Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Embracing Mediocrity

I discovered, to my horror, the other day that the government no longer awards Level 6 grades at the SATs sat by 11-year-olds. This bemused me; although I suppose it was faintly embarrassing for the government to have 11-year-olds achieving Level 6 in Maths and English when many 16-year-olds can't achieve the equivalent (grade C) at GCSE. Yet it raises, once again, the point that often the people failed most by our state education system are the truly gifted.

The brightest kids in our system will be capable of going beyond Level 5 at Maths and English long before they come to leave primary school. Especially in the case of Maths, where the brain's capacity for new learning actually diminishes before one reaches the age of 18, it's vital that we stretch our best and brightest as soon as possible.

There are many downsides to kids that are just left alone in the education system. They're encouraged to think that they are better than they are - because they can easily reach the highest standard that the government expects of them, they don't think they need to keep learning. Yet as we all know, the system gets harder and harder. A desire to learn and to keep pushing oneself above and beyond what is expected is the best way of continuing to achieve. Sure, parents, and the children themselves, should be expected to develop that self-motivation - but the system shouldn't just abandon them.

For that is what our system currently does. In the great desire to make sure that government benchmark targets are met, many hours (and much more personal tuition) is expended on the low achievers in the class. Pushing a top student beyond Level 5 doesn't bring any baubles or medals to the teachers, who know, in any case, that the top students can't possibly bring the results down. Instead, it's the people on the Level 3/4 borderline who get all the attention. I can't help but feel we're getting more and more that way in secondary education, too - the C/D borderline at GCSE is far more vital to a school's performance in the league table than whether a student gets an A or an A*. The stigma of a pass or a fail may be important. In certain subjects, however - most notably languages - the step up to A-Level for those even achieving an A grade at GCSE is very difficult indeed. Nurturing at this level is absolutely vital.

If we want to develop the self-motivation of our children, it has to start at a young age, before the other temptations of teenage life kick in. We have to make the case that learning is fun, that there is joy in new discovery, that aspiring to high goals is worthwhile. We don't want to leave them festering in large classes, getting scant attention and never having to push hard to achieve the top level they are allowed to. Capping SATs at Level 5 is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Unless our primary school children take a joy in learning, we have no hope for secondary school.

No child may deserve to be left behind in an education system. In a strange way, however, we are leving our children behind if we do not stretch those at the top end. Teachers of my parents age believe that their generation will be the first in history to teach their children less than they themselves learnt. Whilst we have an education system that embraces mediocrity rather than stretching the brightest, that situation will continue.