Thursday, 19 February 2009

A tale of two schools

Today I got the excellent news that my son has been accepted into the secondary school that we had hoped for. He will be starting this September and by coincidence it is exactly 30 years this year since I finished secondary school (well 5th form anyway). Gosh. 1979. That's a long time ago.

Actually I went to two secondary schools, not one. The first half of my secondary school career was here in London. The latter years were spent in Nigeria. It is fascinating, as I am very involved in secondary education now though various charities, to compare what my old schools were like verses todays high tech temples of learning. But it's even more interesting to compare my two old schools to each other.

My first school in London was a State run, comprehensive, all-boys day school. The second in Nigeria was a private, all-boys boarding school (although I and a few others attended daily so were known scathingly as "Day Goats"). The schools had just two things in common. Both were all-boys. Both had a brilliant, inspirational maths teacher. Apart from that they couldn't have been more different, and in some unexpected ways!

Perhaps I was just drawn towards maths teachers as it was a subject I found I could consistently get A's in without trying too hard. Whereas french, for example, was a mystery to me and all I learnt how to say was "The boy sat on the bench" which when translated into bad schoolboy french had the capacity to almost kill silly little 1970's London 11 year old boys with laughter (if you know why, please comment for others benefit. I can't type it out without giggling and risking the French teacher rolling her eyes and saying "Oh for goodness sake, Ilube, grow up").

I wish I could remember the names of my maths teachers. The London lady spotted me really early and got me doing all sorts of interesting stuff when I could easily have spent my time disrupting the rest of the class. Most of my friends' reports said "XXX would do better if he didn't sit next to Tom Ilube". They say there is always one teacher who really inspired you and you remember. She is mine. I must find out her name.

The Nigerian maths teacher was pretty special too. In the morning all the teachers parked their cars under the high trees in the shade because the sun was hot, but he parked away from everyone else. By early afternoon when the sun was fiercest, the shade from the tree had moved across the carpark, nicely covering his car and leaving all the rest baking hot. It was the same every day. We smiled to each other about this.

I noticed the difference in attitude towards academic achievement very quickly. At my London Comp it was generally best to act a bit dumb. No one wanted to be some sort of brainbox, teachers pet. So act tough. Mess about. Head for the back of the class. Don't answer questions. But do enough work to get decent reports and to make sure you didn't get chucked out of the top stream (we were streamed by ability in those days).

I went to Nigeria and was immediately surprised to find that if you were smart you were supposed to act smart and even you school mates respected you for it. One day the maths teacher set a test in our Additional Maths class. we did our best but a lot of the kids complained because he had included some questions that he hadn't taught, although he claimed they were in the book. After much moaning he agreed to give everyone an extra 10 percentage points to be fair. This meant, however, that I ended up with 104%.

The next day when I arrived and was walking past the three story classroom block, boys from all year groups came out on to the balcony and started waving their arms and chanting "Addiko, Addiko" (a sort of nickname for someone who had mastered additional maths). Practically the whole school came out because word had got around about the 104% and for ages afterwards I was often referrred to as "Addiko", until I was assigned a new nickname when I went to University (hopefully not know to any readers of this blog!).

In my experience this respect and excitement about brainpower or as they say - people who"know book" is very strong in Nigeria and other parts of Africa and still very weak in our schools here. That's a problem. I could have scored 200% at my London Comp and all that would have happened is that someone would have kicked me and said "smartarse".

Discipline was another matter though. My London Comp was no soft touch. We had some tough boys (think Chelsea supporters, 1970's style) and the teachers knew how to handle them. Our sports master wielded a mean gym shoe back in the days when caning was still allowed. Our Deputy Head used to be a Borstal (Prison) Warden and when he barked it stopped you in your tracks.

But the Nigerian school took things to a completely different level. My first direct experience was for the offence of talking in class. The teacher called out "Ilube, come here and kneel down at the front of the class". My jaw dropped and I look incredulous. "Naaah" I said in my London drawl "I ain't kneeling down for no-one".

"What!!!" she screamed "Kneel down, kneel down". Suddenly the whole class joined in "Ilube, kneel down, what's the matter with you, don't disrespect the teacher, kneel down". Finally in tears I went to the front and knelt to a cacophony of laughter and jeers from the whole class. Then for my disobedience, the teacher commanded the whole class to form a line in front of me and one by one they walked past and gave me a hard knock on my head. Some of my friends delighted in giving me the hardest whacks! That's standard classroom discipline, Nigerian style!

Once, a year or so later, I was sent to see the Head for some misdemeanour. I went in to his office and as I looked to my left I saw one of my friends clinging to the top of a cupboard, where he had been left to hang after a caning and ordered not to drop down. He nodded at me sadly and I nodded back. By then the surreal scene didn't seem like much of a big deal. Can you imagine if that happened in London today!

The one thing I completely didn't expect though was that I would change colour when I moved from London Comp to Nigerian Private. I'm mixed and in London that means black. No one had warned me that in Nigeria that basically meant white!

So on a bad day at my London Comp in the Seventies, there was a little song the lads would gather around and sing to me. It went something like this

"Golly, Ilube. Wogs the matter? Feeling a bit browned off? Didn't have your coon flakes? Nigger mind. Go black to bed. You'll feel all white in the morning". This was followed by much laughter and goading to try to get me to pick a fight with someone.

And on a bad day at my Nigerian Private, there was a little song the lads would sing. It went something like this

"Oyibo pepe. If e eat-e pepe, you go yellow more more" (roughly translated "white man, pepper, if you eat pepper, you'll turn yellow"). This was followed by much laughter and goading to try to get me to pick a fight with someone.

Bearing in mind that I was a boy in my mid-teens going through my adolescent years, seeking to understand who I really was and I think you will understand why I am the poor messed up soul that stands before you today :)

(oh, by the way, I was a rough little rugby playing lad and quite able to stick up for myself so generally the other lads had to be pretty careful before they decided to start singing - just in case you were getting the wrong impression that I was bullied or anything. I refer you back to my University nickname!).

Secondary schools are fascinating places. That's why I love being involved with them today. I am a Governor/Trustee of two UK secondary schools and am busy leading a project to build another high tech secondary school in London, and I am working on my project to build a really interesting Academy for Gifted and Talented young people in Africa. I actually loved my time at both my secondary schools, with all their failings and I hope that my lad has as brilliant a time as I did.


Ndeh Russell said...

When you consider that ‘African’ attitude towards education and knowledge, just imagine the potential of the continent if the same proportion of kids had access to a decent education as in the UK, let alone access to Gifted and Talented Academy!

Ian said...

This is such a great story, I have a friend who is a maths teacher over in Ghana and tells me some interesting things on the same lines as this post.

My wife is from Nigeria and I am a white British, I have been to Nigeria many times and this (oyibo pepe) made me laugh so much, I can relate to all of what is said about the culture and indeed it is so true.

Thank you for a great post it made my day.