by Cliff Slater
April 15, 2003
Education: Learn from past?
What has motivated me to write about Hawai’i’s public education with such frequency is that I received an excellent government high school education in England and find it such a shame that it is not available in Hawai’i. My high school of 1949 was not only far, far better than any public school in Hawai’i but also far better than Hawai’i’s finest private schools.
Let me describe that high school—not to suggest that we emulate it but rather to see if, with the vast changes that have taken place in schooling over the years both in the U.S. and Britain, we might have taken a misstep or two.
First, it was what we would call today, elitist, not because of class or income but academically. All eleven year old British children of that time took an examination called “eleven plus,” which essentially culled out the top 25 percent academically. These children went on to “high schools” and others went to “technical schools” or “secondary modern schools” depending on their aptitudes. Some would later change schools as aptitudes changed.
My high school had about 400 children in five grades from ages eleven to sixteen. On graduation, very few of us would go on to college; it was not expected. Only those seeking scientific and academic careers went on to universities. For example, on graduation, my classmates who were to become lawyers and accountants, apprenticed themselves to accounting and law firms. There they worked during the day and then attended evening classes. I chose a flying career in the Royal Air Force.
The school’s non-teaching staff was minimal. Other than a small cafeteria and maintenance staff, a librarian and the principal’s administrative assistant, there were no other staff people. The principal taught part-time. There was no vice-principal nor counselors, audio/visual technicians, athletic health care specialists, alienation counselors, athletic directors, and no swimming pool custodian, and there were no security people.
But there were great teachers. Both men and women were well dressed—the men in suits and the women in dresses and over them both wore black college gowns. We students wore school uniforms, which were mandatory and strictly enforced; come to school without your school cap and you walked home to get it.
That could be a long walk. We were not allowed to arrive at school by car—even with your parents—and not even by bicycle unless you lived more than a mile and a half away and had the school’s permission.
Behavior was not a problem; we knew that misbehavior meant you would be sent off to one of the other schools.
Phys ed was mandatory and athletics encouraged. The advantage of the small school is that people of modest competence make school teams and thus athletics was for everyone, not just the exceptional performers.
We had separate and fully fitted-out chemistry, physics and biology labs and separate rooms for domestic science, music, and art and a special small auditorium for geography. These were in addition to our regular classrooms for other subjects such as the two languages, which were mandatory.
We worked hard since there were no study periods except our final year when we were “swotting” for the national school-leaving examinations that would (and still do) determine initial career paths. For example, the RAF required that I have very high scores in math and science and passing grades in many other subjects to meet their requirements.
None of our examinations and tests was ever multiple choice. In mathematics we were only given 20% of the total score for the right answer; the other 80% depended on the clarity of the methodology we used.
For other subjects, it was write, write, write since clear writing forces you to think.(1) We were not taught civics or current issues and the history we were taught stopped 20 years earlier. Our educators apparently believed that there was little value in discussing unsettled issues and instead used this time giving us the tools with which we could later learn.
I realize that this all happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” but it does give some indication of what happens when you strip away all the current encrustations on public education and get down to funding and supporting the essential core of the competent, qualified teacher in a an adequate classroom with motivated, hard-working students.
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater
(1) Last year I was able to get the entire set of examination papers for the 1949 School Leaving Certificate from the University of London. For those needing an example of questions, the following is a part of the examination for geography: