It has been a rough ride since my family and I returned to the UK sixteen months ago. We left these shores in 2008 to live in Bangladesh and work as volunteers for a charity. My two children joined me at the school where I was heading up the new O level curriculum based on the British system. When we first went to LAMB school back in 2006 the school had around 70 students. When we left at the end of 2013 it had grown to around 140. By any standards it was a small school.
Let there be no doubt: we loved Bangladesh with unwavering passion and had we been able to stay forever we would have done so – our hearts are still there now. But, for one reason or another we had to return for my daughter’s education with her younger brother’s coming up behind. We were – and still are – grieving. Training we received both prior to our return and soon after we arrived prepared us for the long haul – at least two years of feeling bereaved, despondent and not ‘fitting in’ to our own home (or passport) culture followed by a long process of gradually feeling like this soil is ‘home’.
We are still going through that process, the four of us, even now. We had terrible things happen to us for many months; things I can’t talk about here but which left us shell-shocked and destroyed emotionally. Somehow, God knows how, we’ve come through those things, but we’re tender and fragile.
It was because of this fragile state that we looked into sending out children to the local public school – St Bees School. For non-British readers I’ll explain that in the UK ‘Public’ actually means ‘private’ and real public schools are called ‘state schools’. This meant we had to pay fees – something that was impossible after giving up our careers six years previously and now starting again from scratch. Amazingly, St Bees School offered bursaries and we got as close to full bursary as I think it is possible to get.
This willingness to take on children even from poor background like ours won us over to St Bees. The school has only around 300 students, many of whom are from around the world and the family ethos along with a strong understanding of international needs meant we knew we had a safe place to put our children – one less stress to worry about. Even so, it wasn’t easy. Emotionally on a knife-edge each one of us in my family has come to breaking point – something which only eased earlier this year. We couldn’t have done it without the close support of the Headmaster and most of his staff along with the gentle welcome and care of the wider community. Overall, my children have found a safe haven, a place of refuge.
So imagine our devastation when St Bees School announced it would close its doors at the end of this academic year because it had run out of money? Horrified, the parents and community rallied round in their thousands. Other schools offered their support, the local MP got involved and a team of amazing parents and high-powered businessmen managed to raise £2 million within a single week and put together a rescue package guaranteed to keep the school going at least one more year while they secured a business plan to save the school indefinitely or, if really no alternative could be found, announce a new closure date in December giving parents the chance to find new schools in plenty of time. What the governors had failed to do in three years, these impressive men had achieved in hours.
But the board of governors, despite firm assurances they were ready to work with anyone who could save the school, rejected this team’s plan and sent letters confirming this to parents even while they were still negotiating with the team! Parents and community alike were outraged and disgusted with the lack of respect and clear duplicity displayed by these governors and it came clear they never had any intention of keeping the school open. Later it has become clear that underhand tactics have been the norm all along. Slowly, their misdeeds are coming to light.
Now it is too late to reopen the school this coming September but the battle for the school continues. As it stands, when the school closes the governors will become ‘trustees’. No longer bound by their charity status they will be virtually unregulated and free to do whatever they wish with the premises. In their letter to parents they stated they had ‘exciting plans’ about beginning a new educational system but in the public meeting afterwards the chair, Professor Woods, admitted there were no firm plans of any sort. By this point we all knew that it was just talk. We had treated the governors as honourable gentlemen but now knew they were not honourable at all.
For this reason then, the battle to wrestle the school out of the grip of these governors and put it back into the hands of the community is on. We have the support of the local MP and hundreds of parents, students, former students and community members backing the campaign. I can’t express just how much love and respect people have for this school which has existed for over 400 years. Indeed, it has been a place of spiritual renewal and education for 1000 years.
But there is another issue with the governors’ decision. They rejected the rescue package as they were not prepared ‘to risk’ harm to the student’s education. My family and I have been to two other ‘public’ schools which have the same family ethos as St Bees with small numbers needed for my fragile children (the average size for state schools here is around 1400 students – ten times what my children knew at LAMB – and they would be swamped). Both schools made it clear that full bursaries were ‘not possible’. Money has already been allocated and we’ve come too late. But we could always apply for September 2016! So in not taking the ‘risk’ the governors have actually ensured my children simply cannot receive the education they need. It is state school or nothing at all. Put simply, their decision has put my children’s education at risk – one which would not have happened had the rescue plan been accepted.
Except it isn’t nothing at all. There is another option.
Back into the fray
Despite ‘retiring’ from teaching two years ago to concentrate on my career as a freelance writer, it looks very likely that I will be taking up the reins again as I prepare to home educate both my kids. What’s more, there are dozens of students at St Bees who are in a similar position – their parents are unable or unwilling to find schools to place them in.
Initially I intended to do this by myself, putting my writing work if not on hold then at least continuing at a slower pace. Essentially it is no different to the work I did at LAMB where, in the early days when there wasn’t enough staff capable of teaching to O level standard, I taught whatever classes needed to be taught. I covered all the sciences, maths and IT courses and much of the history courses too all for the O level students while also teaching study skills to equip students for their first ever genuine public examinations. Despite ‘going on in faith’ (or as some would put it ‘on a wing and a prayer’) our students never failed to get top results with around 90% A*-B grades and virtually 100% A*-C. It was a record all the staff were justifiably proud of and, I have to say, really wasn’t difficult to do.
But since researching just what is involved when you have a child embarking on GCSEs (O levels and GCSEs are pretty much the same thing – examinations for 16-year-olds) I’ve found that home schooling is the little gem no one wants you to know about.
Standards globally are higher for home educated students and there are a plethora of courses available online for students to complete whole GCSE courses with minimal input from a parent. They come complete with online marking and guidance from a personal tutor available on the end of a phone if needed and courses move at the speed of the student. Indeed it is quite possible to finish a GCSE within one month if desired. feedback is given to parents so even one who has little understanding of the subjects can keep track of progress and arrange help where needed. For me, it’s a breeze. I almost don’t know why I didn’t do it in the first place.
While it isn’t certain as yet, the likelihood is that I will at least administrate home education for my two children. What’s more, there is movement afoot to gather together all those from St Bees who wish to home educate their children to form a collective with input from a number of retired teachers from the school who are willing to tutor any student who wishes it. Attempts are even being made to see if we can make use of school buildings to help. Even without this, there are many home school groups in the UK and it’s a given that people get together for trips and group teaching. socialization doesn’t suffer with home education. Indeed, as my two have experienced bullying, I’m pretty certain their socialization will improve because bullying simply doesn’t happen in home school groups.
So, one way or another, it looks certain that education will continue in the community in some form. A new campaign has started to try to take back the reins of the school and begin the process of opening it again as a strong and viable place of education. After thousands of locals expressed their solidarity wherever they were in the world and hundreds of parents attended the meetings to push for a rescue package it is quite impossible that we will lie down and give in as the governors have rather hoped we would.
If the home education goes ahead I will keep you up to date with the progress here on the blog but I do hope that one day, not far from now, I will be writing a happier post telling you that St Bees School is reopening and looking better than ever. When it does, there had better be a governing body which is open, honest, transparent and accountable; not a body of self-appointed, untouchable ‘old boys’ who have seen fit to bring this beloved institution to its knees. For that reason, this campaign must win.