The Crucible

I was going to call this blog post ‘The Destruction of Childhood’, but I figured that might be a bit over the top. Mind you, it’s not far off what I’m feeling right now as a parent, and as someone who has many friends who are parents. In our brave new world, children have become a commodity: something to be measured, and compared against one another. Which one is best? How quickly is he moving? Why isn’t she moving faster? How about if we give them more hours in school, that’ll move them along more quickly? These questions are so completely irrelevant to me that it feels as though I’ve jumped into a parallel universe.

But then I go out into the real world, and I talk to other teachers and parents, and I realise that I’m not alone. I look at my own children, and I revel in the long summer break: playing in the mud, swimming in the sea, spending time with family and at late night Festas in Portugal. I don’t think: ‘Do you know enough yet?’ I think: ‘Are you happy?’ I know that the reason why children don’t move forwards as fast as you might like comes from a hugely complex mixture of background factors. Yes, these include poverty and deprivation and all the gaps that brings, but they also include disabilities, and learning needs, and many, many other challenges.

If you want, you can fill the comments thread below with all sorts of arguments about how I am an enemy of promise and how I am promoting low expectations. It’s fine, please, feel free. Because I would still feel completely confident in what I have written above.  I don’t want to squash children into a system. I want to look at them and go: ‘I wonder what would happen if we follow that child? Yes, even that one.’ If you feel something different, then so be it.

“I denounce these proceedings.” Go hang me.

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17 Responses to The Crucible

  1. Well said Sue – we are with you shoulder to shoulder! Maria Montessori said ‘Follow the child’ and we try to adhere to that every day. We are seeing an increasingly ‘factory style’ model of education with children perceived as raw materials and test results/exam grades the measure of a pre-determined and standardised outcome/product.
    My niece is 5 years old today, (and biased as I am as she is at our Montessori school) my question is absolutely ‘Are you happy?’ I am pleased to say I believe she is. As I’m sure her parents would agree ‘Nobody grew by being measured’ Thanks for your blog.


  2. I agree, too much too young! Although, children to be…


  3. I’m not sure I understand the point. Was this just about the suggestion that summer holidays should be shorter? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t care about happiness, or having fun outside of school like you described. I can’t see where the ‘commoditisation’ idea has come from; I haven’t heard any ideas that speak to it. This just seems strangely polarising…

    What am I missing?


    • blueink21 says:

      This past week Sir Michael Wilshaw has said that too many 4 year olds do not have the skills they need to start school. He thinks they should all be able to count to 10 and write simple words before they start school.
      There are rumours that 5 yr olds will soon face a test and 11 year olds will be ranked in order of ability. Today we have Gove and Cameron using words like ‘rigour’ and ‘tough’ and ‘global race’ and talking about an education designed for children who want to ‘get on in life’.
      And yes, we have announcements that some headteachers can’t wait to shorten the summer holidays too.
      It sounds like a lot of pressure, treating children like commodities and forgetting that they deserve the opportunity to grow up gently.


      • Kris Boulton says:

        Rumours from where? What does ‘ranked by ability’ mean; ability in what, by what measure?

        Is every test something to be ‘faced’? This year in my department we lengthened our units and started using pre-assessments at the start of every unit. It’s meant that students have had to sit a very large number of assessments in controlled conditions across the year, probably around 22 all in all, but the positive impact has been enormous. The pre-assessments meant I knew *exactly* who knew what before I started teaching – it meant I could actually tailor lessons to the group, and to individuals. They also helped us overcome the fear around ‘testing’. Time and again I reiterated that these weren’t ‘tests’, they were assessments. A test you can pass or fail, like a driving test, or a GCSE exam. An assessment helps inform us of what a child knows and can do, or inform us of how successful our teaching was after the fact, and where we need to improve because we let some kids down. Pupils quickly grew accustomed to scoring few, if any marks, on the pre-assessments – they stopped becoming something to fear, and instead something to inform what they would be learning next. If five year olds were asked to sit assessments for formative purposes, that sounds great to me; it doesn’t have to be a scary 11-plus situation. Carol Dweck earlier today talked about the benefits of pre-assessments, and how they can help to engender a growth mindset; I’ve definitely witnessed that in my classroom.

