2 March 2011


In the autumn of 2003, I was lucky enough to visit Durban in South Africa with a group of Sheffield schoolteachers. One of my lasting memories is of the five days I spent at the Ogwini Technical School in the vast Umlazi shanty town on the southern edge of the city.

One day I had to teach a class of sixty Zulu pupils aged thirteen to twenty. The windowless room was chock-a-block. I asked them to write a letter to schoolchildren in England, telling them all about their lives. As they grafted away, you could have heard a pin drop. These were impoverished children from tin shacks. Most were barefoot. And you know what - every single one of them had a pen to write with!

And now here in Bangkok, I am teaching some of the sons and daughters of Thailand's aspirational and wealthy upper class. Once again every single child has a pen to write with. In fact here every child has pencils, crayons, highlighters, sticky tape, glue, erasing pens, scissors etc.. The idea of requesting a pen from a teacher is utterly unheard of.

Wind back to my working class Sheffield comprehensive school or "technology college" as they preferred to call it. There wasn't ever a lesson that began without a bunch of "students" requesting pens to write with. Often they would fail to hand these pens back. In other words they stole them. In my English department we tried letters home, detentions, fines, pen monitors, lists -whatever we could think of - but still a hard core never brought pens or even carried schoolbags. There were 870 children in the school and in my last year I had to order some five thousand cheap black ballpoint pens

You had the mentally certifiable headmistress claiming it didn't matter - we had bigger things to deal with - oh, and by the way, could we ensure that homework was set each week and where's your action plan for next term? All those computers, those career lessons, all those highly paid teachers and ancillary staff and yet sometimes I felt that my English colleagues and I were the only ones who understood that having a pen was a symbol of intent as much as anything. Without a pen, children were simply sticking two fingers up at the system, declaring they didn't really give a damn. It was a contagious disease.

The children of Ogwini, like the children of St Stephens Bangkok, prove that I wasn't mad or unreasonable to expect pupils to be responsible enough to bring pens to school. This is something that will never make newspaper headlines but it demonstrates that the pompous, conference visiting, expenses-claiming, back-slapping gobs-on-legs who preside over England's education system will frequently fail to see the trees and the bushes that make the wood.


  1. I just knew what the gist of this post was going to be, YP. I guess the pupils you are teaching now actually value education and have the motivation to make the most of it. Until we have parents who understand how to parent, we will continue to have a (sizeable) percentage of yobs in our schools and the schools will continue to be expected to work miracles.

  2. YESSSSS!!! Thank you. The EdBiz in the USA is in the same messy state, I am often ashamed to say I work for it. They think that more money is the cure for everything, to the point that 64% of California's budget is spent on education, yet our state's educational system ranks 48th out of the 50 states. I don't believe it's the teachers, the students, or the parents who are at fault. Here it's the administration and our state legislature, and the tendency to have enormous school districts that turn individuals into cogs in the wheel. I could go on and on, but I won't. I will simply say thank you again for your observations.

  3. JENNY The children didn't get that way all on their own. They absorbed the boorish culture around them. I point my finger at authorities who often have their priorities so wrong.
    JAN B. What a massive budget is being digested by California schools! Such investment should lead to enormous success. However, it's kind of comforting to have it confirmed that the UK isn't the only place where the education system is often misdirected.

  4. It goes back to the difference between rights and privileges. Children and their parents see education as something "done to them" by the state and if that is what the state wants, then the state can jolly well provide the equipment.

  5. these "gifts" of the normal underline just how little these people have
    A few years ago a met a nurse form a very poor hospital in Botwana
    she was visiting her family in north wales and told me she could kill for a few small items of equipement....
    I managed to find these items and posted them to her.... her thanks was totally overwhelming


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