Hull has been the City which helped me makes send of the turbulent times that had been going on in the English education system since 1997.
I was a relative newcomer to working in schools in 2002 when I joined the Aspire Trust. My memories of primary and secondary statutory education were mixed – a disrupted primary education, marred by parental disputes and continued house moving was followed by a secondary phase which was altogether more stable and safe and provided a context which allowed me and many of my school friends to look back in pleasure at those halcyon school days. Not quite ‘the best days of our lives’ but not far off it we all agreed when we met some weeks ago on a school reunion which took us back to the site where we had met some 40 years back.
But my friends and I were in one sense a privileged few. We had the benefit of having passed the state’s 11+ exam which allowed us then to be accepted at the local grammar school. Others though in our class were not so fortunate. Whether this was due to their being less academically inclined, less prepared to comply with the demands that primary schools made in those days, or just had a bad day when it came to sitting the test, their failure to pass that exam at such a young age meant that they were parcelled off to the local comprehensive school.
Whilst they too may look back at their time in secondary school as being the best days of their lives, we shall never know; that splitting of us at 11 years old made sure that we followed different educational paths, established different social networks and altogether had vastly different expectations of us. It was expected of us that we would be prepared for university; other our friends (who our parents talked about in hushed tones as somehow having ‘failed’ something) were prepared for the world of work – which in those days meant some kind of vocational training in retail, industry or perhaps even the armed forces.
In those days there was a definite split in the English education system – the academically capable went to grammar schools, those who weren’t, didn’t. Those who went to grammar school were prepared for university and careers in the professions; those who didn’t, weren’t. Those who went to university and the professions were prepared to run the country; those who weren’t, didn’t.
This split at 11 year old was – and to a large extent, still is – a reflection of the bipartheid nature of the English education system. This system still perpetuates today the polarity of the academic versus the vocational education in this country.
There are many other awkward and contestable polarities in our education system which you will no doubt encounter this week in your visits to our schools in Hull. The pressure for children to achieves versus the desire for them to enjoy their education; the need to behave within a certain type of socially acceptable behaviours versus the desire to ensure every child’s education should be about recognising them as unique individuals complete with their own dreams and desires; the pressure to train children for the work place and to gain employment in a real job versus the pressure to prepare children for life long learning and the vagaries of the future; the pressure to educate children in order to maintain social norms and to protect cultural values versus the pressure to educate to change the social norms.
These polarities are no doubt echoed in your own schools – and this is why we have called this conference, All Our Futures. It is clear to us that the challenges and joys we face in education here are the same challenges and joys that you face; whether this be dealing with the impact that a dysfunctional family can have on a five year old boys dreams, or witnessing the eureka moment when a 15 year old girl can play Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata all the way through for the first time.
Of course, our contexts are vastly different, our languages and cultural practices sometimes hard to fathom. No amount of conferencing will ever be able – nor should it ever endeavour to be able – to wipe away those differences and pretend that we can easily transport one set of educational tips and tricks to a far off land. Providing education is not like selling burgers at MacDonald’s.
Sometimes we may look at each other this week and realise that there are huge oceans of difference between us which can never be bridged. But we hope that our similarities and our common concerns will eventually bind us together this week in search for some solutions for the common good of all our children.
I hope that in our second All Our Futures conference that our mutual work, our shared conversations and our mutual presence will enable us to see ourselves as part of larger human jigsaw picture in which we all, like smaller jigsaw pieces need each other to fit together to provide a reflection of the human race as a whole.
I hope that we can paint a picture for our future generation of children and learners and that they can say that their futures started with All Our Futures here, today.