Recently I’ve been asking myself this question: are schools doing enough to provide a good education for the full range of children that they serve, particularly those who find school difficult? As part of a group looking at trying to lower the number of pupils being excluded from Sheffield schools, I have been considering how inclusive our schools really are, and how the expectations placed on schools by politicians and society may in fact be making it more difficult for schools to succeed with more challenging pupils.
There is an assumption that all children will go to school until they are at least 16 and the hope is that they will come out at the end of the education system as useful members of society. However, some children find the academic nature of schooling incredibly difficult to handle; not because they have a particular learning disability, but because of their attitude to learning and to school; their often negative self-perception. Some children give up on learning at an early age and either go through the motions of learning to keep out of trouble, or rebel against authority. Often they end up getting temporarily or permanently excluded from the school system.
There are many examples of people who did badly at school and who were like square pegs trying to fit into round holes while they were there, failing to see the point or struggling to remain engaged. I was one of those people and did poorly in most subjects all through primary school and, in secondary school, until I was in Year 10. For example take this 1977 school report for me in History when I was a 14 year old.
‘His written work has been thin and he came bottom in the exams with 32%. His project was a poor affair too. Bodes badly for next year. He is inclined to be lazy; capable but idle and a disruptive influence in class’
and then compare it with my report one year later:
‘He deserves success through a hard graft this academic year’.
What happened there? From being in the bottom set in every subject, disliking school and failing in all my exams as a 14 year old, I somehow became incredibly hard working in the following year. In my case it was my English teacher who finally helped me to turn the corner. He didn’t judge me, despite my bad reputation for behaviour in class, and I tried like I never had before for him. I quickly experienced success in that subject and soon I realised that I had some ability in subjects like English after all; it was a complete revelation and it came just in time.
I have always been interested in what motivates people and why some children and young people are just ‘switched off’ at school or why they suddenly switch on like I did. I think that part of the underlying root of motivation lies in our perception of ourselves, our perceived chance of success and the feedback we get from our actions. Through much of my school career, misbehaving, annoying my teachers and doodling in my book seemed more rewarding to me than risking having a go and then failing. By not trying I was safe because the often, understandably negative feedback I received from teachers, just reinforced what I already ‘knew’ about myself.
There is a clear and well evidenced link between self-esteem and behaviour but I don’t think that our school system has enough flexibility to cope with those who either take a long time to engage with school or for whom school is anathema. Although I did finally see the point in school, and managed to succeed in the end, I think that there need to be more options for pupils who don’t fit the mould and who may have more success following a different path. Not all children have a natural ability or interest in Maths and English for example, and, for many children and young people, their skills may lie in other areas such as Art or Geography, French or Sport. Society needs adults with a range of skills and abilities and it often seems that these other skills are less valued, even when they are very much valued in the job market. The recent removal of the speaking and listening element from GCSE English for example made little sense to me when business leaders are looking for school leavers who can communicate effectively and are lamenting the poor quality of candidates. Because primary schools are measured so narrowly on the study of English and Maths and have to focus much of their time on teaching them, the risk is that children who experience nothing but failure in these subjects at a young age will be put off learning as a whole and will consider themselves as unintelligent as I did. Of course it is much more difficult to get through life and almost impossible to get a job if you don’t have the necessary basic skills but I don’t think that you always need GSCE Maths or English to be a successful adult. In 2013 I was disturbed to hear a government minister declare that children who did not pass their GSCE Maths would be forced to study the subject in school for longer, retaking the exam until they passed. For some pupils this would be just what they needed but for others it would be demoralising and counterproductive. Instead some children could benefit by transferring earlier on to a different, more practical vocational learning path with the relevant vocational knowledge and skills being taught. University Technical Colleges (UTC’s) for example (and there is one in Sheffield) offer young people from the age of 14 ‘a dynamic, career-focused and supportive learning environment working in partnership with a wide range of local employers’. Successive governments have been determined that all young people should go to university and college when, for many young people, an apprenticeship or work based route to employment, starting at an earlier age, would actually be more suitable. In Germany, apprenticeships are valued and respected at least as much as University degrees and I hope that different routes to the workplace will be developed in the UK so that all young people will be able to achieve success in our education system.
I think that we need square pegs as well as round ones for a successful society; look at ‘failures’ like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who dropped out of higher education. Indeed Einstein struggled at school but then went on to be highly successful and Charles Darwin was chastised by his father for being lazy and too dreamy. Darwin himself once wrote that his father and teachers considered him rather below the common standard of intellect. . Schools need to be able to bring out the best in all our children, irrespective of whether they are round pegs or square.