Such, Such is the Contract

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Orwell wrote an enthralling essay on his time in private education ("Such, Such Were The Joys") in "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive". He got there because such a place was "sometimes willing to sacrifice financial profit to scholastic prestige" to "bring credit on the school". It is a must-read to everybody interested in education, where it is well described, by one of the most perceiving writers of our modern times, how deception and appearances now corrupt society already at school. It used to be different. In France, for instance, a documentary titled Être et Avoir ("to be and to have", after the two pillars of French grammar's auxiliary verbs) which paints a completely different picture of education, was still accurate a few decades ago. The world is changing fast and even its most perennial institutions are being swept away in the process. Interestingly, although the world was nothing as capitalistic by Orwell's pupil time as it is today, he already observed how "a school is primarily a commercial venture" and how "the dividends must be squeezed out of us".

When we had to school our daughter in England, she was not speaking English. We placed her in a public school that had an Outstanding Ofsted status. We knew she had picked up French very easily from myself alone so we imagined she would quickly pick up English from a total immersion. We were right, but the process was a painful one. The said immersion was, more than a cold shower, a deep dive into a frightening ocean. She was not happy in her school, although she picked up a lot of the language. She reported people getting angry at her, and Elena even composed a song with her reading "Miss Perichua, don't shout at me". Then came covid, we went back to Spain during confinement, then covid went away and we got back to England. Julia had considerably improved her English by then, since, in anticipation of her resuming school, we provided extra support and got her private lessons with a native speaker, who told her she could understand everything. She now indeed speaks better than we do.

Still, we were unsure about the public school. She remembered not liking going there, unlike her Spanish school which she enjoyed. Even before covid, we had approached a private school, Tettenhall College, which had made a great impression on us with a personal visit to the premises, assuring us of an equally personal support matching the needs of every child (as part of the visit, we passed through a room with a girl sitting with a teacher over a book and were told that it was precisely a non-native getting extra, personal support to catch up). So we enrolled Julia there on our coming back. It is indeed very expensive; for us who are products of public schooling, outrageously expensive. But they sell themselves very well: lots of activities, very flexible, understanding of the parents' often special circumstances (in our case, two foreigners in the middle of Brexit; they mentioned, with the sort of pride that you also find in Orwell's memories, a famous international football player having enrolled their child with them so they were fully aware of the need of some children having to skip school when going abroad, etc.) In short, the best of British education, which is reputedly the best in the World, if you go to the right place. So why not trying? We did.

A first realization, that came right away and which has been a constant source of surprise for the multiple forms this can take, is that despite the hefty price you are charged, you are still constantly brought into one scheme or another to pay for something else: money is the blood of the school, it flows everywhere. We are being flooded with regular requests to fund or support this or that. Children are performing in a show they prepare with the school: Ticket Prices - adults £10 and children £6. Bronze sponsorship packages: £20. There is a celebration like a firework or a bonfire: £. A party of any form or shape: £. A Midsummer Ball: £. A Christmas Jumper Day: £. A Red Nose Day: £. A Prep School Disco: £... I lost count and do not open most of these emails. The figures that come with the £ can range from 1 or 2 to 10 or 40, often without a clear pattern.

At the same time, notwithstanding, there are many appeals for people to volunteer, children included: to perform in the shows their parents have to pay for, as ambassadors to represent the school on Open Days in the Week-End, etc. We would even receive emails rebuking parents who have better plans for the Week-End than to sell the school; we received such emails even though we did abide by and had our daughters participate in the show-off of the School. There would be a lot to say as well about this strange ritual which we have seen from the two sides, before and after enrolling.

We participate in most of these activities, as this is a business of inclusion. Children who do not bring their money along with the virtue-signaling poppy or jumper or whatever outfit are just out of the group. That is a modern form of the ostracizing already captured by Orwell. In some occasions, we genuinely forgot and the poor child had to suffer the embarrassment of being different (in uniform, and, consequently, with no money in her pocket). This call for funds went so far as a request to "celebrate" the "World Book Day" by sponsoring reading ("Ready, Steady, Read") to collect funds proportionally to the volume that children could read at home in a dedicated and competitive effort, with the declared intention to "encourage a lifelong love of reading at home and school". The appeal was indeed heart-breaking:

Please help us to enhance our reading resources for pupils by encouraging your child to spend a small amount of time each day either reading to themselves, to others, or being read to. They can read books, comics, magazines, newspapers, menus, websites, recipes, poems, leaflets, instructions – anything with words!

