Blame children for own failure

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
It is de rigueur to blame schools, the teaching profession and governments for inadequate standards of attainment
It is de rigueur to blame schools, the teaching profession and governments for inadequate standards of attainment. This conclusion leads into the discourse of value for money, namely that the taxpayer is being short-changed for the vast sums expended upon educational resources.

Poor literacy standards among pupils and school leavers frequently raises its time-honoured head. Sir Tom Hunter has expressed the worthwhile desire to rid the system of poor, under-motivated teachers on the assumption that it lies behind the supposed under-performance of schools. Even eminent academics offer their special intellectual discourses to contribute to this area of national concern.

In The TESS over the past few months, Scotland's performance in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) international league tables has been defended, with school performance being firmly explained in terms of the increasingly tired dogmas about poverty and neighbourhoods. This narrative runs that since deprivation affects human development negatively and with it wider social values, it follows that it will colour attitudes to teachers, schools and learning. Fortunately, governments contest this picture, arguing that schools in deprived areas have and are doing extremely well.

My own theory about why it is that children are not achieving as well as they are expected to in school is profoundly telling about us as a culture, in that it has gone under the radar for so long. Teachers, school leaders, parents, HMIE and billionaire philanthropists are not to blame for the putatively negative characteristics of the nation's schools. Each tries its very best, but is up against forces that cannot be easily, if ever at all, harnessed.

I suggest it is lack of effort by the nation's children which lies underneath this failure, and dares never to be raised. They are underperforming and are themselves responsible for their own failure to reach the potential they must all have. It seems to have become a taboo to blame the child in our country. And so we have all conspired to create the policy context and value system which allows the child, as a person and a learner, never to be held accountable for his or her own contribution to educational progress or lack of it.

The Rights of the Child under the UN Charter have been unwittingly mis-understood to mean that one must never say or do anything that might potentially damage their self-esteem. By the process of sociological osmosis, this has seeped deeply into the brains of our students and causes them rarely, if ever, to hold themselves to account for how well they are doing. Their cultural propensity is to blame their teachers or their parents. A few will refer vaguely to "the government".

Until we unravel and challenge this mindset, we will continue to discover that, despite fantastic schools and brilliant teachers, the pupils seem not to be doing too well. A Curriculum for Excellence is heading in the right direction in its communication of responsibilities lying at the door of the child, but much more must be done to reverse a generational drift into sheer laziness.

Christopher Holligan is a senior lecturer at the University of West Scotland.

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