Friday, 22 November 2013

The problem with school

I dare say that most readers will be aware that I am not a particular fan of schools! There are two problems with sending children to school in this country and I want today to look briefly at one of these problems.  The first reason for avoiding British schools, particularly  those in the maintained sector, is that a lot of them are really poor. You can’t always discover this just from looking at their position in the so-called ‘league tables’ and so choosing a school for your child is immediately a bit of a gamble. Since the consequences of losing that particular gamble can be so profound ad far-reaching,  and because I am not  in general a betting man; I decided not to have a punt on this. There is another and deeper problem with schools though; one which affects not this school or that, but is rather endemic in the organised educational system in this country.

One of the things that many parents observe about school, is that the focus of their children’s efforts seem to be on school, with its tests and examinations, rather than with the real world. Here, for instance is a scenario which any parent who has had a child at primary school will recognise at once. Mary brings home a list of a dozen words; the spelling of which she must memorise, because the class will be tested on them at the end of the week. The child does really well and the following week has a new batch of words to learn. While testing her on them, her mother slips in a few words from previous weeks, only to find her daughter getting upset about this. She has already learned those words; they are no longer important. Her mother notices that her daughter has actually forgotten how to spell the words that she learned a couple of weeks ago. This does not matter to the child at all, because learning how to spell words has, in her mind, no other purpose than to pass a test at school. 

Or consider another situation, this time in secondary school. Mrs Smith notices that her fourteen year-old daughter is getting around a third of the maths questions which she does wrong. This is worrying; after all an average mark of six out of ten isn’t too brilliant, is it? How will the child manage her money when she leaves school, work out interest rates and so on?  What’s puzzling, is that the teacher writes things like ‘well done’ and ‘good’ after these lousy results. The mother makes an appointment to see the teacher, only to be astonished when the teacher tells her there is nothing to worry about. Mary is in line to get a grade ‘B’ at her GCSE! At the very least, she will get a ‘C’. The mother, you see, is worrying about how the child will get along in the real world with her deficient maths skills, but all the teacher cares about is an examination. To her, this is the whole object of studying mathematics; so that a good mark is achieved in an examination.

These two examples will probably strike a chord with anybody foolish enough to entrust their child’s education to a school! For schools, the purpose of education is only to do well at school; all too often, it has no relevance at all to the outside world.  I think that this is in the nature of the system itself and is one of those things which cause me to encourage every parent I meet to take responsibility for their own children’s education and not leave it in the hands of teachers.


  1. Stop it, Simon; assuming you are Simon and haven't been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a clone that I keep agreeing with.

    (And if you are the clone, can you let me know how it was done, so if I can give you a list of other people I'd like you to kidnap and replace.)

    My darling daughter summed it up with the tact she is infamous for by telling the head teacher that she was running the educational equivalent of a battery chicken farm when she asked her what was wrong with school when she decided to leave. The school blamed me because she was only just 9 so she 'couldn't' have thought of that herself, which convinced me that they didn't know her and didn't have a hope in hell of helping her to learn. Now she is living in the real world, we can work on those little but important social interactions that make such a difference.


  2. One of the many things I thought was insane about the weekly spelling tests was the fact that nobody cared how many of the words each child could already spell. So a bookish child already knows all the words, learns nothing, makes no effort and is praised to high heaven (which does them no favours at all), whereas a less keen reader works hard but gets fewer spellings correct so is shamed and told that they must, in some vague way, try harder. Nobody benefits!

  3. And of course, we have not yet gone into the awful effect that the weekly spelling test has upon children from deprived or impoverished homes. The middle class parents drill their kids to learn the words that week and so they shine at these tests. Those whose parents are too busy or perhaps do not altogether value education, do not do at all well at the tests. After a year or so of this relentless failure, you begin to hear such children saying things like, 'Reading's stupid!' or, 'I hate books!'