Captain Raindrop # 2 – interview with Rory Darling

In my second interview of my Captain Raindrop project, I interview Rory Darling.

Rory taught Maths and History at many of the top boarding boys preparatory schools in the country, including Summer Fields, Cothill, Ludgrove, Aysgarth and Elstree.

In Part 1, he talks about his entrance into teaching and the changing life of preparatory schools in the 1970s – 2000s.

Please get in touch if you’d like me to Post Part 2 too.

Please bear with me as I learn more about interviewing, editing, etc etc etc!

Captain Raindrop – Interview with Rhidian Llewellyn

Last week I began a part-time project to interview retired prep school teachers about their teaching methods.

My first subject was Rhidian Llewellyn. Rhidian began his teaching career at Heatherdown. From 1980-1984 he was Head of History and English at Arnold House School in St John’s Wood, London. In 1986 he became Senior Housemaster at The Dragon School, Oxford before being appointed, at the age of 32, Headmaster of Papplewick School, Ascot. He now advises parents and schools via his educational consultancy, Llwellyn Education (http://www.llewellyneducation.co.uk/).

In this interview, we discuss:

  • Life in a prep boarding school
  • Teacher recruitment – 1970s style
  • The breakdown of trust and the rise of conformity
  • Justice vs. Mercy
    – and much much more!

Hope you enjoy! Part Two can be found suggested on the right hand column of YouTube.

The link is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kt–sy4xRA0, and is posted below.

Kidzania and the growth of a child’s imagination

My office happens to be near Kidzania, the “Educational Entertainment Experience” that has recently opened in Westfield, so it has been the subject of some speculation amongst the Keystone team. I have spent the past few days reading more about it, and confess to some unease about its educational vision.

Kidzania is built over a whopping 75,000 square feet and is conceived as a “child-size city where kids are in charge.” Rather than the sorts of games and rides found in most theme parks, this child’s city offers a range of 60 jobs and activities that mimic the adult world: there’s a newspaper office, a hospital, a bank, a supermarket and even a nightclub. Children are paid for their jobs in kidZos, the local currency, and can spend their hard-earned salary on the activities. They are paid Z8 for being a policeman, Z9 for being a model in the fashion studio, Z12 for being a surgeon in the hospital etc (full list here). The facsimile of adult life is not confined to the city’s market economy. As you can see from some of the family videos that have been shot there, the city has all the meretricious features of modern mall life that will be familiar to anyone who has been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai etc. – from the low-lit boulevards lined by fake trees and sculptures to the ceaseless soundtrack of half-familiar Club Classics.

The educational philosophy underpinning Kidzania is self-explanatory. It is role-play, “a universal form of play enjoyed by children all over the world. Role-play is fun and has very positive educational, psychological and motivational benefits.” Kidzania’s form of role-play “is an exceptional education and entertainment city which stimulates creative thinking and boosts levels of self-esteem and confidence.” Educators and “play experts” have ensured that children learn “creativity, critical thinking, communication, confidence, and collaboration.” Of course, schools are being offered large discounts to entice them to Kidzania for next year’s school trips.

Children have always loved to pretend to be adults, and role-play is surely one of the most time-honoured of children’s amusements.

So what are my misgivings about Kidzania?

They are two:

  • Its environment leaves little room for the imagination. As anyone who has ever held a stick aloft and declared en garde to a friend or sibling knows, children do not actually need realistic toys or environments to lend verisimilitude to their play. In fact, I wonder whether there might almost be some sort of law of diminishing returns – whereby the more realism that is supplied by a toy or environment, the less a child actually derives in imaginative output. When a child is transplanting very life-like organs, like she might in Kidzania, or flying in a real cockpit, what exactly is the imaginative or creative merit? Where is the potential for imaginative growth? This equation can’t be exact of course; a completely desolate environment would not provide much imaginative fodder either. But I have a hunch that the various “Adventure Play” initiatives like The Land are striking a more humane balance. By supplying just enough material (hideouts, small hills, swings, discarded toys etc.) to get children started, such initiatives exhibit so much more faith in the generative power of children’s imaginations. My own tastes would run to something more like Maggie and Rose’s Village Nursery, whose imaginative landscape (a traditional English village green) is thoughtful, harmonious, natural but – crucially – limited. It is not a detailed, realistic picture of an English village, but rather one that leaves plenty of room for the development of a fertile imagination. Rudolf Steiner no doubt goes too far in the quotation below, but I think his insight is so much richer than that offered by Kidzania:

You can make a doll for a child by folding up an old napkin, making two corners into legs, the other two corners into arms, a knot for the head, and painting eyes, nose, and mouth with blots of ink. Or you can buy the child what is called a “pretty” doll, with real hair and painted cheeks. We need not dwell on the fact that the “pretty” doll is of course hideous and apt to spoil the healthy aesthetic sense for a lifetime; for education, the main question is different. If the children have the folded napkin before them, they have to fill in from their own imagination what is necessary to make it real and human. This work of the imagination shapes and builds the forms of the brain. The brain unfolds as the muscles of the hand unfold when they do the work they are suited for. By giving the child the so-called “pretty” doll, the brain has nothing more to do. Instead of unfolding, it becomes stunted and dried up.

