The Humanist dream school
This article appeared in the Guardian last Friday, but only now I’ve got round to commenting on it. I read it eagerly and think it’s an excellent blueprint for a community school, with a few reservations. OK, naming a school after Richard Dawkins is a bit much, but I suspect any actual school will end up being named after some 19th-century or Ancient Greek philosopher. Beckett also doesn’t really take into account that any actual school might not have the finances to become his “dream school”.
I commented last month on Richard Dawkins’s own critique of faith schools, and many of them are quite valid. Some faith schools are set up by communities on shoe-string budgets with the aim of providing a decent education to their children which they do not find offered in mainstream schools; others are state-funded institutions which have privileges to discriminate, based on what they were in the past but are not anymore — church-funded schools who then started receiving some government funding. Given how church attendance has dwindled, both in the Church of England and the Catholic church (although immigration partly offsets the decline in the latter, but indigenous Catholic religiosity has nonetheless declined dramatically), some church/school complexes effectively become hereditary private clubs you have to join in order to get your kid into their school, even though you pay for the school in your taxes already. (Not all church schools do discriminate, however.)
However, you don’t actually need to be an atheist or a Humanist to share the ideals Beckett sets out. He proposes admission criteria based solely on living close to the school, for example, so that the school serves the local community rather than just part of it. He proposes rejecting the dogmatic approaches to education which currently dominate political discussion, such as the obsession the political right have with phonics. He seems to advocate doing away with uniform, because teachers have better things to do with their time than police children’s clothing; he wants “constant dialogue between parents and teachers” to replace parents’ evenings, and to assign a staff mentor to each pupil who will remain their mentor the whole time they are at the school.
There are two aspects of his proposal which are somewhat unrealistic, however. I’m no expert on “Reading Recovery”, a programme for rapidly learning to read for younger children that he proposes to adapt for 11-year-olds, but he tells us it’s quite expensive as it requires lots of one-to-one teaching, “but we will find the money”, and that it will be protected even if funding goes down. This would, he says, cut the amount of disruptive behaviour (because someone who can’t read is less able to benefit from almost any other teaching), but there could come a point where simply “finding the money” isn’t an option. Similarly, he proposes that the school should have its own pupil referral unit (PRU), some distance from the main school, where kids who “damage the learning experience of others” are confined.
Now, local authorities do actually still have PRUs — my aunt used to run one in south London; it’s still going. It takes kids who can’t, for one reason or another, go to a mainstream school (usually for disruptive behaviour, but I was told that a teenage girl with M.E. was referred to the unit at one time). There is, to my knowledge, only one in the whole borough (there were two, but they were amalgamated), so clearly there isn’t a great deal of money for them (and special education provision has declined over the years, with authorities being less able to farm kids out to private schools — not entirely a bad thing as a lot of them were rotten, but it does mean local schools still have to deal with them). Class sizes were a fraction of what they were in an actual school. For each school to have its own PRU will be an impossible financial burden unless the school has a very generous benefactor or two. Furthermore, if the Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire has its own PRU away from the school, what’s to stop the Last Resort City Academy from setting up theirs right next door to RDHC?
All in all, this is a school a lot like the one I’d like to send any child of mine to. So much of our education system is weighted down by relics of the past, from old and inaccessible buildings to ridiculous rules; the schools, are allowed to function as communities in their own right with their own interests rather than state-funded institutions which serve the whole of the community that pays for them. There are too many different types of school, with some districts having not a single local-authority comprehensive school but only church schools and academies; this clearly reflects a hostility in some political circles to local authorities generally, which are a challenge to the power of central government. In some cases, academies are a law unto themselves, sometimes being named after their corporate sponsor and allowed to expel pupils for trivial misdemeanors while leaving other schools to deal with those the academy refuses to teach.
However, as I said, one does not have to be a “Humanist” to support this kind of reform of British schools — those of us who are part of a religious minority in their area who can’t get our kids into the nearest (in my case, Catholic) school would welcome a well-run mixed community school as long as it respected our beliefs and customs and did not attempt to suppress their manifestation; contrary to popular misconception, many of us don’t seek to cut ourselves off from those not of our faith, don’t have a problem with our kids rubbing shoulders with theirs, let alone with our children being taught maths by a Sikh or English literature by an atheist. Such a school could be run by a religious organisation just as much as by an anti-religious one; what matters is that the school is a service to everyone rather than just serving “their own” with everybody’s money.
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