Education, education, education

Over lunch yesterday, I had an odd moment of ‘home’ life gate-crashing my temporary Ugandan existence. I checked my phone (which I’m mainly using as a watch given the lack of wifi and intermittent signal) and found a text informing me that Doris, my favourite 11 year old, had got into her secondary school of choice. It was March 1st and back in the UK that meant that children across the country are finding out where they’ll be going to school in September. For Doris, and the rest of her cohort in the city of Gloucester, this is made all the more nail biting owing to the fact that they still have the grammar school system – her mother’s text to me simply read “SHE GOT IN!!!” and that was all I needed to know that she’d got into one of the girls’ grammars. Not just any grammar in fact, the very one that educated me for the last four years of my secondary education.

I’m not going to launch into a tirade about selective education right now. (For all I know, I probably have on this blog at some point in the past. Suffice to say, aged 11 I didn’t get into a selective school, yet ended up at a world-class university. Guess where my views lie…) But what struck me was that just minutes before I received that text, I’d been hearing about the way in which education is valued in communities where PEP has been at work.

Nursery SchoolTeacher & pupil at Ogongora’s nursery school.

Like I mentioned when writing about women, PEP has helped families realise the importance of educating daughters as well as sons. It’s helped communities realise where gaps in education are and ensure that there is provision for as many people as possible. Profitable crops and businesses means that the fees and costs of education is affordable. In Ogongora, one of the gaps identified was in pre-school education – so setting up a church nursery school was high on their lists of priorities. Yesterday’s village had helped found two primary schools and improved facilities for secondary education, next on their list is beginning a nursery school. In order to give the next generation the best start possible, access to education is essential.

Bye! Till tomorrow...Children (in the pink & purple shirts) who have just returned from a day at primary school in Ogongora.

As we drove back yesterday evening, it struck me that it was the last time I’d have the chance to observe school kids on their breaks, or wending their way home along the roads in their colourful uniforms. It’s now the weekend and we leave late on Sunday night. It’s been one of my favourite sights in Uganda – the coloured shirts and dresses against the bright green trees and deep red dust. Yes, access to education is improving, but is it anything like the education system in the UK? No.

While waiting for the van to be fixed yesterday morning, Bex popped into the building next door to our guest house which happens to be a college of mass communication – being a digital media expert and an academic, she was naturally curious. There was no internet access and only a limited number of (rather old) computers. Much teaching in schools is done by rote and resources are hugely limited.

Local childrenChildren in Waila yesterday. We gave them some coloured chalk to play with & some sweets. (As my friend Jenni commented on Flickr, you wouldn’t want to confuse those two items…)

So there I was yesterday. Stood in a shop in a rural marketplace in Uganda, celebrating that Doris will be at a brilliant school this autumn, with great teachers, nearly unlimited resources, a performing arts studio, a library and everything she’ll need to get a good education – all virtually free. Around me were children who looked like they were old enough for primary school (which begins around 7) but who instead were sat outside the shop playing in the dust. In all likelihood this wasn’t truancy, this was indicative of their parents not being able to pay the fees (or buy the uniform). Yet again, it’s another example of how life is not fair and how things that seem massively important at home suddenly seem so trivial here.

Children greeting A delightful, yet slightly bizarre moment on the way home yesterday – these children had seen us coming from a long way off, and knelt by the side of the road to greet us. Humbled doesn’t even cut it. (Apologies for the quality – that’s what you get from the front seat of a van on a bumpy road.)

Based on the following…

…I think the next three years should be fairly interesting:

“I will be teaching preaching, systematic theology and…evil.” 

“I can teach you how to sail a dinghy. I can teach you how to row. And I’m very interested in learning about bee keeping.” 

“My literary idols are Kierkegaard, Tolstoy and Spiderman.” 

Today was my welcome day at theological college. The above are quotes from the session in which the teaching staff introduced themselves – they’re a diverse bunch who seem to collectively possess an excellent sense of humour. This is most definitely a good thing.

