Pawns in a Game

“If I live in an area where there is gang warfare among my peers,
why would I care about Pythagoras’s theorem?”

It is difficult
not to feel angry at what is happening in education. Whether it is in the paucity of Government
funding, falling morale and teacher shortages, especially felt in comprehensive
schools, the pledge to increase places in grammar schools and the inequity of
provision in all sectors; or whether it is in the excessive amount of testing,
the lack of appropriate pathways for school leavers, the lack of resources; the overload of bureaucracy
and data or all the endless proselytising by experts, treading an endless cycle
of conferences promoting their books and research, I often wonder where are
the children in all of this?

I wonder how stark
the mental health figures have to be to make government sit up and take notice.
How many more suicides does it take for someone other than those offering
palliative care to acknowledge that its obsession with testing may be a contributing factor and that while
sitting 20 – 30 examinations that have been upgraded in difficulty over a month
may be fine for one section of the population, it is not so for others.
Moreover, to argue, as one Minister did recently that exams were as stressful
‘back then’ is to completely miss the point, which is that we have made exams
toxic by the language we now use the importance we have given them for schools
and teachers whose drip-down stress burns our children. The fact that 35
children are being excluded from school each day and others are being turned
away because they will damage schools’ results at the end of GCSE or before is
abhorrent or that schools spend time seeking out the easiest examination boards
or are caught inappropriately helping their charges should tell us something
about the pressure they are under. The
business model that extols the value of Social Darwinism, that puts a price on
success, that makes every educational institution scramble for children, for
money using whatever inducement in their power (including the awarding of 1st
class degrees) is not one serving children.

This is not the
fault of teachers – far from it. They are the ones having to
carry the load for family breakdowns, a dysfunctional care system, failed
government initiatives, an examination system run by private providers and held
to account by league tables and examination boards and universities vying with
each other for custom. Rather, the fault
lies elsewhere, with politicians and educationalists who have forgotten to
continually ask themselves ‘what is the best education we can give our

The fall-out of
our focus on examination results is everywhere. Even the fact that 40% of our
doctors only last in practice for more than five years tells us many things,
one of which is that our measure of entry may be wrong. In our obsession to
cream the top we are missing so much other students that would (a) be able to
handle the academic requirements and (b) have a better range of skills,
(listening, empathy, observational, recording) that would make them better
doctors without compromising their professional standard skills. Our first past
the post system has a lot to answer for.

When we look at
the fierce competition in London for school places, we instinctively know that
this has little to do with what is the best education for our children and more
to do with how do we filter these children so only the most able get through to
the top performing schools.. It is no wonder that the tutor industry is
thriving on the back of selective schools trying to get the students through
the door of the most selective schools and hypocritical indeed for the same
schools to criticise parents for seeking extra help. Tutors are responding to a
demand when they would rather be helping students in different ways. When one looks at the impact of selection, there
is a lot to be said for having a lottery for school places.

And where are the
children in all this? Where indeed! Mere
pawns in a game, I fear.