  • The content of its role-play is banal. Given that Kidzania has chosen to fill its child’s city with content (and not let children invent much for themselves), I wonder whether they could have chosen jobs and activities with a bit more of the marrow of life in them? There is something curiously anodyne about offering children the chance to be a banker, dentist or air conditioning technician; something more shallow than their grandiose educational promises would suggest about offering children the chance to be a model, beautician or flight attendant – especially in the synthetic way they are presented at Kidzania, with limited opportunities for children to manipulate the experience. It used to be that children would imagine themselves as a knight, a pirate, a Robin Hood. Can’t the burdens of finding a career with a good wage be postponed, at least until after the age of 14? The ages 4 – 14 are a never-to-be-repeated opportunity for children to fill their heads with stories, images and genuinely fertile experiences. Couldn’t a Kidzania be devised, such as this one in the US, that fed such activities rather than taking time away from them?

The question of how far the adult world should be allowed to impinge on childhood receives frequent attention. As I have argued elsewhere, now that primary children are being introduced to financial literacy and a whole host of other adult concerns, it seems that precious little time is being left for genuinely exploratory and imaginative pursuits that were once the joys of growing up.

 

Some (no doubt rosy-eyed) pictures showing the inventiveness of Victorian children’s typical games..

 

Eton – after a socialist revolution

I’ve quite enjoyed racing through News from Nowhere, William Morris’ account of England a generation after a socialist revolution.

I’m sure everyone was worrying… “but what would happen to Eton?”

“Up yonder are some beautiful old buildings, which were built for a great college or teaching-place by one of the mediaeval kings – Edward the Sixth, I think” (I rather smiled to myself at his rather natural blunder). “He meant poor people’s sons to be taught there what knowledge was going in his days; but it was a matter of course that in the times of which you seem to know so much they spoilt whatever good there was in the founder’s intentions. My old kinsman says that they treated them in a very simple way, and instead of teaching poor men’s sons to know something, they taught rich men’s sons to know nothing. It seems from what he says that it was a place for the ‘aristocracy ‘(if you know what that means; I have been told its meaning) to get rid of their male children for a great part of the year. I daresay old Hammond would give you plenty of information in detail about it.”

“What is it used for now?” said I.

“Well,” said he, “the buildings were a good deal spoilt by the last few generations of aristocrats, who seem to have had a great hatred against beautiful old buildings, and indeed all records of past history; but it is still a delightful place. Of course we cannot use it quite as the founder intended, since our ideas about teaching young people are so changed from the ideas of his time; so it is used now as a dwelling for people engaged in learning; and folk from round about come and get taught things that they want to learn; and there is a great library there of the best books. So that I don’t think that the old dead king would be much hurt if he were to come to life and see what we are doing there.

“Well,” said Clara, laughing, “I think he would miss the boys.”

“Not always, my dear,” said Dick, “for there are often plenty of boys there, who come to get taught; and also,” said he, smiling, “to learn boating and swimming. I wish we could stop there: but perhaps we had better do that coming down the water.”

Mini-Essay: The Curriculum

In almost a decade of answering questions from parents about boarding schools, I have never been asked about a school’s curriculum. And yet it is hard to think of a feature that has more of a bearing on a child’s education. This short essay makes a case for why the curriculum is quite so important, and suggests a few ways to judge individual schools on the merits or demerits of their curriculum.

I should say a word on the term. A school’s ‘curriculum’ is the course of study it has chosen for its pupils. In detail, it would describe the content of every lesson. Although schools are directed to some extent by national examinations, they nevertheless – and especially in the independent sector – have a lot of freedom to design their own curricula.

Very Brief History

To understand the importance of the curriculum, it is necessary to have a whistle-stop look at its history.

Before the nineteenth century, boarding schools offered a curriculum that appears baffling to the modern parent. Most schools exclusively taught the Classics; Harrow also offered…Archery.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, after spirited debate as to the merits of new-fangled subjects like Science and English Literature, the curriculum began to take the shape that it was to retain to the present day. This is a curriculum arranged into discrete subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, and organised around the core knowledge included in these subjects. To my knowledge, no more effective curriculum has ever been devised or instituted.

