Letters Extra: National Curriculum and league tables

16th February 2001 at 00:00
It is time to stop seeking ways to blame and punish parents for their children's truancy and other disruptive behaviours and accept that, for some children, "school" is an agonisingly stressful environment. It may be the physical environment, which is unbearable - the constant noise, never having a moment to yourself, the overheating, the fluorescent lighting. It may be the constant requirement to perform coupled with the anguish of never having abilities or needs recognised. For many it is the crushing pressure to conform - pressure not only applied by their peers but inherent in the system itself.

With the introduction of the National Curriculum and league tables, schools have been homogenised but children are not all the same and those who cannot be licked into shape are being sacrificed on the altars of SATS results and attendance records. Pastoral care is a low priority and their unhappiness goes unnoticed or underestimated until their behaviour breaks down in some way. It is a sad fact that for some of our brightest young minds the school experience is emotionally and intellectually disabling.

Though we must rejoice at the findings of the recent TES teacher poll, which indicates that most teachers now enjoy their jobs, we cannot overlook the fact that nearly a quarter of the teachers polled say they are unhappy in their work and that the vast majority of these are in the state sector. Schools are still stressful places for teachers, for pupils and, by proxy, for parents.

While teachers who decide that school is not the place for them may, albeit reluctantly seek another job, pupils who arrive at the same conclusion for very similar reasons have nowhere to turn and their entire future is at risk. Pupils who simply cannot face another day at school have no option but to become truants or school-refusers and as such are "problem children".

For pupils and their families there is no escape and stress among the pupil population accounts for unauthorised absences and absence due to minor illness just as it does in the adult population. Here too stress occasionally and tragically leads to suicide.

Perhaps our schools are too big. Smaller classes may not lead to better SATS results but may well lead to happier and healthier children and teachers. If our childhood education is intended to prepare us for adult life, the majority of schools must necessarily fail in this fundamental purpose for the environment of a large school is like no other ever encountered in the course of most people's lives.

Removal to a private school where classes are smaller and the curriculum broader may be the answer for some pupils as indeed it is for some teachers. It is not a solution available to most families. Alternative schools - Steiner, Montessori, Small Schools - are few and far between and, even they have to charge fees which place them beyond the reach of much of the population. Neither is home education the answer for everyone, again often for financial reasons.

Life itself is stressful these days, even for the relatively privileged. Most families have to juggle the demands of earning a living and caring for children. Few people have no money worries. Parents work long hours and are often absent. Families are divided and many are isolated.

The education system cannot remove these stresses from children's lives but must take account of them, and must stop compounding them. There is no single solution. But that's the point. There should be as many solutions as there are learning styles, as many different types of school as there are life styles. There should be choice. More official support - and funding - must be given to organisations providing educational services other than at mainstream schools. More mainstream schools must have the courage and the backing to be different. Most children do OK in most schools but if we continue to provide only for most children we shall forever have to live with the consequences of marginalizing and "de-socialising" a significant and damaged minority.

P Kelly

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