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.

To get Gossip School into your school or college go to www.bodygossip.org/gossipschool

Monday, 19 September 2011

Anticipatory Blog: London Fashion Week Size 0 Debate: Snore Off

If you’ve ever had to endure anything more frustrating than sitting on the top deck of a London bus (captained by an unusually unaggressive driver), whilst gridlocked on the roundabout next to Waterloo station, wedged next to a robust man who smells a bit (and insists, inexplicably, on sitting as though he has a python in his trousers), whilst girls in the seat behind you drone in endless ‘I am achingly cool’ monotone about ‘the modelling world’ without screaming/throwing things/attempting to fling yourself bodily through the bus window, then truly you are a better woman than me.

Yes, it is that time of year again, when all the excitement that heralds the autumn clothing season is celebrated, in what is known as London Fashion Week. Industry insiders will salivate with anticipation as the latest collections are unleashed to the public. Glossy mags will speak of nothing else for at least a fortnight. Londoners will be subjected to a surge of designer and model wannabes descending on our city like a plague of lofty, fragile, identically dressed* locusts. And you just know that someone, somewhere is going to re-ignite the size 0 debate.

*This year it is dirty platinum bobs underneath Charlie Chaplin-style bowler hats, gothic purple lipstick, leopard print ankle boots and a skirt that looks a bit like those worn by the dolls your Nan puts on top of toilet rolls, only made out of transparent material (with what appear to be cycling shorts underneath to protect one’s modesty). You heard it here first, people.

For body confidence campaigners, having to answer endless size-0 related questions is invariably what London fashion week signifies. Having now been at the helm of Body Gossip (along with Ruth ‘The Legend’ Rogers) since 2008 I grow weary of the entire thing, frankly.

It isn’t that I don’t think the size 0 debate is one worth having, I just wish that we could absorb what was extrapolated from last year’s debate and move it up to the next level.

One of the most common criticisms thrown at Body Gossip is that ‘body image is soooooooooooooo 2009’. It seems that anything revolving around body confidence is considered passé. Which is utterly daft when you consider the extent to which it continues to dominate people’s lives.

The reason people think body image is boring, or has been done to death, is that the same tired-old arguments are being churned out on an endlessly tedious conveyor belt of badly reported eating disorder ‘real life stories’, pictures of emaciated models, celeb gains-weight-loses-weight-gains weight-loses-weight (ad infinitum) press articles and programmes until we all want to scream ‘oh, will you just SOD OFF?’.

There are fresh opinions, brand spanking new research, compromises and solutions out there. I hear them every day. The fact that I find body image so endlessly fascinating isn’t because I am a brainless moron or have the memory of a hungover goldfish. It’s because there is a lot to say and to comprehend.

So let’s start saying and comprehending it.

For example – Here are a few thoughts I have had/heard about London Fashion week, in no particular order:

Straight-size models are super slender not always because they are starving themselves but because they are CHILDREN. When people discuss the detrimental effect of catwalk images, no one ever seems to take into account that most high fashion models are about 14 and haven’t had the chance to develop breasts/hips etc yet. The models I saw on the bus looked like 8 year olds, stretched. The idea that any fully grown woman would consider it in any way aspirational to squish themselves into an equivocal size is actually laughable.

Fashion is art. And the artistic ‘movement’ to which it would belong would be 'abstract'. Yes, I have grasped the rudiments of how designers-influence-the-catwalk-influence-celebs-influence-the-high-street (we've all seen Meryl Streep's magnificent rant on the stubject in 'The Devil Wears Prada'), but what we see during London fashion week shouldn’t have any direct bearing on what your average Josephine feels she should look like. Just like an abstract painting, it should be enjoyed for its aesthetic brilliance but not seen as a reflection of reality as we know it.

How about, rather than blame the fashion industry for the low self-esteem epidemic in the Western World, we worked on changing our collective mind-set? Imagine if we felt so great about ourselves that we could glance at Fashion Week’s happenings with moderate interest, perhaps even try a trend if we think it might suit us, but not feel any less worthy because most of us can never hope to emulate totally what we are seeing?

The girls on the bus, as irritating as their drone-some monotones were, were in fact right. There is a ‘modelling world’. There is a ‘fashion world’. It’s their world, but it doesn’t have to be ours.

Body Gossip is working to give a glimpse into the REAL world of bodies and empower the stories of a wide cross-section of people, as an antidote to all this nonsense. Ultimately, we want everyone to feel so marvellous about themselves that outside influence cannot penetrate their veneer of confident fabulousness. For, as Lorlett Hudson, business coach extrordinaire and formidable lady of brilliance once said “someone or something can only have as much power over you as you allow it to”.