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Editorial - Success has many guises and elite isn't always best

Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths apparently encapsulates all that is wrong with our state education system.

In a column tucked away in the resources section of last week's TES, Mr Griffiths described how a high-achieving pupil had approached him, for the umpteenth time, for advice on his A levels.

Mr Griffiths realised that this pupil needed to calm down and recognise that there was more to life than exams. "Apart from you, who cares what you get in your A level?" he asked. "I mean, I care, of course. But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?"

Those comments triggered a storm online. Bloggers were belligerent, politicians were piqued, Tweeters grabbed their Twitchforks and joined the Twitch-hunt. An adviser to the education secretary even weighed in like a Victorian benefactor, volunteering to track the poor boy down and "rescue" him.

For the Right, the article seemed proof that their long-held hunch was true: lefty teachers were telling pupils to lower their aspirations and advising them to go to inferior universities instead of Oxbridge. Here was evidence, in print, of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

But in their excitement at seemingly being proved correct, they missed the teacher's whole point. This pupil had perfectly high aspirations, and was almost certain of an A because of the AS and A2 grades he had already gained. His problem, as Mr Griffiths had diagnosed, was that he was so paranoid about his exams he was worrying himself into a premature grave.

Do Mr Griffiths' critics believe that a teenager can never work too hard or stress too much about their exams? Googling the words "A levels" and "suicide" might change their minds - and for every student driven over the edge, many more have been pushed to the brink. Today's sixth-formers face unprecedented competition and inflated grade targets, all for the privilege of paying #163;9,000 a year for a degree that will not even guarantee them a job. The outrage at Mr Griffiths' comments will have only added to the stress of students who mistakenly believe that their lives will be worthless if they do not get into their top-choice university.

When Wimbledon High School announced this month that it would be holding a Failure Week to help its girls get over their sometimes crippling fear of making mistakes, it was applauded as another innovative private school promoting resilience and broader life skills. Try that in a state school and you will be branded a heretic who wants to end social mobility.

The assumption that Oxbridge is always the best destination for all pupils must also be challenged. Yes, Oxford and Cambridge are the most prestigious universities in the UK and more students in the state sector should aspire to attend them. But talk to professionals in several fields - including law, art, drama, music and medicine - and they would argue better courses exist elsewhere. Why is it not glaringly obvious that the best higher education route will always depend on what the student wants to do?

As for the belief that it does not matter if a student feels miserable and unfulfilled providing they are studying at an elite institution - well, that is just downright heartless.

So if you want to see what really is wrong with our education system, the answer is not Mr Griffiths; it is the underlying assumptions of his critics.

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