What is possibly not a good thing is the continuation of the curse of classical education…

When I was in my first year of secondary school, I did well enough in French to be identified as a ‘potential linguist’, prompting a letter to my parents conveying this good news and offering me the opportunity to take extra-curricular Latin. What self-respecting parent would turn down such an amazing educational opportunity? Certainly not my parents. The catch? The classes were before and after school – i.e. ridiculously early or ridiculously late (and I already had to catch a bus at 7.15 to get to school on time). Yes, Latin was beneficial, but I was very glad when, with the news that my new school didn’t offer it, I was allowed to drop it in favour of choir rehearsals.

Today, we heard about the optional Greek course. Every fibre of my body knew that it would be in my best interests to take it – and that my parents would reinforce this. The catch? It’s before classes start. In fact, it’s even before the breakfast that kicks off our day of classes. Oh, and it’s on Mondays.

Hopefully the early start won’t affect my attitude to Greek in the way it did Latin. I can’t remember an awful lot of it now, aside from the first page of the Oxford Latin Course text book (‘Scintilla mater est. Quintus puer est. Scintilla in culina est, Scintilla cenam parat…’) and how to say “I can’t hear you, I have a banana stuck in my ear”. Super useful if ever there’s a lull in conversation.

[I mention the following only because my friends will inevitably discover this in conversation and will find my dislike of the early class laughable, but Greek will start at 8.30am. I appreciate that this isn’t actually that early. In fact, it’s later than most of my teaching friends start work every single weekday. But have you met me before 10.30am? I’m not pleasant and I’m not sure I’ll be in a fit state to learn a new language…]

Happy History?

Much to my amusement, last year my little sister starting teaching history to 11-14 year olds. I say ‘amusement’ because firstly, she’s actually a drama teacher and that’s what she teaches most of the time; secondly, I have two history degrees whereas she gave it up after AS levels (though, in her defence took a couple of modules at uni).

We struck a deal that should she ever get to a bit of history that needs explaining, or needs more background info, or some random facts, she’d come to me. Admittedly, I have a sketchy knowledge of many bits of history. I ended up specialising in the history of the British Empire [I rant about this here] and honestly, there’s probably no one currently living who knows more about Methodist missionaries & Maori education in NZ between 1848 & 1853…(I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a niche subject!)
Anyway, I digress. Over a drink on Friday, my sister mentioned that one of her pupils had asked her why all the history they studied was sad, so she’d decided to have a “Happy History” themed lesson to show them that of course not all of it was bad. Thing was, she was stuck for ideas.
I thought. Our friends thought. No one immediately had a bright idea. The only thought that struck me during the whole conversation was the invention of the Pill. Surely that was a happy event in history?!
But the thought’s been bugging me and it’s a fascinating question. All the supposedly happy historical events that come to mind – wars ending, abolition of slavery, decolonisation – had negative aspects for the other side, for other people:
The end of WW2 came at the cost of millions of lives, particularly those killed by atomic bombs in Japan. The abolition of slavery is celebrated throughout the world, yet its end caused a bloody war and slavery still exists today. Many nations who received their independence were in chaos just years later thanks to civil war.
This evening I’ve thought of some which I’d like to regard as “happy” but there’s still a niggling voice in my head saying “but what about….??”. I give you:
The fall of the Berlin Wall. [But what about the Germans who liked living under Communism? Like in Goodbye Lenin?]
Man on the Moon. [What about those who died in the Space Programme before and after?]
The freeing of Nelson Mandela & the end of apartheid in South Africa. [Struggling to think of anything negative, but it did have a negative impact on some Afrikaneers, and you can’t ignore it, even if the end of apartheid was absolutely the right thing.]
And what about cultural history – like the birth of famous composers, writers, scientists. Surely that’s fairly happy and uncontroversial?
If anyone can think of any others, I’d be most grateful! Maybe we could then all celebrate with a “Happy History” month, or something similarly fun and not at all dorky. Or maybe, like the big sign proclaiming “Physics is Fun!” in my school Physics lab, “Happy History” is in fact a total oxymoron.

