Tag Archives: english

Book Review: Watching the English by Kate Fox

Before I begin, it’s worth noting that there are two versions of this book around. One has a cover of two people under an umbrella, reading a newspaper on some green seats, seemingly in some kind of sports stadium. The latter is more pale and has seagulls and fish n’ chips on the cover. The version I am reviewing is the earlier one with the green cover.

I had expected this to be something like the literary equivalent of observational comedy, perhaps in the spirit of Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. So it was something of a surprise turn to find out that the premise is meant to be one of anthropological study. Yet this isn’t exactly a full on academic study. It’s more like an anthropologist’s holiday. At home.

It’s also worth noting that this is specifically about the English. It’s not a study of British behaviour, because Fox believes that the Welsh, the Scottish and the Northern Irish have their own distinct identities and even that when most people speak of “Britishness” they tend to refer more to something specifically English than to any of the other nations that make up the union, let alone any blending of the cultures. So it’s a slightly controversial start. Another issue that ought to be dealt with is that of the multicultural nature of Britain. Now while Fox acknowledges this in her introduction, she seems to pay scant attention to it in the main body of the book. If anything, I think this may be due one major oversight in that she doesn’t acknowledge the differences between life in cities, towns and the countryside. If anything, her study rather excludes those who live in urban environments, particularly with a population that contains a high number of people who come from other cultures, other countries. Instead, we get a fairly middle-class suburban portrait of the English.

One of the overarching themes is that of the English sense of humour. In looking at this there has to be a contrast, so Fox takes on board the critics of English humour or those who are just simply flummoxed by it. The tendency is for humour to be in the very air that we breathe. It is not necessarily that we feel the need to make a joke out of everything, but rather that we choose to look to find the amusing, the quirky or the ironic in any situation. This is linked the idea of the English underplaying a lot of things. One might think of any number of guides for American tourists who don’t understand that the phrase “that’s not bad” is a statement of praise, not criticism. So while this Englishman finds the hyperbolic brashness of American adjectives over the top, I am aware that I might be viewed as being dishonest if I don’t jump up and down in ecstasy if I am pleased with something.

The other theme that is spread throughout the book is the idea of the class system. Despite her anthropological background, she refrains from using the obscure categorisations one comes across occasionally. Instead she sticks to talking about working class, middle class and upper class, as well the subdivisions within each. One cannot help but think as one reads whereabouts one fits. I would state that my family were probably lower middle class with the majority of my schoolfriends also lower middle class with a few upper class. At university, this shifted rather where the majority were middle-middle to upper-middle. These days, I continue to be lower class than my peers, mainly due to my lack of property and my preference for reading books than driving cars or going on overseas holidays. I’m sure you can think through your own circumstances and consider where you fit.

The first half of the book is devoted to conversation; an area that I am in no way skilled. So while I recognised much of what was discussed, it was as looking through the glass at a zoo to a familiar but dangerous beast who I have no desire to get into close contact: small talk.

The second half is much more structured by looking at specific set of “rules” such as those for humour, work, home, sex & relationships and travel. Again, many of these were recognisable if sometimes loosely. There was much to smirk at when one recognises either oneself or acquaintances who are described with eerie accuracy, though this was tempered by the sense that some nuance was lost in favour of a humour borne out of generalisation.

With that critique noted, I would still recommend this an astutely observed book written with a most enjoyable verve. Or perhaps a bit of English understatement is in order by declaring it to be: not bad.

What is a faith school really like? Part 2: Curriculum and teaching

Carrying on my look at what life was like in a faith school, (see here for part 1 – looking at the background of the school), here we come to the curriculum and teaching of the school.

Curriculum

One of the ideas that seems to have some currency is that faith schools are a hotbed for teaching creationism. As popular as this idea is, it is without evidence.

The curriculum conformed to the standards that were required of any school, as laid out in the legislation governing primary and secondary education at the time. When a child was in the ILC, and for the first few years in the MLC, they studied 4 core subjects: Maths, English, Social Studies and Science.

All four were done through self-learning. We never had lessons for these subjects. Each week, you would have a tiny piece of card, on which you would write your targets on a day-by-day basis. You would write down the page numbers that you intended to work through the next day. These would be checked to ensure that you weren’t being too easy on yourself. If you didn’t finish your work by the end of the allotted time, you would have to finish it for homework.

When you had finished a page, you would have to mark it. All students marked the work themselves. You would have to ask permission to go to a “scoring table” which had the books with all the answers in them. You’d check your answers against the model answers and say if you got them right or wrong. You’d then get a monitor (classroom assistant) to double-check that you’d done the scoring correctly.

Maths

Maths was done through a company called Heinemann. Most people started at age on Heinemann primary mathematics group, working through the problems one by one and when you finish one book you move onto the next. I was a slow starter, so I actually started on infant maths, when I was aged 7. However, the self-learning style suited me much better, and I raced through these.

