Beware the feel-good curriculum - it backfires

10th October 2008 at 01:00

A perplexed senior teacher at an independent school recently mentioned to me that red refills were no longer to be had for his favourite pen. When I suggested that damaging children's self-esteem by high-visibility marking in red might explain the shortage, he was baffled.

"But surely," he protested, "pupils need to see their mistakes and know what they are. Otherwise, how will they learn?"

At the Conservative party conference last week, David Cameron, in his criticisms of current education policy, referred to the "cruel philosophy of `all must have prizes'". He was right. The wholesale promotion of self- esteem at the expense of a realistic picture of attainment and the lack of competitiveness in all aspects of school life are not a preparation for adulthood.

The promotion of self-esteem is a kind of political correctness gone mad, part of the increasingly suspect inclusion agenda. Its rise has led to lavish praise from teachers for the merest achievement and a diminishing of incentives for pupils to strive to do better. We are encouraging a kind of intellectual complacency whereby children are judged on effort, not achievement, thus undermining the whole idea of excellence.

When I trained newly qualified teachers and ran courses on managing classroom behaviour, I was expected to deliver modules on the promotion of self-esteem. It was easy to follow the trend. After all, I had spent many years dealing with truculent adolescents who repeatedly did half a piece of work then screwed it into a ball and pronounced it rubbish. Many young people have a fear of failure, but telling them their work is wonderful when it isn't is counter-productive and patronising.

Consider this extract from a "promoting self-esteem" package, under the heading "Taking the risk yourself":

"Remove the threat of failure: say, `This is very hard, but don't worry if you find it difficult. It's my fault for giving you such hard work.'

"Take the blame for failure: say, `I'm sorry I didn't explain that properly. It's my fault. Let me try again.'"

The seasoned teacher of the disaffected will immediately see how this will become the perfect excuse for doing no work at all, while being handed the opportunity to mock the well-intentioned teacher. There is a fine line to be drawn between encouragement and being straight. The relationship between pupil and teacher has to be based on trust. If they don't respect your judgments, your authority is lost.

In primary schools especially, education has become focused on making children feel confident instead of stretching them. They have to be protected from experiencing failure. This has given rise to what Maureen Stout calls "the feel-good curriculum". Frank Furedi even suggests that in our preoccupation with self-esteem, we attend to children's emotional needs at the expense of intellectual development. "The school is gradually becoming transformed into a clinic," he says.

Have you noticed how schools are now filled with "students"? Changing pupils into students makes them feel more grown-up, important and independent, but they are still at school and they still have the same status. It promotes self-esteem by flattery.

I'll never forget meeting a couple of young gay men on holiday in Morocco. They grumbled about their French evening classes and their teacher, who had told them how well they were doing. When they tried out what they had learnt, they could neither understand nor be understood. They wanted their money back. Their self-esteem had been shattered because it had been unrealistically enhanced.

I agree with Mr Cameron - giving young people extravagant expectations is ultimately unfair, or even cruel. Isn't it one of the side-effects of a good education to realise how much you don't know? Only the immature think they know it all, but they have enormously high self-esteem.

Myra Robinson, Educational consultant specialising in children with behaviour problems.

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