Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A great cultural start in life - gold stars and Nelson duffing up Frogs

When my parents brought me to this country at the age of six, I hadn’t had any form of schooling – in Norway, children’s state of prelapsarian innocence didn’t end until the age of seven in those days. My first day of formal education (at Wimbledon Common Preparatory School, or Squirrels as it was better known) must have taken place shortly before my seventh birthday. I couldn't read, write or add, but I picked up the three “R”s almost instantly - whatever methods were used to teach this late starter proved quick, painless and effective.

But what I remember most clearly from those first few weeks was the star system. If you did well, you got a tin-foil star next to your name on the classroom wall. I never managed to get more stars than anyone else (that honour always seemed to belong to a big slab of a Scottish boy called Colin Morton) but I loved the way it proved I was learning stuff.

The other thing I remember from those very early days was using crayons to draw pictures of Admiral Nelson serially duffing up The Frog while losing various bits of his anatomy. Thrilling stuff, and what a splendid way of teaching little boys the values of bravery, sacrifice, boldness, intelligence, patriotism and controlled violence, and of reinforcing the message that there are some things worth fighting for, and, when you fight for them, fight to win!

At that stage I was essentially a little foreign boy with a funny accent (in some ways, I still am). The accent remained, but within the space of a few months I could read and write English to the required standard, I had visual proof that I was catching up with my class-mates, and I’d been taught something of Britain’s glorious history - and had been made to feel that it was now part of my heritage, and that it was something I should feel proud of. (Having a Scottish mother and grandmother was no doubt a great help in all this, as was the fact that my father had served with distinction in the RAF, funny accent and all.)

I hope that someone like me – or even someone with far fewer ties to this country – would get the same sort of education in this country at a similar school (or even the same school) these days. I wonder.

I also wonder what hope there is for, say, a Somali kid arriving here without a word of English or any familial connections with this country, and entering a state school system that will no doubt bend over backwards not to integrate him or her into the culture of his new country for fear of being thought imperialistic or judgmental? Without teachers unembarrassedly celebrating Britain’s culture and trying to get the newcomer to view it from the point of view of indigenous Britons, what’s a boy to do? Cling to his parents’ ways and feel like a perpetually resentful alien, cut off from the mainstream, or throw his lot in with the “bad” kids and adopt the vile “gangsta” culture which appears to be the product of an unholy marriage between the youth norms of Compton, LA and those of Kingston, Jamaica?

In fact, forget Somalis – where does a home-grown white working-class boy get his sense of cultural identity these days? The BNP? The EDL? Not, one suspects, at school.

It’s easy – all too easy – to look at the products of our state school system and blame them for the way they think and behave. But the responsibility really lies with  educators who appear to believe that, apart from the period between 1939 and 1945, their own country has somehow always been at fault, and that the indigenous culture is something to be apologised for. And there's been confirmation this week that those same teachers feel that stretching kids to reach their full potential not only isn't their job - it's actually to be frowned on (see Toby Young here).

Thank God that I was educated at British private schools in a period before Liberals had destroyed the education system as a means of getting the best of out chidlren and  of passing a shared, indigenous culture on to the next generation. 

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