My wife and I spent over an hour last night comforting a fifteen year old who was incredibly frustrated, anxious and stressed. As you may guess from his age, the main stressor was school, and more specifically, GCSE’s.
My stepson is not a shrinking violet by any stretch. He is mature beyond his years and has suffered tremendous loss in his life and yet he has grown through the experience and he continues to grow into the most wonderful, intelligent and caring person.
Yet last night I saw him as he was three years ago when he was being bullied by a teacher and some of his fellow pupils for being different (my stepson is an Aspie, someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism). The old signs were there, fist clenching, shaking, his feeling and looking like he was about to explode with a frustration and fear that he could not find the words for. It was really difficult to see him like this again, especially when he was able to calm down enough to explain what was going on for him.
To use his own words, the school is ‘telling him if he doesn’t pass his GCSE’s his life is over’. Wow. I mean where to start with that. The first thing that struck me was just how opposite this is to what we as his parents have been telling him for years, that being as long as he tries his best whatever he achieves will be good enough and that if he fails his GCSE’s the first time, he will be able to retake them again whenever he wants to. We have also told him many times that he may well find his vocation in life without them as many people do.
There are many examples in my life of people who made an absolute pigs ear of their GSCE’s at 16 and have still done amazingly well in life (I am one of them!). The majority of my friends at school did not get the recommended 5 GCSE’s at 16. Every single one of them now has a successful career and earn money enough to support themselves and their family. Their lives very much did not end when they failed their GCSE’s. Two of the guys I failed my GCSE’s with stand out here, one rose up to director level in a multinational company and another set up his own business and made gazillions of pounds! Neither left school with more than a couple of GCSE’s yet it did not set them back in life at all.
So why then is my 15 year old stepson so stressed at the moment he has been punching himself to relieve the pent up frustration?
Well, it is in part that message that the school is indirectly or directly giving him and his peers at the moment. YOU NEED TO PASS YOUR GCSE’S…. Why though, why is it so important they pass some cognitive tests that are incredibly limited in terms of scope and accuracy? Well, one basic truth is that if the school does not get good grades, the school will drop down the league tables, less parents will want their children to go the school, pupil numbers will drop and in the long term this may impact on the viability of the school meaning people may lose their jobs and ultimately if things were really bad and they got terrible results the school might close.
How does this make sense? When did schools become a business?? Surely if a school is struggling to attain, then should get more support in terms of money and guidance, not made to feel like the organisation is a failure as this label will infect every level of the school, including the children learning there.
The whole system is completely counter intuitive. I will explain…
When I was teaching counselling skills in Lincoln College, one of the modules covered SMART objectives. A cognitive tool that I personally would not use in my counselling room ever, for me it is more to do with business than counselling, but hey, I was doing what I was told. SMART goals can be used to set objectives and targets and they should always be:
- Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
- Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
- Achievable (agreed, attainable).
- Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
- Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).
I can imagine the people who decide on the curriculum for our children are very well paid and therefore will believe themselves to be very clever as a result. Therefore they will likely use something like SMART goals to decide how schools should run and what they should achieve.
I think setting out the first two goals would be easy enough, Specific would be wanting children to pass some exams, Measurable, easy, we set targets and stuff, but the real problem here is when we get to Achievable and I will pose a series of questions here which will illustrate why.
Is it reasonable to expect all children to learn and absorb information in the same way? Is it reasonable or rational to expect all children to be able to sit down and recall information in an exam room in the same way, do all children remember things the same way, do all of their memories function and recall the same?
Any first year psychology student will be able to answer these with a simple ‘well obviously no!’, and trust me when you look at even the most basic of research papers the answer is ‘obviously not, don’t be ridiculous!’.
So why do we continue to torture our children like this?? Well unfortunately it comes back to the very rich, well paid (and therefore very clever) people whose own children are likely being privately educated at huge cost to themselves (but it is OK, because they went to private school which made them very clever and very rich so they can afford it thank goodness!), who are making decisions based on the assumption that all children are like they were as children, and they were very good at being fed information by a boring person in a gown and hat and retaining it and then regurgitating it at will. That apparently means you are very clever and therefore should be able to earn lots of money making decisions about things you don’t really understand.
