Jumping Through Hoops

Argus title : We do not value our youngsters – we assess them to the point of exhaustion but dismiss success

I’ve just returned from a holiday in Jesolo, not far from Venice. We’ve been there so many times before it’s like a home from home.

While I was there I was reminded yet again of how much Italians seem to like children – and, despite the copious amounts of wine on sale, how little public drunkenness and aggression there appears to be.

For this reason I was startled one day when out walking I heard a man shouting loudly, apparently barking orders at someone. The tone of his voice was high pitched, aggressive and angry. It’s a sound I’ve heard all too often in the streets of Brighton & Hove.

Despite numerous visits, I hadn’t heard anything like it in Italy before. Consequently, my first thought was that the man must be British. The shouting soon died down, but not before I had realised with some shock that the man was in fact Italian. I stopped, as I have done so many times in
England, to see whether the man was shouting at an adult or a child and to check whether I needed to do anything to help.

I followed the man’s line of vision, but through the crowd couldn’t see anyone tall enough to be a woman. My heart sank as I came to the conclusion that the man must have been harrying and bullying a cowering child. I was even more concerned because none of the numerous passers by appeared to be at all concerned.

Suddenly, a small dog leaped out from behind a tree, obviously totally unconcerned and indifferent to his owner’s commands. He pranced down the street followed by the glowering man, looking utterly foolish.

I was very relieved and not a little amused. Nonetheless, it gave me pause for thought that I had so readily assumed it was a British man shouting at a woman or child as another man might shout at a disobedient dog.

I realised that, particularly during the holidays, there are some shopping areas in Brighton and
Hove in which I steel myself to what I may witness. And it is not always men who insult and bully children. Far too often I have heard mothers swear at small children, hurling obscenities into their faces, insisting crying children walk at speeds too fast for tired legs, yanking their small arms. It’s something I have never seen in

I returned to our hotel feeling very pensive. I sat by the pool idly watching as a young waiter who was serving drinks to a young couple, took time to play and chat with their small baby. I became conscious of the conversation of 2 teenagers sitting at the next tables. They were English girls fretting about their GCSE results which they expected to collect on their return home. Their anxiety was palpable.

Just that morning we had met a family whose daughter was awaiting A Level results. Her university place rested upon it. She was a shy girl, and I didn’t speak to her often, but I was very conscious that during her holiday she often looked worried and withdrawn.

As our holiday came to an end the English newspapers began to publish the usual reports about falling A Level standards, lenient marking and excessively high grades. Oxbridge dons mourned a failure to respect “excellence” and complained that even A grade students often need remedial teaching before they can undertake first year mathematics at university.

I wondered what strange distortion of the national psyche leads us to obsess about A grade passes and who has and has not gained entrance to elite universities, but then denigrates the very qualifications we as adults have set for our children. At a stroke we undermine those who have succeeded by suggesting their grade must or should have been easily achieved. And we indicate to those who have received lower grades – or God forbid have failed – that they are inadequate or stupid.

I returned to
England heartily sick of the British media’s obsession with exam results. Upon my arrival I picked up a copy of the Argus, only to find that there too was the usual double page spread about A level successes. Leaping Roedean girls were flanked by picture after picture of beaming students with A grades.

Three days later the Guardian published a selection of almost identical photographs from around the country. The article mocked photographers’ apparent annual obsession with making pretty girls in tight jeans and short skirts leap in the air while waving their results papers – thereby revealing legs, stomachs and, in the case of one unfortunate Roedean girl, even underwear.

Photographer’s tendency to focus upon pretty young girls poses an obvious problem in respect of successful boys. In general, if they’re photographed at all, it’s with teachers or in ‘swot’ poses by whiteboards. Particularly photogenic boys tend to be posed with girls. Sweet-faced Alex Sobolev of

College was made to carry equally attractive Katie Cheadle of the same school in his arms. They smiled charmingly, but both looked terrified he’d drop her.

I wouldn’t begrudge these students one bit of their joy and triumph and relief. And I can’t deny I was relieved to see among them the photograph of a girl whom I happen to know (though I’m delighted to report she remained earth bound). She needed 3 As to read Law at
Cambridge, and in fact achieved 4. I know how hard she’s worked and I’m delighted for her and for her fellow students.

However, I do wish photographers wouldn’t make them jump – and that their teachers wouldn’t allow it. It seems too brutally apt a metaphor for the way we treat our young people throughout their school lives. Our education system doesn’t teach young people to love learning for its own sake or provide them with the practical skills they need to survive as adults and as parents. What it does do is make them jump through hoops.

The truth is we don’t value our young people. We assess them to the point of exhaustion and then, when they are successful, criticise the standards and methods by which we measured them. We fail to teach basic skills effectively then set those who do not succeed academically adrift in the world of work unable to read, write or do simple mathematics. We allow a culture of bullying to infect our schools and provide little adequate protection.

When young people lapse into despair, self harm or addiction we fail to provide the mental health services they need. When they are abused by adults or each other, we too often fail to believe them or properly resource the child protection services they need. And when alienated young people go off the rails, we provide no retraining or support, but slap ASBOs on them or abandon them to detention centres so overcrowded and appalling that they are one of the scandals of the European union.

Our educational system creates and perpetuates elites and under-classes. Far from encouraging the free pursuit of knowledge, wisdom or justice, it schools a minority of children in self-aggrandisement and greed and the rest in compliance, powerlessness or envy.

After all the years of Labour government in which “Education, Education, Education” was supposed to be the focus, we have a society in which vast numbers of students get nowhere near passing an A level, those with an aptitude for skilled manual work get few opportunities to develop it and employers have to provide their workers with training in basic literacy and numeracy.

We as ordinary citizens need to take greater control of educational strategy and insist upon the standards both of safety and learning that we want for our children. If we worked together collectively to achieve this, governments would have to listen. But for this to be effective it would have to involve not just the politicians and articulate professionals who currently dominate the educational system, but also children and adults who understand and have experienced educational ‘failure’.

As I sat by that pool in
Italy I began to think about the sort of curriculum I would like to see, how it should be taught and tested and what could be done to make schools safer and happier places.

I have begun to speak to other people about it – both adults and children. Some are angry or cynical, others have radical ideas for change, but what everyone has in common is a desire to see a system which educates effectively for life without humiliating young people or tormenting them with anxiety.

I’d be interested to hear readers’ views.

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