I noticed something else. Few of these men held the top jobs in their organization. They were, in civil service terms, deputies or assistant secretaries, deputy chairmen not chairmen. Few were entrepreneurs, but many were professors.
“You know,” one such professor confided to me in Vancouver. “I wish I’d been more like my younger brother. He failed the MGS entry exam at II. He was so annoyed, he resolved to go off and make his fortune on his own. He did, and he was very successful. I’d never have had the nerve to do what he did -1 haven’t got that confidence. Now,” and he paused obviously holding back much that was deep within him, “he’s retired at the age of 50 and is living very well indeed. I’m nearly 10 years older and when I eventually retire I’ll have nothing like the living standard that he has achieved.”
Confidence. That ability to feel good about yourself. Where does it come from?
Several times in my teaching career I’ve had the opportunity of observing 2 or 3 youngsters who, in school terms, have level-pegged each other right through their school years. Then, years later, I’ve been able to see what has happened to them as adults.
Without divulging their names I must tell you that, in every instance where one of them did really well, it was the one who came from a home that was stimulating, where challenges were regularly thrown out and taken up, and where the family ‘multi-tasked’. Life for such youngsters had never been dull.
But in those instances where the adult failed to develop what we teachers had seen as a precocious early ability, the one common factor was that they had come from safe, predictable but unchallenging homes. Excitement, fun, and the unexpected had been totally absent from their early years.
There is a great research topic here, waiting to bestarted.
Long before I became a headmaster, I knew from hard experience that it was the child who came to school already enthusiastic to make sense of issues that matter to them personally who takes from formal schooling whatever it can offer to help them meet their personal objectives. It’s not the other way round, however hard the school might try.
The greatest incentive to learn is personal, it is intrinsic. That is why a caring, thoughtful, stimulating life – a life of manageable, child-like proportions – in the greater community is so vitally important. Vitally important, that is, both to the child and to societies such as our own that are so dependent, year after year, on the continuous, restless energy of the next generation of young minds.
That is why society has to realise that streets that are unsafe for children to play around are as much a condemnation of failed policy as are burned out teachers or inadequate classrooms.
For 13 years I was Head of a large English comprehensive school. It was a good school by the exam standards the public likes to apply. But to me it seemed that its success was bought at the price of too many young people feeling they were only second rate.
I tried to change the culture. At one stage I was told that we had more pilot projects than there were aircraft in the entire Royal Air Force! I felt myself being pulled in every possible direction. It took me a while to realise why.
It was a lesson I had to learn from a colleague in the primary schools. Those of you immersed in schools will know that secondary heads find it hard to accept advice from the primary sector. But it was what I needed.
I had earlier noticed that pupils coming into secondary school at the age of II could relatively easily be classified into two groups. This was in the mid ’70s and Hertfordshire, where I was then head, had invested heavily in Plowden-type experiential primary schools. About a third of our intake came from such schools. For the most part they were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: learning to them was exciting and they were pretty much self-motivated.
The other two thirds, however, came from fairly old-fashioned schools. They were well disciplined in terms of learning their tables, they knew where Uganda was on the map. and who invaded who in 1066 and 1944. By and large they were quiet in class, and didn’t ask too many questions. In horse breeding terms they had already been ‘broken in’, whilst the others were young colts delighting in their newfound skills.
The old grammar school staff knew how to work with the traditionally educated pupils – the ones who had been ‘broken in’. They could easily test them in terms of English and mathematics, and they delighted to describe them as ‘gifted’ or ‘below average’ or even as ‘remedial’. Once labelled, of course, the description tended to define the child for his entire school career.