Our children are basically on a production line, and much like the foie gras goose, they are just force fed information whether they are able to retain it or not. Some will be able to stomach the force feeding and may even enjoy it, others though will quickly become full, stop eating and then fall behind the others. Panic sets in and they then try to force themselves to shove the information down, but by this point their anxiety and stress is so high the fight or flight response kicks in, their instinctive brain takes charge and their cognitive brain shuts down. This means they are even less likely to retain or learn as the cognitive centres of the brain are shut down and the parts of the brain (hippocampus and amygdala) are on full beam and preparing the physical self to fight off whatever is threatening them, with no obvious physical threat that feeling of frustration and anxiety builds up and the fight becomes directed towards self and children can end up not knowing how to release the energy in any other way than hurting themselves.
This is what the clever people with loads of GCSE’s who make the decisions about children’s education either down know or don’t care about, or both. Probably both. They get paid loads so they are very clever and must be right, besides they loved foie gras when they were kids, so that means all kids love foie gras doesn’t it?? Yeah, probably, and who cares if they don’t, I suffered so they should suffer the same as I did. Besides, I get paid loads to make decisions I don’t understand the consequences of so I must be right!!
All children are different and unique. Every single child learns in a different way, every single child is different in terms of the kinds of assessments they are good at. Not all children will do well at formal exams. Amazingly intelligent children will be struggling to translate what is in their heads and put it down on a piece of paper or computer screen. They will fail and feel useless when being assessed in this way, because that is what the stressed teachers and schools are being forced to tell them in desperation. Desperation that is coming down from the incredibly intelligent, incredibly overpaid idiots who think the best way to determine a child’s value is a set of formal exams set by people who are really flipping good at passing exams. It is beyond parody and satire that in a supposedly enlightened age, we can see black holes on the other side of the universe and the owner of Amazon can put old people into space on top a rocket shaped like a penis, yet we cannot see that the current way we assess our children at one of the most important stages of development they go through, is damaging and traumatising the vast majority of them.
We are putting our children through needless stress and basically inserting a negative message into their still forming psyche’s that if they fail they are a loser and will always fail. Why are we telling our children that some of them need to achieve the unachievable and setting them up to fail? I work with adults mostly, and every single adult I work with has some form of negative message in their psyche that they internalised in childhood. We need to find a way to stop torturing our children and force feeding the ones that do not have the stomach for it. We need to find better and more creative ways to educate our children that reenforces the positive, especially the positives to be found when we fail, what we learn from that experience and how failure can actually be a good thing sometimes.
Until we do this, thousands of parents will be spending thousands of hours trying to console, comfort and care for traumatised and stressed teenagers that feel that their life is over at 16 just because they failed an exam. This is not OK……
I am aware the tone of this blog is angry and I am unapologetic about this. I am angry that my child is feeling under pressure in the way he is and that it is impacting how he thinks and feels about himself. As a society we should be celebrating the individuality and difference in all of our children and stop expecting them all to move through their lives like robots, just repeating the same patterns of thought and behaviour the grown ups around them have. We should be celebrating diversity and difference in them all and yet the education system does the opposite, it judges harshly anyone who does not fit a very narrow, strict set of criteria and damns all those that are different.
I hope as a society we can find a way to pull back from the brink of this pit of stress and trauma we forcce our children into. Children have enough to cope with at the moment what with facebook and instagram and all the other social media making money out of making them them feel terrible about the way they look. Alongside this and the uncertainty and insecurity the pandemic and brexit have caused, we need to drastically change our approach to children and childhood and start asking the young people of the country, ‘what do you need, how can we help’ instead of just force feeding them useless information that they will likely never use as adults (when was the last time you used algebra or quadratic equations?) and expecting them to deal with things like we used to in the 1960’s. Time has moved on, it is a shame the attitude of the people in charge of the national curriculum havent kept up.