Such a curriculum is what late nineteenth century commentators such as Matthew Arnold called a “liberal education.” (For more on the term, read my mini-essay on the topic.) Importantly, it was thought to be a curriculum that should not be limited to independent schools, but which had universal appeal and benefit. From the 1870s onwards, it met with the approval of headmasters, politicians and commentators of many different stripes. And it was just such a liberal curriculum that inspired the formation of the first National Curriculum in 1988.

However, though the support for such a curriculum was broad, it was by no means unanimous. Weakened by the ideological currents of the 1960s and 70s, the consensus faltered and, as David Conway charts in his brilliant summary of the events, the mainstream educational establishment began to view this curriculum as elitist, irrelevant and not fit for purpose. Since 1988, the National Curriculum has been steadily distancing itself from the curriculum beliefs that had been upheld for so long by both the independent sector and beyond.

From the late 20th Century onwards, then, there was has been a decoupling. The National Curriculum has become ever more suspicious of traditional subject knowledge, and has promoted instead a curriculum that is based on skills (such as “collaboration” or “project research”) and rooted in the knowledge brought to class by pupils rather than knowledge imparted to pupils by teachers. The independent sector, on the other hand, has by and large stuck to the curriculum principles laid down in the nineteenth century.

How does this affect boarding school parents?

Concerns for Parents

Parents should be anxious as to whether the independent sector is safely insulated from the modern educational orthodoxy on the curriculum.

This is not the place to go into detail about why a traditional knowledge-based curriculum is so important for children. For parents who want to read more, the book to read is Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education. For now, one quotation of hers out of many that favour the traditional boarding school curriculum will suffice:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge.

So do boarding school parents have any reason to be anxious? In general, I am glad to say, no. Most independent school leaders have rejected modern curriculum orthodoxy, no doubt seeing that their belief in traditional subject knowledge is one of the reasons why the private sector has so outstripped the maintained sector in the last few decades.

However, there are a two concerning trends that I have noticed:

  1. An increasing number of teachers in boarding schools have been subjected to two years of modern curriculum philosophy during their training on the PGCE. “Skills-based” curricula are terribly seductive. I should know: I was enthralled by them when I was a recent graduate teacher myself. What was the point of learning pointless lists of Kings and Queens, when – in the twenty first century – knowledge is just a click away? The modern child surely did not need such an outdated curriculum; he needed to be a flexible, resilient, lifelong learner instead! Without the underpinnings (scientific and philosophical) of a knowledge-based curriculum, many new teachers are prey to the seemingly more enlightened theories of Sir Ken Robinson et al. I have met many well-educated and well-meaning teachers who have been trained to look on traditional curricula with hostility. Such teachers are ever more numerous in UK boarding schools.
  2. For the same reasons that a “skills-based” curriculum is seductive to new teachers, it is also seductive to many new parents. Hence the ever more frequent promise on school websites that they are “preparing students for the twenty first century” by, for example, “developing skills of creativity, flexibility, lateral thinking and enterprise”; or by “fostering intuition and resilience” or by “nurturing empathy and courage.” If these melodious mission statements are achieved by sticking to a traditional subject-based curriculum, the potential for damage is limited; if they are accompanied, as they are in some boarding schools, by a subversion of the curriculum, the potential hazard is immense.

Tips for Parents

How can parents tell whether a boarding school curriculum is knowledge-based or skills-based?

Out of all the aspects of a school’s daily life, the curriculum is one of the hardest to get a handle on. Whenever I visit schools, I do my best – but am often left none the wiser about the content of a school’s lessons. This is particularly the case as few registrars ever have intricate knowledge of a school’s curriculum. A few tips will suffice, though I would be delighted to hear more:

  • Ask to be shown round by a pupil, and ask them what they have been learning in their subjects recently. I particularly enjoy asking about their History lessons. I was told by one group of prep school boarders, with inestimable delight in their eyes, about all the intricacies of the Battle of Waterloo. If pupils relay knowledge (as opposed to vaguer accounts of history projects or source analysis), it is a very healthy sign.
  • If you can’t gain a good idea of a school’s curriculum from its website, ask whether the Director of Studies would mind receiving an email from you. Ask him or her simply what principles underlie the school’s curriculum. If the emphasis is on knowledge over skills, or at least if knowledge is seen as the essential foundation block upon which skills can be built, you can rest easy.

This is a thorny but fundamental topic and, if parents have the time, one that well repays further reading.