I’m so done with the new thing
One dark Tuesday afternoon this month I went to a private school for a meeting. It was impressive: the monogrammed carpet, the velveteen chairs, the artsy light fixtures, the creative classrooms, the old quad. The dining room is a smaller, modern version of the great hall in Christ Church, Oxford, where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Outside there’s the writing on the wall—all the students who go to Oxbridge. The list grows longer year on year. And when they walk into the great hall for the first time, they won’t be phased. It will feel not even once removed from normal. I understand why people strive so hard to find the money to send their children to schools like this with facilities like that.
I couldn’t dawdle too long. I had to rush across the city to visit the state junior school my son will be going to next year when he graduates from its sister infants school. As I idled at red lights making my way there, my heart hurt. Leaving directly from one school with all the resources to look at another with barely any—it felt a little too sharp a line cutting across our education system, revealing its bare-boned inequalities.
But in the small, parqueted hall of the junior school, on stackable chairs, surrounded by twenty-odd other prospective parents, I listened to the headteacher and several of his senior team. They might not have the video-screen walls and rounded music rooms, but boy did they have the innovation and belief. Despite cuts to school funding, they’ve found novel ways to self-fund maths and literacy leads in the school. The class sizes might be close to double what you could find in a private school, but the teaching assistants and teachers dance magically to manage the pupils. I am so glad that this is the school on our doorstep.
I got pretty emotional in both places for all sorts of reasons. But the bottom line was this: all of us in this country are extraordinarily lucky. And yet, we forget.
The week before visiting the two schools I attended the Meaning Conference. At the end an impassioned headteacher shared his own story and his wishes for pupils of today. An education reformist, he and the conference’s guest director are set on establishing a new school in this city — one that can fulfil all the creative and magical dreams of soul-crushed pedagogues without (a) being encumbered by the structures so heavily imposed on the existing state system or (b) saddling parents with a whopping termly bill.
The majority of the audience were sincerely moved by the visionary talk. I was frustrated. People despair of this country’s broken, robotic education system. It’s a problem, they say. So when there’s talk of a New Way, a New Thing, people get hopeful and excited. But I think this talk undercuts the really good teaching and learning going on at both ends of the current education spectrum — rock bottom state or highfalutin private — everywhere these days it is more creative, more nurturing, more progressive than before. Imperfect, yes. But pretty damn good.
I was frustrated because once again the temptation is to find a solution to the problem that is outside the current system. We believe that starting something new can inspire change. And sometimes that’s true. But — in my opinion — less often than we assume.
I’m so done with the New Thing. It’s seeming a lot less shiny to me and lot more cheap. Often I think we want to do something different in a new thing because it makes it easier for us than trying to do something different in the current thing. And also it is often the case that the people who are able to instigate change are the ones who have lots of choice in the first place.
In school terms, who are the people likely to benefit from new schools? People like me, kids like my kids. We’re sharp-elbowed enough to needle our way in and get the best on offer.
If only we could find ways to channel the creative energy and vision that bursts out of thousands (millions?) of us wannabe-education-reformers—to channel it within the current schools that are struggling, rather than abandoning them and turning our bright eyes and sharp elbows elsewhere. In one flick of the head, we snub the expertise, the graft and the good that is going on within them and siphon off limited resources to glossy new places.
And this isn’t just about schools. It’s about everything. This novel approach means that everywhere people with less power end up with the less new, less resourced, less shiny options. The options that other people gave up on because they didn’t think they were good enough, they didn’t want to try to fix them.
I’m so over entrepreneurship and the call to the new. I’m into striving to improve upon and level out and collaborate amongst the systems that already exist, rather than cop out by starting alternative ones on the side. I hate the word intrapreneurship, but I suppose it sums up what I’d like to see: the positive deviants within a system being supported to hack it from the inside with their ingenuity and their wit, to make it better for everyone, and to enable what’s already pretty damn good to be shared a whole lot further.