Getting on my academic high horse

Finally, the people responsible for writing the National Curriculum have seen sense. As of this academic year, Key Stage 3 History (that’s 11-14’s) will include the British Empire.

I appreciate that I may be a bit biased when it comes to this particular bit of history as I happen to have an MA in Imperial & Commonwealth history, but in reality, how on earth could such a massive chunk of British history be ignored until now??

When my parents were at school their classrooms had a map of the world of which one-third was coloured pink. The empire was just beginning to be dismantled, but in the 50’s and early 60’s Britannia still ruled the waves. By the time I got to school, there was virtually no mention of it at all. In fact, I got through secondary school history (GCSE & A-level) without ever having learnt more than that there was some kind of link between slavery and the empire. History went from Romans to WW2 during primary school, then back to Romans again in year 7 with a miraculous teaching of the Victorian era which at no point mentioned the empire.


The thing is (and this seems to be what the government’s finally realised) that the empire affected everything – from our domestic culture to the development of vast swathes of the rest of the world and international relations.

Our vocabulary includes words like pyjamas or gymkhana because of the Raj in India.
Rugby, Cricket and football are played internationally because the colonialists exported it.
The US insists it’s not empire-building (despite the small matter of Puerto Rico and Hawaii) because of the negative connotations of European expansion.

It seems that in the past, the British Empire has simply been labelled as a bad patch in our history and thus ignored because it’s too complicated to teach and it makes the British look really bad. But in a society that is made up of immigrants from across the Commonwealth it really cannot be ignored. Don’t children deserve to be taught the history of how their ancestors came to be here? Besides, I personally think it’s totally fascinating to see how the empire grew & grew and then got taken apart country by country. But then I would, because I’m a little bit of geek like that.

I’ll spare you a discourse on why missionaries were not political agents for the empire, for now. But who knows, should work reach a suitable level of tedium in the next few weeks, you might be in for a real treat.

If I ruled the world…

Or at least the country, or at the very least the Department for Children, Schools & Families…

When I was an idealistic 6th former and very much into my A-level politics, I used to joke about becoming Britain’s second female prime minister and all the things I’d change once I got there. One of my closest friends at school was adamant that I’d never make it as she never intended to vote for me! But, this was in the heady days of 97-99 when New Labour was still golden and we believed anything was possible.

Ten years on and a lot more cynical, I still have a small list of things I’d change should I ever gain a degree of power. I’d forgotten about one of them until I was watching The Choir: Boys Don’t Sing the other day.

It’s the second time Gareth Malone’s taken on the task of putting together a choir from a school where singing is virtually non-existent. The first series (which won a Bafta) showed the progress of the Phoenix Choir at Northolt High in Middlesex, with them ending up at the Choir Olympics (yes, it was a new one for me too) in China. This time, he’s at an all boys school in Leicester and hopes to get his choir to the Royal Albert Hall.

If I was in charge of education in this country I would ensure that all boys (well, all pupils really, but boys are particularly in need of it) get to sing. (And I’d provide free elocution lessons as well as teaching foreign languages in primary schools…) All the choirs I’ve sung in have been desperately short of decent male voices, which I think is mostly down to boys not being taught how to sing – especially after their voices break.

The programme shows so clearly why there’s such a shortage. In an all boys school there’s a strong culture that says that singing’s for girls and that it’s “gay”. There are no role models to suggest that it’s cool. Gareth, bless him, is hot in a slightly nerdy way so probably isn’t someone they can identify with. Instead, they have lumbering, rugby playing heads of year who share their opinion of music and singing.

However, in my personal opinion, there is nothing hotter than a man who can sing. The singing can even (possibly) make up for a not so hot appearance….the shallowness!

So, when I’m in charge all boys will sing. In fact, all pupils will sing. All people will sing. The world will be a much happier place for it!