My youngest child attends the British International School, Phuket. I must admit, I gulped a bit when I paid the school fees. But so far, I am fine with what I am paying for. It costs a lot to run this little piece of Great Britain in the tropical paradise of Phuket, and the money has to come from somewhere. Simple economics. It makes me feel better that it is a trust school, meaning that there are no greedy shareholders trying to fleece parents through turning education into a big money-spinner, putting profit before altruistic goals. My elder daughter attended a trust school as well, and yes, I did balked then when the invoices from Portsmouth High School arrived with ominous regularity.
But what exactly are we, the parents, paying for?
I had an unsuccessful academic career in private schools. I left with four mediocre ‘O’ levels instead of the standard seven that most half-wits in most half-decent non fee-paying schools can aspire to. Perhaps I was too excited about riding horses on the beach in the mornings to get rid of the hangovers obtained the night before than I was about getting the grades. I doodled during prep, dreamed about flying hovercrafts, greasy food at Trevor’s Caff and Snakebites at Smugglers’ Inn.
I applied to Havant Sixth Form College because I did not have that many options. The then Principal decided to give me a chance, despite my dismal ‘O’ level grades. And so I began my ‘A’ levels in this non fee-paying school.
In the second year of my ‘A’ levels, I received an unconditional offer from Southampton, my home university, to read Medicine. I also received an offer from Cambridge.
Thus I must state the obvious: Havant Sixth Form College was the making of me. Somehow, this little school had everything just right. I will attempt to list down what I think the key success factors were:
(1) A proactive and ‘real’ careers guidance department
Secondary students need personal guidance, because the adult world with its seemingly infinite number of choices is a baffling place. Moreover, how could one possibly know at 17 what one will be at 27, 37, 47, 57? Throw in parental pressure and false representations from the media, and the poor students are lost in the uncharted waters.
The careers guidance department at Havant worked well for its students, because it was located on the corridor that all students had to walk past at some stage of the day. There were big posters to attract the eye, and over-zealous staff were always on the quick to pull unsuspecting students in.
Even the teachers got proactively involved. Mr. Jim Crow, in my case. I had a lot to thank (and blame) him for. He got me work experience at St Mary’s Hospital. I thought it was for a week when I signed up, but it turned out to be longer than I feared. For two days a week for a whole year, I had to show up at the hospital to do menial jobs, get insulted by patients and run foul of the matron. I vomited on my first day. Straight into the laundry basket. Things got progressively worse. I complained to Mr. Crow and told him that I no longer wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to study nuclear physics instead and be an astronaut. I could still remember his moustache twitching in amusement as he admonished me with a straight face.
But my work experience meant that I leap-frogged past the dreamers and fantasists and predicted grade A swots. Because I proved that I could hack working as an unpaid lackey in a busy hospital for one whole year. If members of the selection committee at Southampton University were privy to the tearful rants I had with Mr. Crow, life could have been very different for me indeed.
(2) Useful subjects
I did Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology. I loved Mathematics with Mrs. Balthazar because I found Mathematics easy; I enjoyed Chemistry with Mr. Haskins because he was not fazed out when we exploded things in the lab (I think he was secretly a bigger pyromaniac than all of us put together); I tolerated Biology with Mrs. Woods because she was sweet.
But I had to do Typing. I mean, come on! Mrs. Jean Bushby with her stiff grey helmet for hair took no hostages. She shot from the hip. Fearfully, I learned to type.
It served me well when I went up to Oxford and had copious amount of data to process. And hey, I have written four books to date without the help of any professional typist.
(3) Real people
There was a large population of ex private school students like my brother and I. There was also a big group of students who came from state school backgrounds. Folks who lived in council estates, who wanted to do well, and children of liberals who did not subscribe to private school elitism. It wasn’t all rich kids, but a mix that worked well, not only academically but preparation for life in the real world.
I had a fabulous two years at Havant. Among some of my most precious memories is taking the train to school every morning with my brother Al. There was always enough going on in school to occupy us, or we would hang out either in the town centre or on the beach near my house. Yes, we drank and partied, but never with the frenetic debauchery of my private school years. I skipped school often (for good reasons), and my three A level teachers helped, rather than hindered, my progress.
It is a testament to their abilities as teachers and to the school for its ethos that I managed to do passably well for my A levels, despite sleeping on the beach at the end of Woodgason Lane with the father of my children right up to the night before my exams.
So in conclusion, there is such a thing as free lunch, and free (high quality) education. I am the proof of that, and I guess this is why I wrote this article.