Waiting in a line outside Vincent Square, with my parent hat on, it is a discombobulating experience to go back to your old school of over 30 years ago.
What makes great schools, great? Why is it perceived that it is so hard to replicate what great schools do?*
How much influence do parents and teachers really have on children as compared to all the other forces cajoling, buffering and nurturing our children?
The qualities of curiosity, empathy and creativity - qualities I value in myself and others. How are they nourished in schools ?
How do you shape girls and boys into good women and good men?
I don’t have answers but I do have a few observations and some hope.
On the elite side, my grandfather went to Cambridge presumably as a partial recompense and apology for colonial rule in Malaysia. My father went to Cambridge due to nepotism and a polite letter my grandfather wrote to the Master of the college. I went to Cambridge as I was gifted, worked hard and had extraordinary teachers and educational institutions. I came out with the top first in my year and a scholarship to Harvard. I then learned some of the craft of play writing and poetry, and have ended up a writer and a fund manager.
Although the power of elite networks remains strong, I would not have made it to Cambridge on the word of my father. While challenges remain, meritocracy has arguably partially developed. Like the late Hans Rosling’s point in Factfulness large challenges remain but today is better than the past.
I have now toured 3 elite prep schools and continue to interview pupils from elite private schools. I have experience across the spectrum into state and learning disabled education.
I remain hopeful.
In the 1960s, if you studied languages at O-level (16 years old) you would achieve great grammar but you could hardly speak much and would not be able to converse in Paris.
Similarly, for maths your geometry would be great you might know Euclid but you would know nothing of statistics.
Today, the ability to converse and to understand statistics is - rightly in my view – prioritized although the joys of Euclidean geometry are mainly untaught now. Education has evolved.
While walking round these schools listening to teachers and senior staff; hearing the children - seeing the classes – looking at the messages three items stuck me:
Everyone is learning about notions of sustainability
Everyone considers diversity important
An articulation of values and “growth mind set”… learning from failure, happiness before success, with ability comes responsibility…
All these ideas were strongly expressed (whether in state or private) to an extent that I do not recall 30 years ago.
Education has moved on, and it’s for the younger generations to evolve and reject those of them before them (which is why the voter turnout for aged 18-25 in recent local elections, general elections and Brexit are somewhat disappointing)
And so to… with ability comes responsibility…
I do think matters might be very different, if those in the upper tiers of society, and for instance under one measure that would include everyone earning more then £30,000 a year and about 40% of the country did give back a more substantial portion to those in the bottom 60%.
I’m not thinking money. I’m thinking more about time, experience, learnings. Perhaps, we’ve always been so – I haven’t examined closely – but we’re so concerned with the near-by day-to-day, the grind of life, it seems like we struggle to reach out and cross divides. It’s one of the small ideas behind the mingle. If that top 40% gave back 2 hours of time a week to something other than themselves, I wonder what our world would look like.
Diving back to education and away from Level 4 rich country concerns, I also see hope in Level 1 country concerns. Look at the rates of literacy, and of children who finish some school. It’s been incredibly positive. Still a lot of work to do, but every reason to think that those trends will continue as basic educational teacher practice start to be embedded in Level 1 countries (alongside basic health practice, electricity, hygiene.)
Dipping back to Level 4 London concerns, I am syncretic over many ideas. I simultaneously hold ideas about educating an elite (and we can see every generation a handful of boys and girls who go on to be country and company leaders trained through this system – which I am a product of) and a comprehensive system. I also have a lot of time for a “home school” ideology , and a “technical-vocational-mastercraftsman-system”. All of these systems have run in parallel with pros/cons for decades and will likely run for decades more (the decline of the UK Mastercraftsman technical system being of detriment, in my view, versus the German continued investment in that system).
Still, watching these young boys and girls, it does feel hopeful. I’m unsure how I feel that there’s no space for Spike here in these institutions. There’s barely a Spike-shaped space anywhere in the world. But, do I see an Oscar space shape with a gentle, quirky boy?
Over 30 years ago, I was 6 years old going on 7 as I started at WUS. Small and not super sporty, I found a second home in the pottery studio. I remember Miss B – her deft kindness in letting a shy quirky thoughtful boy while away break times with some clay (below is one, now somewhat currently broken I made 30 or so years ago) but also her emotional insightful intelligence in when to nudge such a boy into outdoors action.
This creative thread remains with me today (see clay play post).
I guess this system believes that if you run with the swift, you run faster. Certainly, some fall, and I see, some to never recover. But at least with the cohort I knew and am in touch with, I see they’ve grown from little boys into great men.
Compassion, kindness and honesty.
Curiosity, empathy and creativity.
Service, openness and love.
These - along with independent critical thinking - have been taught to me and I’d wish to teach my children.
*Part of what makes certain schools great are the external speakers and visitors who come. These people can't go everywhere and are often draw to schools in easy to reach places and with strong historic reputations. This is not an easy thing to scale or replicate.
One concerning systemic note is whether we - adults - are listening enough to what children want from their education. One slowly increasingly positive note over the last decades is the importance of the child but it arguably still lags.
If you consider companies now use customer net promoter scores and via Amazon in level 4 countries we know the 5 star rating of every product... then the rating children give British schools is not brilliant.
Only 1 / 2 enjoy lessons...
And most children can tell when teachers are poor...
This would suggest a simple teacher Net Promoter Score as reported by children could be a useful measure to note and perhaps to incentivise on ?
More thoughts: My Financial Times opinion article on long-term investing and how to engage with companies.
How to live a life, well lived. Thoughts from a dying man. On play and playing games.
If you'd like to feel inspired by commencement addresses and life lessons try: Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; or Nassim Taleb's commencement address; or JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Or Charlie Munger on always inverting; Sheryl Sandberg on grief, resilience and gratitude.
A provoking read on how to raise a feminist child.
Cross fertilise. Read about the autistic mind here.