Anything as long as cash flows. I added this part, but that is clearly what spills out from between the lines. They would still let you decide on a "Sponsorship per minute" or a total donation, in case a little one would start reading too much. Let alone the money, how does a "lifelong love of reading" blossom from "menus", "websites" or "instructions"? Who with the slightest consideration for literature would place "poems" between "recipes" and "leaflets"? This one we declined to subdue to as an insult to everything: common sense, decency, poems...

Some activities are free, like chess or the choral, but they either are difficult to get to or get canceled more often than not, typically without notice, in which case we find the child playing video games. From the very appetizing range of great activities advertised on paper, few actually can materialize in reality, like the swimming pool which children get symbolic access to, and when we managed after heroic efforts and constant insistence to have Julia enrolled in fencing, nothing was made to have her participate and she got put-off after the first session from it being violent and hurtful. The second one, she stayed looking on the side and in the third she was withdrawn already.

One also, of course (this was not unexpected) must buy the uniform and other attires of the school, which would not be a problem if not for the fact that this gets constantly "lost" by the children, disappearing mysteriously from the pegs and, again more often than not, having to be bought again, as "recoveries" are rare as well as mysterious. We did not have this problem with the uniform in the public school.

I will come back to this obsession they have with money later. But what makes it excruciating is that the value of what you pay for is nowhere like matching the price. The standard they set for education is actually not significantly better than good Public schools (that are free). As they behave like a business, the de-facto customer can only wonder what they do with all the resources they drain from fees or additional funding ("Please help us to enhance our reading resources for pupils"). Beyond the expenses that the State covers for public schools (staff, electricity bills, etc.), private schools appear to invest in appearances and decorum as opposed to genuine educative value for the children. In this sense, whether this is not actually even worse remains to me an open question.

Our most serious grievance is with their use of the TV. We do not have one and do not watch programs on TV. It was therefore both a surprise and a shock for us to see our three-year-old recognize characters such as Peppa Pig in the ads on the street and a whole series of other characters we have never heard about, also recognizing children's songs on YouTube and knowing their content by heart! It is indeed often the case that when we pick her up, they are all assembled religiously around the TV. When inquiring, we have been explained how great a resource this is for songs. As if songs are not universally and since the dawn of time shared for all types of purposes, foremost educational, directly between people. Luz also once commented about some "Quiet Baby" thing which, in her three-year-old picture of the event, was painting something that looked suspiciously like a program to numb agitated children with TV.

It is common knowledge that TV in education is what fast food is to gastronomy: garbage. TV is something so bad that it is actually detrimental: it harms children, especially very young ones. They were also using TV profusely with Julia in the public school, but if one trivial thing could be granted at least from such private expensive schooling, at least one thing, is not using this cheap surrogate for "educating" (distracting) children, because they do not have resources, or staff, or worse still, enough will and passion. TV is so bad it will probably get eventually forbidden in schools. In the meantime, on the opposite, we see an increased use of screen resources, virtual spaces, computer homework as the latest one, etc. Catastrophe. And an expensive one.

Another, related thing, is sugar. When you visit, there is a great display of their concern for healthy food. Great. In reality, however, children are indeed offered a healthy option, but along with others with fries, baked beans, etc. Of course, children go for the latter. For Luz, we mentioned that we did not like that she was eating so much cake at school. What happened is that she now comments that she is "not allowed" cakes unlike other children who can still enjoy the treat. What a great education. At least she does not get stuffed with sugar, but at an emotional cost, and other children still do.

Now on academic matters, and starting with those which pose no problems whatsoever given her personal circumstances. Julia is fluent in Spanish and speaks and understands French very well (with some accent). In Tettenhall, as part of the big impression they make on you when showing off their curriculum, children get exposed to both of these languages. We were of course impressed. We might have preferred German or another language still, rather than those two that she already masters, but they remain excellent choices in general and ours is still a child with a lot to learn even with her mother tongue (for instance, reading, spellings, etc.) We also remembered the much-advertised particular dedication and adaptation to every's child personal need, so we gathered that she would still get something from it.

She went through Spanish as if it was not there, being given random tasks unrelated to the language to pass the time, such as coloring. When we proposed to her teachers that she could be given something related to Spanish, anything, to read, or to write, that happened, but subsisting for the coloring, i.e., with no feedback, no correction of what she was asked to do. Would she finish the book, she was then asked to write something about it. But she would not get the slightest feedback about it. Said otherwise, she could do the same at home. Well, not quite since at home, she does get a feedback. We also suggested that she could be involved to support the class, possibly even older classes, being a native speaker, and something along these lines was done, once. If we invest ourselves a lot in what should be done, things move in fleeting and minuscule amounts. And inertia brings us back to nowhere. Surely the school can then tick on a form that "parents complaints have been addressed".

