Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Educating Britain

Educating Britain
Today, the Nation is debating the examination board’s proposal to give students from less economically privileged schools ‘extra credit’ for getting good grades. Essentially, if over-simplistically - this means that if you are from a less wealthy area, you might get an A where someone from a more economically privileged background might get a B.

It’s a well meaning gesture, meant to give some acknowledgement to students who have had to defy the example of their peers in order to excel academically. I can certainly see where they are coming from.

Michael Gove, however, has branded this ‘social engineering’ in a characteristically verging-on-fascist huffy-puffy style rant in today’s Daily Mail. I won’t bore you with the details thereof.

I’m in a very fortunate position, having taken the Body Gossip education programme to hundreds of schools, both private and state, throughout the UK. I’ve seen first hand that there are incredibly dedicated teachers and talented students in both sectors. That’s why I don’t agree with the exam board’s proposals, (but not for the reasons that Mr Gove wants me not to agree, I hasten to add):

The exam board’s suggestion is based on two inaccurate and potentially dangerous assumptions:

1. Private schools are automatically better than state schools. This simply isn’t the case. It depends entirely on how you define a ‘good school’. Is it facilities? The quality of the students’ lunch in the canteen? The newness of the furniture? Or is it in fact the quality of the teaching and the genuine desire of the staff to allow each student to reach their own personal best?

2. This proposal buys totally into the all-pervading myth that the most high-achieving people in life get good school grades and that by sending someone to university you are guaranteeing that person success.

Not everyone is academic and not everyone is cut out for university. This doesn’t mean they are stupid or destined for a life of poverty. Sir Ken Robinson, a legend in education circles and, if you are me (and I am) the World’s leading authority on all things school-related, says the issue is the system, not the people in it. He points out, quite rightly, that if you followed our education system through to its logical conclusion, you’d be a university lecturer. Essentially, we are training children from the age of 4 to be lecturers. But not everyone is destined, or indeed wants, to be a lecturer....When you look at it like that it seems vaugely absurd.

The entire system is antiquated and teachers and students alike are being constrained by it. It needs to be shaken up – And you can see how by comparison today’s proposed changes to exam grading seems like a tokenistic and futile gesture.

The issue, in my opinion, is that not enough respect is given to less academic, or vocational qualifications. We never acknowledge, as a society, that EVERYONE is brilliant at SOMETHING. We don’t give as much support people who fall outside the traditional, academic subjects. We never take into account that it takes a myriad of varying skill-sets to make the world go round.

You only have to hear some mothers in the school yard boasting to one another about how little Josh can recite the whole of the works of Shakespeare backwards whilst developing a theory to rival quantum whilst his peers are gluing glitter onto egg cartoons to realise what an insanely over-competitive society we live in. And it’s constantly bashing our feelings of self worth from an early age. Making us believe that if we are not the best, we are worth nothing at all.

This isn’t fluffy nonsense, despite what many people may think, because increasingly people are opting for the ‘worth nothing at all’ option. People speak of when schools were ruled with an iron fist and failure was ‘not an option’, reminiscing in a ‘glory days’ style manner, conveniently failing to take into account that these were ALSO the days where you were pretty much guaranteed a job, whatever your academic level, and an average salaried person could also afford a mortgage, car, 2.4 children etc.

Young people today are getting the message that if they’re not top of the class it’s the end of their life – And very rarely is this message actually coming from their teachers.

But really, this is all just speculation and personal opinion. I am no expert. I have, however, found that this proposal and subsequent debate has some bearing on my own findings, as someone who teaches self-esteem and body confidence classes in schools.

You see, if working with students who self-harm suffer from eating disorders and body dysmophia (all a result of crippling low feelings of self worth) has taught me anything, it is this: It is not merely economic background which can be an impediment to someone’s success in school.

What about all the students who have an emotionally unstable home life? Are being physically or emotionally abused? Whose parents are splitting up, or constantly arguing? Who are being bullied? Who have suffered a bereavement? Who have an eating disorder?

I am all for judging each pupil on their own individual circumstances. But I’m also not so naive as to believe that we have the time, money or resources to conduct a thorough analysis of the life of every student in the UK.

Having worked with thousands of teenagers from a variety of social backgrounds since I founded Gossip School in 2008, I can say with some certainty that emotional issues know no class. They affect teenagers from all walks of life.

The young people who are predisposed to do best in school are simply happy: Happy to be in school, happy generally, happy at the prospect of their future, happy that they are enough and they can succeed in whatever their chosen field happens to be. And that is something the examination board are not in a position to assess.

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