Working with so many children I see the embryonic stages of that loss of self confidence.
School can be a harsh environment for some, especially if they find aspects of the curriculum difficult. All too quickly they learn their own inadequacies, stop trying and then become disaffected, bored and sometimes a problem.
Teachers are expected to prove their levels of skill by getting as many of their pupils through the yearly examinations. They have to show an increase in SAT’s levels each year and are expected to justify any failures. They attend meetings with the senior management who tell them the expected levels they should reach irrespective of the pupil’s abilities. Sometimes these targets are virtually impossible. They leave those who struggle to concentrate on the upper part, in the hope these pupils will get the grades expected.
The levels of success at SAT’s and GCSE are then translated into league tables and this in turn translates into which academic group of pupils is sent there.
It’s very much the chicken and egg—what do you tackle first? The pupil who is struggling, or the ones who are potentially bored, because you are helping the one who is struggling?
In an ideal world all pupils should be catered for and systems should be in place to nurture everyone whatever their level or expectations.
Let’s face it, as a parent this is what you would expect for your child. But does this happen? How does a child feel at 6 years of age when it has sat its first big examination and not reached the levels his or her friends have? What happens when that very same child reaches 10 years of age and has their worst fears confirmed—yes, I have failed again because I got low levels?
He/she enters senior school and is expected to work in the bottom sets doing ‘baby work’ in the hope of catching up, but knowing they wont? Where does the lack of self esteem kick in? At 6? At 10? At 11?
As I said, I work with children at both ends of the spectrum. The ones at the very top who are desperate to achieve higher because they are afraid of failing, and those from the lower sets who are already aware they are failures and are trying to lift themselves out of that situation.
My first question is, when did we, as a society decide to label these children? My second question would be why did we feel we needed to do it? And my third would be, so how do we undo the damage we have created over the passed ten years or so?
When I first began teaching there were those who found academic subjects tough. They still did them, but they also worked in areas where they could excel such as mechanics, woodwork and such and would sit City and Guild qualifications which led to apprenticeships or college courses. They had worth and would be proud of it. Some of the pupils would be excellent in sport, so would represent the school, the county or the region. Again they would be expected to do the academic subjects and work hard but they too, had areas of excellence.
In each case the child was able to prove itself and have that pride, that self esteem which allowed them to grow into a balanced and educated adults.
I met with a parent who took the City and Guild examination in Social Mathematics, a colleague and I created back in the 1980s. She loved it and was really proud to be able to say she had a distinction at both Stage 1 and Stage 2; the course was stopped by the government at the beginning of 1995 because it did not contain enough algebra!
She knew she had found the academic side of mathematics hard, but enjoyed this course, as it helped her learn maths in the world, rather than maths in the classroom. It had been accepted as proof of her skills when she applied for a job and the fact it was a City and Guild, meant the company recognised the certificates worth and value.
She was sad her daughter would not be able to do it as well. She knew her daughter would have to follow the ‘one size fits all’ route of GCSE and probably fail. The problem is her daughter also knows she has to do the GCSE and is already asking the question, ‘but what use is this when I leave school?’ I must admit I do find it very difficult to justify algebra in its purest form.
So what do we do? What do we do about these people who are leaving school disillusioned and already feeling they are on the scrap heap at 16 when they have the whole of their working lives ahead of them? How can we complain when these very same people go for anything they can get by whatever means they can get it?
The generation who spit on the streets, binge drink, run up massive debts, graffiti on walls and houses, steal cars and have whatever they want is a creation of the society we put in place. We have created the ‘testing’ society where everything has to have a number to be valid. Where and how do we give childhood back to children and self worth and self esteem back whatever their academic level of achievement?