Posted by: phynbarr | February 12, 2013

Angry beyond coherence

I write this today from a mixture of anger and concern.  Anger at the pressure which our children (I repeat CHILDREN) are under to conform and be tested to oblivion and concern about the long term effects of us all.


It is a measure of my anger and concern that I am very nearly incoherent and unable to form any argument or discussion. So let me try and make sense of my world.


I was talking to someone recently.  Someone under 21, someone at University who has been on antidepressants for a worryingly long time.  And who feels tired.  Tired all the time.  Tired of the worry of achieving the right grades at University.  Worried about holding down a job.  Worried about life.


Is that right?  For someone barely in their third decade of life to be so weighed down by worries?  What message are we giving about the nature of life?  Do you the marshmallow test  The one about delayed gratification?  When is this generation EVER going to achieve any gratification?


For YEARS – and I do mean years, in the case I’m talking about it started in Year 9 and now here we are in the equivalent of Year 15 at it still – they’re tested and exhorted to do well, do well, do better than well and for what?  What will they have at the end of that time?  Yet another mountain to climb.  Take a master’s, take a PhD, your best is not good enough yet.


And it’s not right.  It’s not good and it’s not clever.


It’s not good because we are raising a generation of children (I’ll repeat that CHILDREN) feeling dependent on drugs to cope with everyday life.  I won’t touch on the 7-minutes-to-see-a-doctor which is part of the problem. (how can you even form the words around emotional stress in that time, let alone understand its source)?  I see them meet and make friends and they’re not meeting the real person, they’re meeting someone under the influence of a chemical cosh.  Who has had to be chemically restrained because they don’t meet the determination of society (that’s us, for the record) for them to achieve non-stop.


It’s not clever because what will there be at the end of this long road of self-denial and self-abnegation?  Will there be a job for life?  With out-sourcing, the tiger nations of India and China and the changes in employment law, you’ll be lucky if there’s a job for a year!  Will there be a pension?  Who can think of saving for a pension with student loans and the housing market hung round their neck?  Who can think of having a family in those circumstances?


I realise that the golden days of student loans and experiencing the freedom of life are long gone and unaffordable, but at least they didn’t grind you under the wheel of societal expectations that you will carry the burden and put right the wrongs perpetrated by previous generations.


It has long pained me that I didn’t have the courage of my convictions (or the money!) to give my daughter a form of education that considered her a person with interests and intelligence to be nurtured until it blossomed rather than a brain to be force fed and cultivated.  To have given her the pace of a Montessori nursery or A Steiner school would have given her such a different perspective on life.  Oh, I’m under no illusions, there would have been different stresses and strains.  Not least – and to a teenager the appalling fact – of being different.  But it would have been a good different.


But convention won the day.  The need to work and the fact that most forms of education are little more than thinly disguised child-caring facilities with – if you’re lucky – some earning thrown in, drove us down the more-or-less conventional route.


But it saddens me beyond measure that schools these days even in the time when manufacturing establishments requiring a compliant, punctual workforce are long past, should STILL be turning out mass-produced, one size fits all, employment monkeys.  We know so much more about HOW to learn, how to make learning and enjoyable process.  And what do we do with it?  Bastardise it.  In general, schools of the 21st century are worse than Mr Gradgrind’s establishment.  At least he has ignorance as an excuse.



  1. I’m not sure whether my comment yesterday ever made it. Where you struggled on 8th February to find an authentic voice in your latest you have a voice, a passion and a cause. What follows is an inspiration.

    Looking from the outside, I see a generation of children many of whom put herculean effort into the passing of tests, prelims, exams and university degrees. Many are an inspiration to a generation such as ours where, (and I speak autobiographically), both school and university were somehow negotiated with the expenditure of the least possible exertion and effort on my part. I have to say that my impression is that it is the female students who try the hardest. And then there is a rump – an increasing rump – of those who see the whole process of testing, testing and perpetual re-testing from Primary School onwards as something that disengages them from education altogether. They are the ones who disrupt education for the rest, and who seem (but all is not as it seems) impossible to engage and inspire.

    Beyond that simple characterisation, though, is the effect of the continual pressure to do well, to succeed, to excel on children. For although the intent might once have been to measure the performance of schools by setting targets, the effect is the pressuring of children to achieve so that schools do not lose their precious standing in league tables. No longer is the purpose of education to inform, inspire, or even to lay a certain amount of groundwork. Now, the purpose of education has become defined in a somewhat circular manner by the numbers of children achieveing a C-grade pass (or whatever) in a certain number of subjects. I am sure that there are good teachers struggling with the conflict between doing what is best for the child and doing what is best for the school. What is best for the school will always win out – that is what payment by results ensures.

    When a 14-year-old autistic boy can see that sometimes we have to stop learning to allow the space for the development of the person and the maturing of the inquisitive mind, I wonder why we are so intent on killing the spirit of enquiry by treating pupils as though they are some species of goose – bred to be force-fed for the production of Foi Gras.

    What league tables and box-ticking have brought us, then, is a system where we talk of “Sink Schools”and “Excellence”, of success (and more money) or failure (ultimately meaning closure). Where we laud fee-paying schools with their charitable status and easy pathway into positions of power, whilst denigrating public education. Where a new breed of “Academy” is foisted upon us and then, because the cost is deemed to great, slated to be sold off to the private sector. Where we know “The price of everything and the value of nothing”.

    What can the individual do? I am not sure but would quote two people. The anthropologist Margaret Mead – “Coming of Age in Samoa” – who said:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” She also said (inter alia):

    “My grandmother wanted me to have an education – so she kept me out of school” and “The young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown… The children, the young, must ask the questions that we would never think to ask, but enough trust must be re-established so that the elders will be permitted to work with them on the answers.”

    My second quotable person (and the quote) are better known:

    “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. Mahatma Gandhi.

    Somehow, it is down to us, as a generation, to reconnect with what is meant by education, to permit children the space to explore and to think without that exploration and thinking being entirely predicated on passing the next examination or test. Not to buy into the false prophets who believe (in the face of all the evidence) that measuring and controlling processes can ensure good outcomes. And where there are those who can genuinely inspire, to give them the space and authority to give our children the wings that they will need in order to develop fully and in turn to inspire their own children. And keep up the blog. Please.

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