents have high expectations, you can assume widespread extra help.

I don’t blame parents for using tutors, despite the hideous unfairness. The British system unlike the IB is not really about education. It’s focused on the past and not the future, and ends in an exam system that is badly designed, poorly run and too narrow too young. Pick the wrong subjects at GCSE and A level (you can’t always rely on teachers to advise you properly) and give yourself years of agony and stress, especially if you have a learning disability in which case you will be very lucky indeed to get any kind of diagnosis or support. (A tutor recognised my child’s difficulties. Thirteen years of teachers in four schools had missed them and dismissed our concerns.)

How about Jewish schools? We were lucky with Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, which had a Jewish Studies curriculum designed to give children an ethical underpinning, with hands-on experience of ritual that will be with them all of their lives. The Simon Marks seder was always superb, and its tunes and spirit live on in our home every year.

The secondary school JS curriculum which demanded a year’s worth of essays about Jacob and Esau was, shall we say, less impressive. And in general we found that the more multi-cultural the institution, the stronger and warmer the sense of community and friendliness.

But what is the single most important thing the element that counts above curriculum, exam system, school facilities and ethos? Simply, good teachers.

Get lucky, and your child will be inspired and educated, in a quiet, focused classroom, they will enjoy learning and achieve beyond all expectations. Another child, in the room next door, learning the same subject in the same school, can have a totally different experience. A bad teacher, especially in the primary years, can mean a wasted year. A good one can change lives.

Of course, not all teachers or teaching syles suit everyone. Sometimes I think that instead of opting for subjects, parents and pupils should be issued with teacher profiles, so they can pick the ones that will suit their child best.

Twenty years ago this month, my daughter turned two. We believed we’d find her the perfect schools, avoiding the mistakes made by our parents (Oy! Don’t get me started!). Twenty years later, I’ve learned a lot. And I know, there is no such thing as a perfect school.


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July 12, 2018 11:17

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