School Britannia: Familiar Worries, But With Classier Accents

By John Kelly
Tuesday, August 26, 2008

It's funny how more than 200 years after throwing off the yoke of Limey oppression, we Americans are still prepared to feel inferior to the English. It's the accent, probably. That plummy way of talking can make us Yanks second-guess our intelligence. I know that whenever I was in conversation with a Brit whose upper-class accent could freeze marmalade, I found myself double-checking that I'd remembered to zip my fly.

Nowhere is this inferiority complex more apparent than when it comes to education. We Americans believe our public schools aren't good for anything other than churning out cretins barely fit to gauge someone's interest in adding french fries to their lunch order. English schools, on the other hand, are perceived as being little Etons where neatly uniformed children recite Shakespeare in between translating Pliny and embroidering the quadratic equation onto antimacassars.

The English feel this way, too. Not that they don't worry about their own education system; it was the subject of near-constant hand-wringing in the press while we lived there. It's just that as bad as they think English schools are, they take comfort in believing that U.S. schools are worse. Which is why I always looked forward to an English person asking me how my daughters liked their schools.

"Oh," I'd say, "they like them fine, I guess. But they're a little worried that when they get back to the States they'll have fallen behind."

You could see the jaw muscles tighten.

My Lovely Wife and I are great believers in public schools in the American sense of the word. Hey, we reason, if it was good enough for us. . . . And yet when we lived in Oxford we sent our daughters to public schools in the English sense of the word: that is, private, or as they say these days over in Blighty, "independent." The state school in our neighborhood came highly recommended but was so oversubscribed that we couldn't be sure there'd be room.

And so our then-14-year-old went to a private girls' school, and our then-16-year-old was a day student at a boarding school. Both girls were at the tops of their classes, which at first worried all of us, so deeply entrenched is that anti-American prejudice.

Beatrice, our younger daughter, decided that the English are even more obsessed with teaching to the test than we are in the No Child Left Behind USA. Her classmates were gearing up for a standardized test called the GCSE, which they wouldn't take till the following year. She spent much of her time bored by the slow rate they moved at, as teachers spent months on a single Shakespeare play and studied glaciers at a pace that can only be described as glacial.

Meanwhile, her older sister, Gwyneth, had the unusual experience of going to a school in England that had hardly any English kids in it. Her boarding school drew students from across Europe, many from formerly communist nations.

Many of the kids didn't seem that keen on learning, but they did show a remarkable interest in England's lax alcohol-licensing laws.

I probably should take my daughters' criticisms with a grain of salt. Rare is the teenager with nothing to complain about. And perhaps they aren't very representative of their breed. They've spent so many years in magnet schools that they trail iron filings wherever they go.

But as they and thousands of other local students return to school this week, I think it's important to remember that public schools can produce scholars who are every bit as smart and motivated as those from high-priced private schools.

There were definitely some aspects of high school life in Oxford that impressed me. Beatrice took physics and chemistry and biology. Most of Gwyneth's classes had just five or six other students in them. But what allowed my girls to excel in these exalted academic settings were the years of tutelage at the hands of beleaguered civil servants, those oft-maligned folks we call public school teachers. To them, I say: Thank you.

My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com


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