Stickman Readers' Submissions June 27th, 2014

Notes from Farangland – Part 5 – Education

One of the remarkable things about the UK, and one reason why so many people seek to reach our shores, is that education is free up to the age of 18, and on the whole that education is exceptionally good.

I have now had two children go through the state education system in England, and I have been nothing less than extremely impressed with the facilities, quality of teaching, and extra-curricular opportunities. And while I initially had my doubts about the structures of GCSEs, I was won over once I had seen the quality of coursework being produced, and the general nature and content of the exams themselves. My children had left before the new iGCSEs came into play, so I can’t comment on those. I also became a convert to the A level structure, with AS levels being done in the first year, followed by A2s in the second year. Both my children started out at Hale School in Farnham (the working class North side where we lived), which is primarily fed by the large Sandy Hill council estate, but there is a great mix of pupils from all backgrounds, which reflects the general mix of the population. I feel this is one of the great advantages of the state system – it reflects reality, whereas in private school you tend to mix only with other pupils from privileged backgrounds. For a couple of years I lived over the weekends in the room of my girlfriend who was the French teacher in a very select private school. For example, there was one day boy who was chauffeured in every day, and when traffic got busy due to the Epsom races, he was flown in by helicopter. I woke up one Monday morning to the sound of a helicopter landing on the football pitch. Out jumps this little kid with his satchel. I used to bloody well walk to school, come rain or shine, and so did both my children. I got to know the boarders quite well, and they were great lads, but this was a rarefied atmosphere of privilege that I knew I did not want my children to be part of. I later married my girlfriend and with the heavy discount available to staff, we could have (just about) afforded private schooling, but both decided against it. It is a decision I have never regretted.

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At each stage we had a good choice of several schools. The choice after 16 was quite incredible. We visited a number of colleges such as Farnborough Sixth, Farnborough Tech, Alton College, and Farnham Sixth and I was nothing less than astounded by the facilities on offer. The library at Alton for example is far better than the library of the University I went to (back in 1981). In all cases the facilities were very modern, with impressive computer labs, language labs, and science labs.

My son went to Alton college, and my daughter went to Farnborough Sixth. The latter in particular has an outstanding reputation. I was blown away by the quality of the teachers there, who were not only very well qualified, but dedicated, and very much loved the subjects they taught – they were an inspiration.

Over the years I attended all parents evenings and many of the productions, and always came away having talked to many other parents equally delighted with the education their children had received at every stage.

Although my son left the education system after college, my daughter decided to go to University. I ended up taking her to visit a number of Universities, including my old Uni down in Sussex. I actually drove straight past the place because I didn’t recognize it. I was astounded by the development of new facilities there. The quality of services, sports halls, accommodation, labs, library etc. was an order of magnitude above and beyond what I had experienced. This pattern was repeated with each Uni we visited – I was blown away.

The down side of course is that University education has to be paid for these days. While I personally think this is a mistake (I strongly believe education should be completely free up to degree level), our Universities still represent incredible value. Because of the way the student loans are structured, the system is in effect a graduate tax, so students pay a small monthly amount, once their salaries reach above a certain point, until the loan is paid off. It’s not ideal, but it is manageable, especially as support and subject-specific scholarships are available to many. I hope that at some point in the future University education will become free again, because I really believe that everyone in the country benefits when its citizens receive the education to the level they want and that suits them.

I was recently reminded of this when I went back to my old technical college, where I was a lecturer for seven years. I hadn’t been back in twenty years, and given my experiences looking around several Universities, I should not have been surprised, but I was astounded by how the college had improved and developed. Taking a tour of the college I was more and more impressed at each turn. We did some truly good work there back in the day. I designed HNDs and HNCs in Computer Automation and Networking, Industrial Information Systems, and Scientific Instrumentation Systems. We primarily serviced mature students from largely humble backgrounds, who were out of work and who needed to retrain into high technology areas in order to gain employment. I don’t want to sound like I’m blowing my own trumpet, but we had incredible success in that endeavour, with over 80% of students subsequently finding high-tech work. During those seven years I taught students from age 19 to 59, and with backgrounds ranging from armed robber (yes, seriously) to a former monk, and everything in between. I had a former commis chef who started his own high tech business selling industrial control equipment, and a former second hand car salesman who went on to become a European Sales Director for the large software company EMC. There were many other success stories, and I’m really proud of our achievements. It’s good to know that the college goes from strength to strength, and continues to produce winners in science, business and technology. They benefit the country tremendously. For example, if you look at one area, patent applications, UK made 20,108 in 2012. Thailand, which has a similar sized population to the UK, made just 1,279. In part, that is a result of an excellent education system and general technical development, in the UK.

I don’t buy into the notion that the British education system is falling apart. In any large complex system (there are 16,971 primary schools in England alone), there will be institutions that fail, or that somehow fall through the cracks, or have problems due to location, or somehow don’t get the resources they need. But these are the minority, which of course tend to be blown up out of all proportion by the tabloid press. You don’t hear of the thousands of schools doing brilliantly, with outstanding teachers and facilities, because that doesn’t sell doom and gloom bullshit papers like the Daily Mail. I have a friend of long standing, who still travels the college circuit validating HNDs, and performing school inspections and he confirms that my impression is not isolated. By far and away the story is a positive one.

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I do not have much experience with the Thai education system, but what I do know is that, by and large, it is generally perceived as not very good. I have heard nothing but bad things about the state education system in Thailand. Most expatriates seem to send their children to private schools in Thailand. Many of the expats with children that I have spoken to, returned home to Farangland for the generally better education and lifestyle for their children. But that admittedly is mostly anecdotal evidence, and so should be treated with suspicion. Looking at the TES University World rankings, the UK has a healthy representation in the top rankings, but you have to go to position 300 in the table before you will see a Thai university. While many have modelled their educational systems on the English model, I’m not sure many have chosen the Thai model.

The English education system, curriculums and examinations are still much copied by the rest of the world, and we are still seen as one of the top locations in which to study, especially at University level. Given that this education is by and large free I think that is an incredible achievement and something that we can all be incredibly proud of as a nation.

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