“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” Mark Twain

We won’t be the only family who has been in the thick of exams and tests this summer – but we have had something of a perfect storm in having two teenagers sitting A levels and one sitting GCSE’s. I can now announce, with some relief, that – for now at least – they are OVER.

There are other smaller but not insignificant transitions – not least of which is that this will be the first August when I have not had to wade into the annual school uniform negotiations. I’m thinking of allocating a day in August to have a very leisurely lunch followed by a snooze. A pointedly Not Buying School Uniform Day.

But these are trifles.

Having watched our children go through the whole state education system, as well as having been a school governor for the last few years, I have lost count of the number of dedicated, caring teachers with seemingly endless energy and commitment to the children, that I have come across. But something seems to be toxic in the system, for staff and children alike. Recent reports point to the worries that four out of five headteachers have about the children’s anxiety levels. Teachers work enormously long hours – a recent report stating that on average a secondary school teacher in England works 48 hours a week, with 10% of them working more than 65. And there is a growing suspicion from some quarters that our traditional exam system, relying on memory and recall, could actually be rather pointless anyway in the internet age (see this study reported today. Or ask my children).

The saddest consequence of all of this put together seems to me to be that the very thing that education is hopefully engendering – curiosity, motivation, excitement – can be squashed out of existence by the ‘keep working harder’ culture. It is akin to sowing seeds and then digging them up every day to see how they’re doing. And in the process of conscientiously doing that, we’ve forgotten to nurture the soil or water it well and we’re shining a great big floodlight on it all the time so we can continue digging up, observing, measuring around the clock too. It feels like an own-goal from where I’m standing.

It’s not only schools of course that are responding to very real challenges by working harder and harder whilst, privately or not, wondering if all their effort is really having the desired effect. I think in some environments we’re in danger of inadvertently adding to it all by putting mindfulness and counselling and other well-meaning initiatives on the “to do” list, rather than addressing the systematic issues that are leading to the need for these services in such quantity in the first place. These support systems for mental and physical health are beneficial and important but are no substitute for creating psychologically healthy workplaces as much as we can first. 

I, for one, wish all teachers, parents, kids and everyone else involved a few more relaxed weeks now with a chance to trust that growing, in all ways, is happening even when we’re not constantly measuring it. And perhaps, collectively, we can ponder on the question of how we can hang on to that trust once the whole cycle starts again in September. 

And here are some roses. You know what to do…

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