It’s normal for teachers to be the people burdened with endless pressure. (That’s why we take such dazzling salaries; it’s not just our love of constant observations, endless data, book scrutiny and learning walks that got us into this game.) But this move into exam retakes from the government – the prospective government, be that as it may – lurches all the pressure from teachers onto students, and when we say “students” we do, of course, mean children.
The best thing to do, it would seem, with children who are on the verge of being teenagers, just as the hormones are beginning to kick in, with so much pressure on them already, is to label them successes or failures – and, if they fail, to test them again, and again… and again. By the time they’re 12 they could have failed four separate tests. Fail, fail, fail, fail. By the time you’re 12. Four failures. Not grades, or levels, or things where you can see your progress on some sort of ladder, but failures. Fail. You are a failure, aged 12. You’ve failed, and you will not succeed. You lose. You fail. It’s all over.
I know there are those who rather like the idea of labelling people failures. They’re the same kind of bitter, jaded losers who are happy to force kids into competitive sport when they don’t want to be competitive. Survival of the fittest. Never did me any harm. All that sort of attitude. These are the people so lacking in empathy that you almost want to feel sorry for them. Almost. They could, and should, know better, but choose not to: if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working. Let the children suffer: it’ll give them “character”.
Character. Ha. No, it’s not character. It’s needless pain. Children of 11 or 12 don’t need to be labelled failures. Think of the damage that it would do to a child’s self-worth, self-image. Everyone else has succeeded, but you have failed. Everyone else managed to do it, but you are cast aside into ‘mediocrity’. Everyone should be able to do this, but you can’t do it. And we’ll force you to do it again, and again, and again.
All this in the name of ‘battling mediocrity’. But there’s something worth saying, in all this, and it’s not something that you hear very often in education circles. Some people are mediocre. Not just that. Some people are mediocre, or average, or below average, and do you know what, that’s okay. Sure, we can fiddle the data here, give some coaching there, kick the SEN kids down the corridor, exclude all the children who weren’t ever going to make it, and then our numbers look a lot more healthy all of a sudden. But so what? It’s lying. It’s deceitful. It’s papering over the cracks. Show the cracks. Cracks are beautiful, and important, and as worth celebrating as everything else.
As teachers we all know the stories behind every child. We know most of the reasons why they are where they are. Sure, we’ll do everything we can to help them get to the best place they can go – but that place isn’t always the same as other children who have had more advantages, or fewer disadvantages. Or whatever. If we can get each child to get somewhere far better than they might have otherwise done – and as far as they could possibly have gone – that’s great. And if that endpoint is still below the national average, that isn’t a disaster. That isn’t a source of shame. That shouldn’t be something you as an educator, or they as a person, or their parents, should see in a negative light. It’s not a failure. It’s not wrong.
Or we could carry on demanding constant improvement for everyone, in every circumstance, all the time, and that it’s never enough. We can pretend that we’re caring about children, while working them into the ground to get our numbers up. We can kid ourselves that we’re really putting the children’s interests first while giving them terrible views of their own abilities and character. We can keep trying to make everything better all the time, demanding excellence for all, success or failure, and not care about the costs, about the people that’s going to affect, and how it’s going to affect them. We’ve got a choice.