I once had a work-mate who went to school at Eton. We used to talk about the culture of our respective schools. He said that at Eton, popularity and happiness are absolutely essential. There was a constant pressure to be outwardly happy, regardless of whether your mood was good or bad, at any given moment.
I found this interesting because at my school, Stepney Green, in the east end of London, everything was about being hard or at least the illusion of being hard. The glamorous kids were the ones with problems. Miserable and angry was cool.
I’ve been intrigued by this over the years and have paid attention to the self-destructive negativity of inner city kids. It’s the warrior instinct that dominates in the battle of culture in our cities. The aggressive images from rap videos appeal to this trait. We complain about the misogyny, but we don’t offer answers. Cameron’s “Hug a hoody” remark made him look stupid because it offered no solution, while being obvious to the rest of us that the illusion of being thuggish is important to our kids.
The management of Eton choose to promote a gregarious culture within their school, so that when the pupils enter the workplace, they have greater confidence and social skills. Their policy permeates the culture of the school and is picked up by the pupils themselves. So if I were in the school playground with a frown on my face, another pupil is likely to say, “No frowning, McCurry. We don’t do that at Eton.” It’s the culture and ethos of the school that shapes the character of the pupils.
Teach First recently published a report on developing culture in schools. They argue that state schools are too concerned with league tables rather than ethos and character. Throughout the Labour government we concentrated on measuring academic success, and this policy did have an enormous affect, but I agree with Teach First, that it’s time to move on.
It was while I was thinking about all this that I took a closer look at myself and how my character has been shaped by growing up in the east end. I’ve noticed that I keep on having rows with people just lately. I didn’t realise what an angry person I can be at times. I am a product of my environment.
Tower Hamlets council recently installed an electronic speed light on my street. If you pass the sensor at over 20mph, it flashes ”20mph” to remind you to slow down. I’ve been in the habit of lowering the passenger window and shouting “Fuck off!” every time I pass it at 30mph.
I was giving a lift to a councillor mate the other day and he was a bit taken aback by this; you know how sensitive they are to their electorate. I angrily told him of the injustice of Old Ford Road being a 20mph zone and explained that whenever someone complies with this ridiculous speed limit, a great big long queue of cars builds up behind them, with everyone banging their horn in frustration.
My mate wasn’t listening, so I accused him of wasting council tax-payers money on stupid flashing lights. He said, “They’re only a couple of grand, mate. We don’t want stop the traffic. We just want it to slow down a bit.”
He was quite right, of course. This is a residential area and the traffic should be calmer. I don’t know where my anger wells from, but I know it’s becoming a problem.
I saw a leaflet from the London Buddhist Centre entitled “Cultivate the Art of Loving Kindness”. I went along to their meditation session and did a practice called the Metta Bhavana, which basically means to wish others and yourself goodwill.
You start by wishing yourself goodwill for about 10 minutes, then you think of a good friend and wish them luck and good health and so on, then you think of someone you don’t really know but come into contact with, such as a local shopkeeper, and finally you think of someone you’ve fallen out with and you wish them goodwill.
The session lasted about an hour, and as I was walking back to my car, I felt a sudden rush well-being flood through me. It was quite spontaneous and very nice. As I was driving home, I passed the flashing speed sign on Old Ford Road, and it didn’t flash at me. Then I heard the sound of cars honking their horns and when I looked in my rear-view-mirror, I saw a whole queue of cars behind me; I didn’t realise but I was driving along the street at only ten miles per hour
I realised Buddhism is not my future when got home from one of their weekend retreats and went straight down to the offie for booze and fags. However, the whole Buddhist experience had got me thinking.
It’s around the age of 13 or 14 when boys turn negative in their attitudes. If at the age of ten or twelve years they were equipped with the skills to think positively and the skills to recognise negative thinking in others, then maybe we’ll have taken one step towards making our state schools achieve some of the qualities of Eton.
The Mindfulness in Schools Project offers training for teachers to develop meditation in schools. They concentrate on Private Schools, because these are the schools that recognise the benefits. Mindfulness is about clearing the mind, to reduce stress and aid concentration. It’s not the same as the Metta Bhavana that I described earlier, but the program of introducing meditation into schools is the main thing.
State schools have never been better than they are today. The academic outcome of a private versus a state education is now quite marginal. Parents send their kids to private schools not because they will have better qualifications, but because they will grow into more confident and socially skilled young adults.
These qualities seem to be underestimated in our state schools, because the pressure has been on exam results. It is time for the Labour Party to develop new policy for a future government. The project to improve academic outcome is complete. The project to instil culture and ethos in schools, and to develop the character and confidence of state school pupils, should be the new policy.