Once I finished all the primary maths books, I moved onto the secondary maths books. These were completed with as much gusto as all the previous ones and before long I was onto uncharted territory: Heinemann 8 and then Heinemann 9. These last 2 were supposed to reflect the year numbers in which you were supposed to do them. However, I finished Heinemann 9 not long after I started year 9, and there were no other textbooks to work through. So for a while, I was at a bit of a loose end, but I managed to accelerate my work in other areas and to do past examples of GCSE maths coursework.

English

This was by far the toughest of the subjects to do. The books we used were called LIFEPACs. I think they were christian, but any references to anything identifiably christian were few and far between. They were much more advanced than students at state schools were used to. This is evidenced by the fact that the grammar which we learned by the age of 10 was that which students found was actually part of their A-level courses when they encountered them 6-8 years later. They were based much more in understanding the material than the rote learning of Social Studies and Science (see below).

Social Studies

This is a mixture of mostly geography and history, with a few random bits thrown in. This was mostly done through the ACE system, an American christian education plan. ACE stands for Accelerated Christian Education. The books were known as PACEs, Pack of Accelerated Christian Education. They were really easy to work through and I confess I made no attempt to use them the way they were ever intended. When you open the book, the left hand page contains text for you to read; the right hand page had individual sentences with one or two words omitted. Your task was to read the text so that you could fill in the words. Most people did this simply by scanning down the left hand page to find the sentence that matched the question they were being asked.

The ACE system wasn’t followed precisely. As it was an American set of books, and social studies included history, there was, inevitably, a few PACEs that focused on American history. What the school did was to omit these PACEs and instead, one of the teachers wrote their own books on British History. There were 2 levels: the yellow book and the green book. This was our first exposure to what I was now call “proper study”. In order to answer the questions, we had to go away and do research. The answers weren’t to be found on the adjacent page, as they were in the PACEs. Instead, you’d have to trawl through 3 or 4 textbooks (these ones weren’t written by our teacher) to piece together an essay-style answer. Nomatter how bright the student was, everybody struggled with British History.

Science

This is pretty much what it says on the tin. Bear in mind that this started from PACE 1, started at the age of 7, though to (I think) PACE 94. I know certainly got to the 90s, but didn’t get through to the 100s. They covered all the basics that you needed for science, though there was a noticeable lack of experimental work. As a consequence, we never set foot in a laboratory until we were doing our GCSEs.

But they laid out the basics. There wasn’t much chemistry at all. What I remember of the biology PACEs mostly revolved around naming bits of a plant, describing how they related to the reproductive process and lots on photosynthesis and various cycles (like the water cycle and the carbon cycle). I was never particularly interested in these; instead, I longed for and savoured the more physics-based PACEs, especially those on astronomy.

Creationism?

Since this seems to be an odd fascination for some people, I thought if you’re likely to skip straight to any particular paragraph, it would be this one. But if you’ve done this, please do take the time to read the wider context.

As stated above, the school did not teach creationism. That said, the headmaster was partial to it and there was about half a dozen issues of Ex Nihilo magazine (which did more to educate me in Latin than in science) in the school library, next to New Scientist. These were never introduced into science lessons.

The church did support creationism and I recall one summer when the evening services ditched the sermons in favour of watching Ken Ham videos.

As part of the biology syllabus for the double-science GCSE, we had to do some basic evolutionary biology. This mostly consisted of genetics, learning about genotypes, phenotypes, inheritance and variations based on mutations. Roughly, this made up about a quarter of the biology syllabus we studied (set by the EdExcel exam board). The only thing that could possibly have been misinterpreted as creationism was a strong emphasis in science to have a sceptical attitude. This included scepticism about what we were being taught. Yes, we had to know lots for our exams, but that should never stop us questioning accepted wisdom. This was not limited to science, and such an enquiring attitude was encouraged throughout the school curriculum.

GCSEs

Mid way through year 9 (i.e. when I was 13) I had to take my ‘options’ – so they were ironically called. This was supposed to mark the end of the self-learning and the start of the classroom work. At this point all the ACE and similar work was left behind. It was a mere educational backdrop; now the work towards the important qualifications began. Classes varied in size depending on how many people were doing each subject and what ‘tier’ they did. For example, if you wanted an A or A* you had to do the upper tier in each subject. If you did a lower tier, then your maximum grade was capped. The largest class would have years 10  & 11 taught together, so for something like IT, we had up to about 14 in the class when I was in year 11. The smallest class was the upper tier maths. There started out with 3 of us in the class, but one found it too tough and dropped down a tier while the other person left the school before finishing their GCSEs. So it ended up being one-on-one tuition.

For most subjects, the bulk of year 10 was spent getting our coursework done. There were some mock exams done at the end of the year, but they were just intended to see how you were getting on. The main mock exams came in January of year 11 before the final run-in towards the real things.

Coming up

In the last part of this mini series, I’ll look at the academic standards of the school as well as the challenges it had which other schools didn’t. Some of that will relate to gaps left above, but I’ve done so for reasons of space. I’ll also look briefly at the school’s legacy and how it has, or hasn’t, helped shape me as a person.