Teaching kids about the real world

Our youngest daughter, Philippa, told me this morning that she had received five merits for the Viking longboat she made over half-term. She had spent quite a bit of time and effort on making the boat, and had been helped along the way by various grown-ups, but we in no way built it for her – just helped her get started and at various points along the way. In the end, she went for a papier maché on cardboard design, which she then painted and decorated, with shields, a mast, a figurehead, and oars. The finished item was pretty good, but unmistakably home-made.

My mother-in-law and step father-in-law were down for end of half-term weekend and took her to school on the following Monday, where they saw some of the other boats, which ranged in quality from the suspiciously too good (too much help from grown-ups?) to too bad (grown-ups who clearly don’t care?).

Imagine my surprise this morning when Philippa told me that all the pupils’ efforts had been rewarded with five merits.

I’m not sure what kind of message the teacher thought she was sending out, but it was most definitely not a good one. A key part of schooling is that children should be prepared for the realities of life. In real life, good efforts are rewarded and poor efforts are not. Philippa herself happily accepts that there were better boats and worse boats. One child had brought in a pirate ship, resplendent with treasure chest. Very Viking!

Philippa is not stupid, and I’m sure the same applies to all her classmates. They know in their own minds which were the good ships and the bad ships, so the teacher has merely enforced the idea that all efforts are equally rewarded in life, regardless of the effort – absolutely the worst thing she can do. I had to make sure that that Philippa appreciated that this does not apply in reality and that effort is required to progress at anything in life and to reap the benefits.

This whole scenario tied neatly in with an interesting BBC TV programme I saw last week, called “The Day The Immigrants Left”, which concerned a hypothetical situation where the UK suddenly lost our migrant working population and we had to revert entirely to an indigenous workforce. The programme put several native unemployed people into jobs which have more recently been filled by foreign workers. The outcome was predictable.

Generally, in case we didn’t already know it, many of our country’s citizens have the concept that certain types of jobs are ‘beneath them’, whereas many foreign workers are conscientious and hard-working and will still carry out pretty much any sort of work with pride and a sense of purpose.

An asparagus farmer noted that around ten years ago the number of native British workers tailed off and he was forced to look elsewhere for his workforce. Since then he has pretty much employed solely foreign labour. His own experience was that the foreign workers worked hard. As they are paid according to how much they pick, many such workers make good money (one made over £150 per day). In the case of the three new ‘native’ workers he took on, their combined efforts left him £50 out of pocket, as he had to make up their pay to minimum wage rates.

Three things struck me:
1. Several (perhaps 40%) either didn’t turn up at all on the first day or called in to say they were sick on the second day.
2. Some of them did not like being told what to do by anyone. Their default position was to question any authority in the strongest terms, one even threatening to punch his Polish supervisor.
3. I was trying to comprehend the significance of ten years ago, when, by the farmer’s reckoning, many of my compatriots all became too aspirational and too good to do certain jobs. Did this tie in with the onset of reality TV and the widely reported desire of children now not to become train drivers or nurses, but pop stars or reality TV stars?

When you constantly and unconditionally tell kids that they are great, they believe it. When you reward them regardless of their effort, they come to expect it. When the kids who make more effort see that they can achieve the same praise and rewards through less exertion, they cease to push themselves. When they are raised to always question and never to fear authority, that’s what they take into their post-school lives.

When these children leave school they enter a competitive world. If they are not raised in the ways of the world, then schools are not doing their jobs in terms of helping them to prepare for life in the outside world.

Fifteen years ago I finished a PGCE (a Post Graduate Certificate in Education, which, for those who don’t know, is a year’s course entitling graduates to teach). Perhaps two thirds of the way through the course I had decided that I was not cut out to be a teacher. This was partly down to my own issues with the method used to teach languages at the time (which argued that real-life language acquisition processes apply in the classroom – they demonstrably don’t), but mainly due to a cultural difference in the classroom.

From my earliest observations of other teachers, what struck me was a complete lack of respect for teachers on the part of the pupils. I witnessed pupils swearing at teachers, arguing with them in front of the class, disrupting lessons. When punishments were meted out (detentions being the final recourse), children didn’t bother to turn up, and you could forget the support of many parents. It had been a matter of just five years since I had left 6th form at a standard comprehensive school and the cultural difference was palpable to me. The only occasion I remember a pupil swearing at one of our teachers when I was at school resulted in her being excluded from school for two weeks: and our headmaster at the time was widely considered to be a ‘loony lefty’.

I was part of the academic year which was the last to do O Levels (1987). Even when I did A Level German, we were using books which had previously been used by O Level pupils (I refuse to call school pupils ‘students’ – what’s that all about? Make them feel more mature? Does that give real students the status of student* – as in A*, not student followed by footnote). One of my German lecturers left after a couple of years, citing the poor standards in the GCSE pupils and the fact that she in turn was now having to teach them things that children used to learn in the third or fourth years (years 9 and 10 in today’s terms).

Employers and lecturers are bemoaning the falling standards in school leavers’ skills and yet each outgoing school year achieves better and better results than the last! At the same time, the government is trying to push ever more school leavers into higher education rather than encourage vocational paths for the majority. At a time when the country has moved more or less completely away from manufacturing over to service industries or finance, this does not bode well for the nation’s future.

In bemoaning falling standards, I am all too aware that I am becoming a grumpy old git, but unless someone can debate the points reasonably intelligently with me (all too absent nowadays) without recourse to calling me such, it doesn’t make my viewpoint any less valid. I have the views of lecturers and employers on my side. I would say that they count for something.

Teach children that bad things happen in life – and often to nice people; teach them that they can not excel in all they do; tell them when they are bad at something; be prepared to see them cry occasionally; teach them that there are accepted boundaries in society and that transgressions are met with punishments. If only teachers and parents would do all of these of these things, we would have a much more robust class of child going into the real world.

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