        Is there something wrong with being able to count and write simple words… Are these things not desirable… ?

        Do we not want young people to later succeed in life? Do we not care if they don’t?

        I watched the Tiger Tutors documentary last week. I share the concerns of Tom Bennett, from what was shown in the short film, it doesn’t look desirable. On the other hand I worry about the alternative extreme. ‘Grow up gently’ sounds lovely, but is it a euphemism for ‘letting children fail to develop intellectually, but telling them it’s okay’ ?

        Summer holidays are a whole other issue. I have no comment.


  4. debrakidd says:

    We’ve just had three days of parents coming in to witness one to one vivas with their child and three classmates. Many left in tears, bursting with pride because they recognised that being able to present confidently, to share ideas with others and to be proudly articulating your learning to those who matter is far more powerful than reciting facts. They viewed their learning wholly – days out with parents, time spent with friends, independently reading and researching and, almost as an add on, all the things they did in school. We simply don’t think about the whole child so well done for reminding us.


    • Hang on… I worry that this is quickly gathering a following about to march straight into a straw man; that or something tragic has recently taken place of which I’m ignorant.

      Debra – sounds great. Why do you then go on to talk about ‘reciting facts’? They surely didn’t learn anything unless there was some factual content along the way, so why can we not accept that they have learnt a lot, including some facts – we should hope – that they can present and articulate it, and that’s great? While this ‘either/or’ mentality?


  5. redpeffer says:

    Oh my, I agree with absolutely everything you say. I only wish I had the capacity to home educate. I want my children to be children for as long as possible. I loathe the current attitude and approach to education and I hate having to put my children through it.


  6. Leoarna says:

    As I wrote last night, give me Mick’s Manifesto in preference to all this tripe. Why do we stop being child-led at 5? Come September the white-haired radical within me will be fighting all the way…


  7. blueink21 says:

    (This is a reply to Kris – reply button missing for some reason.)
    No, sorry I still agree with what Sue said. What does ‘to succeed in life’ mean anyway? Different things to different people I would guess. I don’t see an ‘alternative extreme’ in our education system, nor do I see it arriving anytime soon. What I do hear being talked about (and implemented in some schools) are longer school days, shorter holidays and more ‘rigour’ and testing and personally I don’t think these things are necessary or desirable especially for young children.


    • Kris Boulton says:

      We’ve been running through a whole host of end of year assessments recently. That process, combined with yours and other people’s comments here have left me feeling inspired to right on the topic of assessment sooner rather than later. It would be good to get your thoughts once it’s published.

      I guess ‘succeed in life’ does mean different things to different people. I would say that I do not believe intelligence is pre-determined, that it is malleable, and necessarily a function of what we do in school. I believe that every human being has the right to leave school an intelligent person. Now we can argue over the definition of intelligence, or where the boundary lies, but it’s probably easier for us to accept that ‘we know it when we see it.’ The harder someone works in school, and the better they are taught, the smarter they will be when they leave. This in turn will afford them more opportunities, and greater chance at a happy, successful future life, whatever that means to them.

      Should this be at the expense of a happy childhood? I don’t think so, and I don’t see how anyone could argue that it should. But nor do I think a happy childhood necessarily means never working hard. I did an awful lot of not working hard as a child, and all it did was make me a lazy young adult.

      I’m curious, do you worry about the gap in achievement between children living in wealthy postcodes, and those living in less affluent postcodes? I only just realised that it’s not something I ever stop to ask people.


      • PapaAlpha says:

        Kris, what was the catalyst that changed you from ‘a lazy young adult’ into hard working, fully grown adult?


  8. psw260259 says:

    With you every step Sue. – as you know.
    And I am evidence of the fact that ‘The harder someone works in school, and the better they are taught, the smarter they will be when they leave. This in turn will afford them more opportunities, and greater chance at a happy, successful future life, whatever that means to them.’ is simply not true – it has very little to do with how hard you work in school, how well you are taught or how smart you are when you leave school.
    And if I am not evidence enough – you should meet my brother – did not do well at school even by my standards – dropped out of the marines, out of most jobs before age of 25 – then turned his life around by working for himself and becoming a multi millionaire before the age 30 – retired, invested well and still does not have any formal qualifications.

