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And then there were none...

John Richardson's student thought he had 22 GCSEs. Instead he had a folder of 'elaborate forgeries'. I recently interviewed a new student. He had just arrived from another institution and wanted to be moved from the non-exam class into our GCSE group.

"Have you any qualifications?" I asked innocently.

"About 22," he replied.

"Twenty-two what?" "GCSEs."

"Twenty-two? In what subjects?" "Psychology and sociology mostly." He paused, registering my surprise. "I ve got all the certificates."

"Perhaps I'd better see them."

He produced his certificates later in the day, beautifully presented in a handsome padded folder. They were, in fact, not 22 GCSEs but a record of achievement in which every faltering step was carefully documented.

Each paper was printed and laminated and made to look like an examination certificate. Many of them stated that the task completed was at GCSE level, which accounts for my student's delusion of having 22 GCSEs.

He had none. He did not even have formal coursework, nor accurate grades nor anything of real substance towards one single GCSE. All he had was a collection of nicely-produced, worthless documents.

The institutions in this true story are prisons, in particular, prison education departments. The student is a convicted inmate of 22. But that perhaps only makes the tale the starker.

This smart, streetwise young man was very easily duped by a plastic folder and a sheaf of printed papers. If it wasn't so sad you could say a conman had been conned.

The case is an extreme one, but it illustrates a kind of culture of deceit which seems to be developing in education as a whole. Positive reinforcement is the order of the day - it is becoming bad practice to single out error, to be prescriptive, to advise negatively.

I have seen the same method in practice at the opposite end of the scale from prison education, among the young and privileged. My children began their education in a private British school abroad. There, every squiggle was loudly praised, certificates were awarded for doing nothing, and everyone got a rosette on sports day.

Of course such evidence is anecdotal, but the kind of development I am talking about can only be identified through observation and anecdote. It is a mood or an attitude.

Perhaps the cause of the development is as easy to pin down as the thing itself. It probably lies in the familiar wish to encourage self-esteem. Today, low self-esteem is blamed for everything from poor academic achievement to juvenile crime. On the other hand, high self-esteem is regarded as the creator of well-adjusted, well-integrated people.

There is a good deal of truth in this. The person who is full of self-contempt will neither get the best from him or herself nor contribute towards society. It is difficult to love your neighbour when you hate yourself.

There is also truth in the distinction which is frequently drawn between an intrinsic and an extrinsic self-esteem. You can either value yourself for yourself, or by measuring yourself against others. In other words, extrinsic self-esteem values those factors which provide what Hobbes called "eminence over other people - such things as brains, brawn, position, money."

Of the two, only intrinsic self-esteem is of any value. The person who preens himself upon, say, wealth or academic success must ultimately face defeat and humiliation before those wealthier or cleverer. A self-esteem based upon the self is safe from the danger.

Modern education has recognised this. It has tried to escape from extrinsic valuations by de-emphasising academic achievement. Instead, we look at "value-added", at achievement relative to the abilities of students or to the position from which they start. Thus, we reward not only those encapsulated in the vile phrase "brightest and best" but all who make progress.

The problem with this is that it remains a thoroughly extrinsic approach to self-esteem. "You are worth something because you have made so much progress, " we are saying. "And here's a nice certificate to prove it."

However much we wriggle, we are still measuring people in certificates, in papers which prove a kind of "eminence". And however glibly we talk, we cannot avoid the fact that in bare academic terms some certificates are worth more than others.

So, by using certificates to foster self-esteem, we commit ourselves to a crazy logic. My student with his record of achievement is the sum of his certificates, and I am the sum of my certificates. But my certificates are better than his, and therefore I am worth more than him.

The mistake is obvious. It will not do to assume that human worth is related to learning. St Peter will not ask us how much we have read, said Thomas a` Kempis, but what we have done.

Equally it will not do to deceive students about their progress. Lies originate in contempt. To allow someone with no GCSEs to believe he has 22 is to assume he is too weak to know the truth. Honesty, on the other hand, comes from respect.

My plea is simply that we give our students that respect, because only then can we help their self-esteem. The young man who wanted to change groups should be treated like a young man, whatever difficulties that involves. He should not be deceived and patronised and fobbed off with a folder of elaborate forgeries.

John Richardson works for Doncaster College as a programme co-ordinator in a local prison

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