Julia's French teacher is a very colorful character whom she likes a lot. She is so fond of her that it is impossible to tell if sheer charisma or actual enjoyment of the material and progress with the topic is at play. I did not notice anything happening with her French, she could have Mandarin lessons to the same effect as far as I am concerned, but at least Julia is happy and excited, so there I would conclude with "c'est la vie". Sometimes you don't learn what you are supposed to but more important things still, which could be the case here.

In Maths, where she has no particular disposition, we found that she currently underperforms. She struggles with very basic arithmetic, that she should already master. She also did poorly on the examination she passed at school. Still, she has been praised, even getting a medal, for her "efforts" or "for trying hard". While this by itself is okay from the child's perspective to build up confidence, we got no signs that her failures and level were raising particular concerns. We have been explained that her difficulties with reading English account for the modest results, as if Arabic numerals looked so differently across the Channel as to render their lining up challenging. We spend a lot of time ourselves at home to help her with homework. In Maths, I found out that she was not allowed to use the method I explained to her of adding digits, which is the general one, that she picked up right away, even being able to sum numbers in her head. But it came out, when this method went to school with her, that she should limit herself to the one given in class, that is, with a fixed number of digits and involving drawing balls. At this stage, I commented in passing to her teacher that it's fine if they have a method of their own but that she should not be discouraged to use other methods, especially if they are better ones. The teacher then explained that they wanted everybody on the same page (so much for the personal, dedicated attention to each child). When I said that the method of counting balls would be difficult even for me when adding big numbers, implying the possible mistake in having to draw 9 plus 8 balls and to count 17 of them, I was told that there was a link to a YouTube video (again) to explain the procedure if I needed to understand it. The teacher knows that we are University professors, teaching Physics, so the notion that I could fail to understand conceptually how addition applies to balls also tells me various things. I don't know which one is correct but none of them is very pleasing.

I was also baffled with writing. I noticed that many of my University students struggle with reading cursives. Several asked me to please write with uppercase, detached letters. The distinction between m and n is particularly mind-boggling. I actually added a segment on "notations" in my classes, describing Feynman's comments on annotating vectors as evidence that text on a blackboard looks different than from a powerpoint (I teach nothing with powerpoint):


Note the "you can invent your own" as opposed to "there's only one way to do it". That is not a whim because it must also be explained that one needs to know not only the same alphabet in different renditions, but also about different alphabets, like the Greek one, for which I had to insist that $\psi$ should not be referred to as "the pitchfork" but as "psi". I was surprised to realize that Julia is not taught either to read or to write cursives. I explained to her how important this is. She enjoys it, she finds it beautiful. It is a shock to me that children are deprived from this fundamental aspect of writing and reading: the art of mixing beauty and technique into the fabric of words.

As a summary, the education fails in both ways: being advanced or delayed, you do not benefit more from it than the normal drift of passing time.

And back to money, since in such places, everything brings you back there, our latest surprise (as I said, they keep coming in all possible forms) is that when we told them that we would withdraw the children next year, they informed us that we would have to pay the full fee for the next term, as stipulated in their contract and in several of the countless emails where they discuss money. There is a full term, the summer break, and a new year coming. But they have to "safeguard the financial viability and well-being of the School". I asked them if removing our children with that much time in advance would prevent them from providing other children with a position, but could get only evasive answers orbiting around the safeguarding and other legal aspects bringing us back to the contract, which we signed, did we not?

As Orwell was writing, to complete a previous quote, "it is difficult for a child to realize that a school is primarily a commercial venture". In this sense, we remained very much naive children ourselves. Elena wrote a song, well, a poem, really, if this word still means something, on what a school is (Una escuela). It made several people cry:


It makes me cry too, when I see that this is now obsolete and that they turned schools into contracts, money-raising businesses and, really, places of deceit and appearances with values plastered all around on motivational posters because they are so lacking everywhere else.

To finish on the positive side, while the education per se does not strike us as any better than the one from the public school (again, rated Outstanding though), that the fees they charge are nowhere like justified, that their relationship to money is nauseating and obsessive, that they behave as a school when they are at fault but as a business when you are at fault, it is the case that both our children are happy in Tettenhall College, and for Julia who experienced both, she is indeed happier than in her previous public school, where, however, she had no command of the language. They, nevertheless, do not complain about reprimands or aggressive tones. They both like all their teachers, are madly fond of several, mentioning them in a positive light in various circumstances. So there is still something left from the poem in the heart of some of the people who became teachers despite what the world itself became. Even Orwell, because I want to finish where I started, Orwell who suffered society at all stages of his life, confessed: "No one can look back on his schooldays and say with truth that they were altogether unhappy."