Wednesday, September 14, 2005

English Education

One aspect of living overseas is that we're constantly having to negotiate unfamiliar ground, literally and figuratively.

Our children's education is the figurative sort, especially for our eldest. Theresa and I didn't go through the English school system, so each year is a whole new vista. Our 16-year-old has started at sixth form college, which is roughly equivalent (in years) to the second half of high school in the U.S. and (academically) to junior college. At the end of it, the students take their A-Level exams. If they do well, they then go on to university, but usually only for three years.

The school is all of 3.3 miles from our home (according to Google Maps), but it's also on new ground for me (of the literal sort). The bus we took drove through Harrow School, through the kind of neighborhood where the homes have names ("Hedge House") rather than mere numbers, the Royal Mail boxes haven't changed since the 19th century and the local shops sell convertible Jaguars. Hugh Grant wouldn't look out of place walking down these streets. I've lived here for more than seven years, but have never wandered through this particular corner of outer London.

My daughter doesn't go to Harrow, of course. The bus kept going and dropped us off on the other side of the tracks, figuratively, but not more than a couple of hundred yards. Her college, St. Dominic's, is a bit smaller than her secondary school, with about 800 students. I can't say we got a good look, but I got a warm feeling about the place in our brief visit last night. The new headmaster looked competent, and obviously won't put up with much from any troublemakers.

I've been anxious about my kids' education. Most well-off people here send their children to private schools (which are, oddly, called "public" schools). The newspapers are constantly filled with articles about the inadequacies of the education system, but I think that's true anywhere.

What really worries me is that the English seem to be in a hurry. At 16, my daughter has to make major decisions about what courses to take and what to drop. In the U.S., Theresa and I took almost exactly the same subjects until the third year of university, even as she became a nurse and I became a professional drain on society.

We advised flexibility, suggesting to our daughter that she take as wide a range of courses as possible. She's taking both physics and philosophy, for example. I know a few relatives will bristle at this, but I do believe Liberal Arts have value. The world is changing so fast that the only real function of the education system is to teach you how to learn. And it isn't just science and maths, it's making ethical decisions, discriminating between truth and cattle manure and communicating effectively. I had no idea what I wanted to do at 16 (or 26), but a combination of a liberal arts education and a strong interest in anything technical has served me well enough. I can only hope it works even better for my children.

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