Tessa Gibbs, Hopeman 1985 - Writer
Why I Sent my Children to Gordonstoun
There was a moment a few years ago, when I found myself standing at my daughter’s school gates wondering if the world had gone mad.
She attended a small, happy west London pre-prep school and was about to enter Year Five - the year in which current private education begins to build to the fever pitch that is the 11+ (an exam which is taken, lest we forget, by ten year olds).
The energy at the gates was electric - but not in a good way – with parents discussing where and whether to get tutors, what their children were and were not reading, what extra-curricular activities they did or should do. And I could feel a surge of terror and panic building up in me. What on earth was going on? How could I possibly push my perfectly clever and able child as hard as I would clearly have to, to get her into the schools I was being informed she really ought to attend? The sensation was appalling and bewildering. And not one I had ever anticipated having.
Up until that point I had only pitied the parents of older children who had given up weekends and evenings and school holidays to practice examination papers and Kumon maths - to squeeze the academic excellence required out of their grey skinned nine and ten year olds. Because until I was presented with the same choices, I had always believed that whilst academic education is profoundly important, it is not the only thing that is important to children. It is not, for instance, more important than childhood itself. I didn’t want my daughter to resent me for driving her relentlessly through at least a year of that childhood. And I didn’t want her to carry that grey face into her teens and out again, with the weight of expectation that goes along with it.
I wanted her to be happy.
But we found ourselves in a system that seemed to be about to absolutely preclude that.
Because I don’t believe that the children - or their families - that I witnessed going through the 11+ process in west London are happy. It is my experience that this process allows only certain kinds of children to shine - the lucky few who are either highly intelligent or highly diligent or both; the ones who are mature enough (at 9) to understand the need to give up playtime to study; and the ones with parents who have sufficient control over them to force them to. Anyone else is liable to fail in a system in which they are competing with hundreds of children for tens of places. And I think that the age of ten is far too young to ‘fail’. Which brings me back round to the ‘childhood’ thing again. And my husband and my urgent need to come up with another plan…
Because the other problem we had in central London was a purely practical one: the school’s lack of space and the lack of facilities. Compared to some of their friends, my children were lucky. They had access to a local park on occasional break times, but otherwise they were in a small, paved playground. They were told to walk not run. They never climbed trees or skinned their knees. They didn’t play. They sat in a small classroom until a lesson was over, and then they walked down a short corridor and sat in another one. And they came home fizzing with unspent physical energy. They needed more space. And some time to run in it. But it wasn’t just the lack of space and the horror of the competitive, private school system in London or the looming 11 + that propelled us North. There was a third consideration.
I have a younger daughter, who was, at that point, 7 years old. We are blessed with two girls who are, in almost every way possible, different. In the simplest terms, one is naturally clever but lacks application; the other is diligent and careful; one is funny and confident; the other is earnest and kind; one is sporty, the other is not, one is artistic, the other is not. We were in search of a school that could meet two very different sets of needs - that could teach, for instance, both application and confidence. That could spot the weaknesses and celebrate the strengths. A school that can both encourage and reward academic excellence, whilst also playing to all of a child’s non-academic strengths. A school which can either develop existing passions or help to locate them in the first place. And a school from which, along with all of that, they could be so far away when the bell for the end of break rings, that they have to sprint back so as not to be late for class.
Sending my daughters to Gordonstoun was not the huge leap of faith that it might seem. I attended the school myself many years ago. As did my twin brother. He and I, like my daughters, were opposites, and we both found our very different niches at Gordonstoun. And friends that I made when I was ten years old are my children’s Godparents today. The school’s ethos is one that I understand, respect and have had first- hand experience of as both pupil and, now, parent.
So - one academic year on - my oldest daughter was a committed clarinettist and den builder. She also came to understand that she is actually good at maths (a realisation that eluded her under the pressure of the incessant pre 11+ tests of her previous school). My youngest daughter was riding horses - something we would also never have found time or wherewithal for in London. She also became an expert on the monkey bars. And she won the academic prize in her class for doing so well in her exams. They both enjoyed expeditions into the Scottish Highlands, their first tastes of sailing, Scottish country dancing, hockey, netball and cross country running. My eldest daughter has even hurled a haggis in the Highland Games.
But more than anything they flourished. They grew and matured - and skinned their knees. They are being robustly and effectively educated – but they are also, crucially for me, being encouraged to be children: adventurous, inquisitive and occasionally intensely muddy. But, best of all, they are happy. Something it would surely be impossible to expect them to fulfil their potential without?
And I am so grateful for that moment, a few years ago, when I wondered if the world had gone mad. When I found myself in danger of believing that the only thing that mattered was whether or not I could shoehorn my brave and lovely child into a school which would not have embraced her acerbic wit and need for space and fresh air, a school which would never have sent her home with stories about foraging in the woods at break as enthusiastic as those about experiments in science class. Without that moment, my children wouldn’t be where they are now and I wouldn’t want them to be anywhere else.