Tantalus, so the Greek myth goes, was placed in Tartarus in the very deepest part of the underworld for his heinous transgressions. His crime was chopping up his son, boiling him and attempting to feed him to the gods.
His punishment was so devilishly brilliant that it has stayed with me ever since I first discovered it as a young child.
He was made to stand for all eternity in a lake with a fruit tree hanging over him, but, and here’s the genius, every time he reached for the fruit it pulled away and every time he lowered his neck for a sip of water, the level dropped, and he remained starving for the rest of time whilst being endlessly taunted.
As punishments go, it’s pretty impressive and it instantly stoked my fascination for Greek myths and, in fact, legends from around the world. There was evidently so much thought and creativity that had gone into this punishment and I remain to this very day bowled over by the thought of the constant, taunting gifts, hanging tantalising out of his reach.
I thought of this hell, just the other day, when sitting in a meeting to discuss the new GCSE grading system. Grades A*-U are apparently not cutting it any more, so we’re switching to 9-1. With 9 now being the very top grade and 1 being at the very bottom.
So far, so unnecessary, but then the caveat is added, that very few students should ever be awarded a 9.
Grade 9 is for the crème de la crème; the absolutely outstanding; those that are a cut above the rest.
OK, grades, by their very definition, grade people or things to determine what is best and what isn’t good enough. They’re impossible to avoid in teaching and have become, pretty much, 90 per cent of what teaching is all about in the UK in the 21st century.
Teachers, students and parents have learned to make these tiny letters their sole purpose for being and the sole way in which success or failure is measured.
A top grade beyond students' reach
But this, this is something even better. Now we get to dangle a magic number out of a student’s reach and tell them that no matter how hard they work, how much effort they put into what they’re doing, they’re never really going to be good enough to get the top mark.
And what is more brilliant is the fact that no matter how hard students work, they too will never think they’ve really achieved, because they haven’t got the top digit.
Now teachers have to explain to parents why their child is working their absolute socks off, but still won’t get the top mark. I can see the conversation now:
“But what will they have to do to get a 9?”
“Nothing, they can’t get it.”
“But that’s ridiculous. If he/she needs to work harder then that’s what they’ll do.”
“It won’t make a difference, only 2 per cent in the country will ever get it.”
“But why give a grade that no one can ever get?”
The parents will feel dissatisfied with the school, which will take it out on the teachers, making them work even harder, and the students will feel like they’re failing.
It won’t be long before it will be decided that the reason why more people aren’t getting 9s is because the work isn’t starting early enough and so there will be instructions to get younger and younger students to be more exam-ready, thus extinguishing any spark they might have for education.
Already students are far more focused on the grade than the actual content of the work. Already schools are obsessed with upping their percentages of A*s so that they can climb that little bit higher in the league tables.
And now, thanks to another government directive, those working in the education system are having to push another boulder up another hill only for it to continually roll back down again…or am I mixing up my hellish punishments?
Rob Messik is director of theatre and drama at King Alfred School in north-west London