    Or meet my youngest daughter – worked very hard at school to over the then un diagnosed dyslexia. Went to uni – worked even hard accumulated 4 years of student debt, came out with a 2.1 teaching degree with specialism in early years – still does not have QTS as did not get a job . Now working in a children’s center because she really does want to make a difference and willing to do so on half the pay she would have got as a teacher.

    No, nothing to do with how hard you work at school, how well you are taught – far more complicated – but those life skills, those characteristics of effective learning (which is not just academic learning) learnt during your early years and through you play are what makes you who you are and how you cope with the opportunities or the barriers in life


    • Kris Boulton says:

      And then of course there’s Jobs, Zuckerburg, Sugar, Gates, Rowling and so forth, who all went on to become very successful millionaires having dropped out of, or never gone, to university. We can imagine at least some of them failed at school as well. Also Einstein of course, who dropped out of university yet went on to become regarded as one of the greatest scientists ever to live.

      Your argument is airtight. We should abandon universal education altogether. We’re spending an awful lot of money on it, it’s not doing anyone any good, as evidenced by your daughter’s failure. Then here we have all these examples of people who are mega-successful with little formal education.

      Since people are doomed to their fate from birth, the only question left is what we’re going to spend all that money on once we’ve freed it up. Should we use it to reduce taxes and stimulate the economy through increased consumer spending, or should we replace our current formal education with an eleven-year play-school programme?


    • I’m enjoying reading this thread; it has been an interesting conversation, and a thought provoking blog Sue, thank you.

      To psw260259 – your anecdotes are also really interesting, and clearly demonstrate yours and your family’s strong work ethic and willingness to overcome barriers to success. This is always impressive. I am genuinely inspired by folks such as Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, etc. who weren’t the most academically able in school, and yet still managed to succeed in spite of this. But, the question I would ask here is: are these people the rule or the exception? I wonder how many people with few qualifications were as successful as you and your family members? This report: shows that the more qualifications we have, the more we are likely to earn, so perhaps encouraging children to do better at school is a good move, after all. Of course, this does depend on how you define ‘doing well’- it may very well be that academia isn’t the route for some, and that is absolutely fine. Many children are better suited to a vocational route, and we must make sure that provision is in place for them. I would still argue that a solid foundation of academia is important, and that children shouldn’t be placed into an ‘either/or’ situation. There should be possibility for both: academics and vocation, or academics and more academics.

      However, should these anecdotes of ‘success against the odds’ be what shapes our national education system? What would the implications be if we decided not to put academia as the central aim of schooling? I would certainly not want to deny any children of a childhood, but I equally would not want to deny them of an adulthood full of opportunity and potential, either, and Kris Boulton is right to suggest that ‘intelligence’ and qualifications are what help to achieve such freedom and choice in this day and age.

      I don’t even think this applies exclusively to the economic side of gaining qualifications: it’s not all about getting a job. For example, if we want our children to be able to critically engage with politics and to be aware of media bias, etc. (skills that I am sure most of us would agree are an important part of being a fully participating citizen), then knowing more about the world and being more intelligent will aid this. I personally believe that to deny children access to this is fundamentally undemocratic, and that the role of the education system is to ensure that all children leave school as well-informed members of the public.

      It is for these reasons that I am feeling more optimistic about education than ever! I am sorry that many don’t share that view.


      • PapaAlpha says:

        Tenacity, sheer bloody hard work and the garnering of wisdom over time – which no paper qualification: academic or vocational can supplant, have made Branson, Sugar, Berkeley et al successes in their own fields.

        In my experience (almost fifty years of it) institutionalised educationalists (ie those that have moved from one educational establishment to another, who claim that they know about the world outside of education through two or three years work in a service industry before moving back into education) rarely remove their rose tinted spectacles to really (really) see what the world of work requires.


  9. Peter pan says:

    Britain has taken 40/50yrs to reach the bottom whilst countries like Finland and Singapore have taken 30 to 40 yrs to reach the top. Now we realize that British children are leaving school unable to read and write. So Gove is trying to change this in a short space of time- not all children are equipped to adjust to the new exams.
    Whilst this maybe good what Gove is doing, but he is moving to fast and may affect children who are not able to do well, so what is the government going to do for the less academic child?
    Are our children going to be happier- because there is only so many jobs at the top.


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