Is your child insufficiently anxious? The system has just the thing you need.
Posted on August 26, 2019
Late August, England. Still plenty of drowsy summer to soften shorter evenings which hint at the autumn and, for all kids and parents, the start of the new school year. But before we can all embark on that season of renaissance, fresh exercise books and renewed resolve, there is an annual horror to be endured: results’ day.
For the first twenty or so years of my school-teaching career (I started in schools in 1976 and finished in 2004) I enjoyed both days – A levels and GCSE/O level. I would trundle into school in shorts and t-shirt, huddle around with the kids – please note that I’m not calling them students, I just can’t do that – and commiserate and congratulate accordingly. For the main part, there were few surprises. Those who had worked hard achieved appropriately good grades and where there were disappointments, we’d discuss the possibility of resits or amending future plans accordingly. Asking for papers to be re-marked – and the prospect of anyone spending money to do so – would have been outlandish. No-one treated an unexpected drop by a grade or two as the frantic matter of life and death now afforded to such instances.
By the late 90s this relaxed excursion into school had been transformed into one of the most tense and anxious days of the year. Well before the slips had been torn open and the hugs, yelps and groans had subsided, someone – usually one of the many functionaries who had sprung up in school for whom being face-to-face with actual children was nothing but an inglorious, unhappy memory – would have worked out enough percentages, comparators and residuals to satisfy the most ardent of bean-counters. Results had become the valued currency of individual schools and the entire system. Those of us – and there were, and are, tens of thousands – who had gone into teaching because we thought we could make a difference and a contribution as well as having some fun along the way, knew it was the beginning of the end.
And so, twenty years on, we have the annual ugly farce of a discourse about exams being too hard or too easy with some subjects afforded high status with others deemed practically irrelevant. Before this has happened, we’ll have had schools excluding young people lest their exam performance infect the statistical profile and that’s before weeks, months or even years of boot-camp revision where all that counts is the exam result.
Just to be clear, I have no problem whatsoever with children performing well in tests and examinations. In the weeks building to examination season, I would furnish all my pupils with every trick in the trade to extract every last percentage point out of every paper. But that’s a very different business from making the final exam the focal point of everything that happens from the 1st September and all points in between. There is no model of successful education that supports such practice.
The distinction between grades and learning can be easy to miss for the hard of understanding. If what we do is make our children the sum of their collective test marks, we’re missing the point. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that’s preparing them for a happy and successful life. Just look at the stress levels recorded for so many young people as they go through this wringer. And please don’t trot out the flabby old notions of preparing them for work and the outside world. As our captains of industry delight in telling us, we need to be preparing our young people for jobs that don’t even exist yet. Sweating the detail between grades 7 and 8 just won’t cut it.
This obsession with results throws up some unlikely heroes and heroines. One of the latter is Katherine Birbalsingh who is the Head of Michaela School in North London. Katherine sprung on the scene when she addressed the Tory party conference in 2010. She had the gentlemen from the shires frantically fumbling with the pocket billiards as she, a massively experienced teacher (she’d jumped around quite a number of schools in a very short time, but don’t let facts get in the way) laid bare the fact that the education system was broken, loony-leftism was in the ascendancy in schools and discipline had gone to the dogs. Common sense had gone out of the window and schools were hobbled by a ‘culture of excuses’ – a trope borrowed, ironically, from former Labour education minister, David Blunkett. Unsurprisingly, on returning from the Tory conference, she found herself less than welcome in her school and left shortly afterwards.
So dedicated was she to the education of our children that she made no further contribution until the opportunity of the ultimate vanity project, heading up a free school, presented itself to her in 2014. No matter that the school was not needed; it’s an extra secondary in an area where there are already four well-established schools and the need is for primary places. What was at stake was the promulgation of an educational approach soaked in the philosophy of E.B. Hirsh, B.F. Skinner and Michael Gove. The first two? Ultra-right-wing ideologues who never had daily contact with children, posing as intellectuals. The latter is someone who knows Boris Johnson.
Out came the clichés and practices guaranteed to send a frisson down the spines of the educational right: zero-tolerance, fixed punishments, clear targets, rigid uniform and dress restrictions. Silence between lessons, teacher leading at the front, separate lunch rooms if your parents are behind with payments. Conform or be shamed. Yep. Who knows whether in a world that seems intent on installing right-wing demagogues in the highest office, if that isn’t indeed good training. Birbalsingh’s school’s first set of GCSE results look pretty good – ‘we smashed it’, she cooed. If that’s the measure of success, then, OK, well done.
All of which raises the question as to what we want schools to do for our children. I repeat the point: exam results can be very important and imbuing children with good work habits and helpful routines is imperative. But telling them that what they are is what they’ve scored is a doctrine of despair. It excludes those whose talents and abilities lie outside an increasingly narrow and reductive curriculum; it excludes those who haven’t yet found where those talents and abilities may lie. Above all, it discourages digression, oddity and curiosity. Remember all those lessons where you thought you were leading the teacher off track to distract her into discussion of her photography class or her trek across the southern Alps? I’ll let you into a secret: she was happy for that to happen …..and, the fact is that you have, indeed, remembered it. It’s called education.
So well done with your collection of top grades and your preening in the local press. But it might be worth a moment of quiet reflection about whether bundling children up as exam fodder data and then exhibiting them for media consumption is really how we want to educate them for the challenges of the twenty-first century.