Mediocre Failures

My children are adopted. They were adopted at the ages of three, four and six. As with nearly all children adopted in this country over the last couple of decades, this means that their early life experiences were pretty terrible. As each was born, their collective experience of life became more damaging, as their circumstances worsened. So the eldest is least affected as her first years were perhaps less difficult experiences, while the youngest is most affected, as her entire first two years of life were appalling. I’m not going to go into detail here about their specific early life experiences, but if you want to read up on the sort of effects which can result from serious neglect or abuse, then you could read this .

Why am I writing this ? Especially now after midnight in the middle of the Easter holidays ? It’s because I’m so angry I can’t sleep. I can barely see the screen through the red mist.

Hyperbole ? No.

The cause ? This :


Pravda’s front page

I want to find the people who produced this policy, and tear their cold, dessicated, hearts out. I want to shove a burning copy of this mindless sociopathic rag up their shrivelled, self-righteous sphincters.

They just called my daughters “mediocre failures”.

Children aren’t machines. Tories : take note of this remarkable discovery

Let’s be clear about this. My two youngest will not achieve Level 4s in their SATs at the end of Year 6. There’s a small chance that middle child, now in Year 6, will reach a Level 4 equivalent in parts of her English, but even with all the extra classes and drilling which the school is throwing at her, maths just isn’t going to happen. As for youngest, my beautiful baby in Year 5, she won’t achieve any level 4s next year. Not because she doesn’t try; she tries so, so hard. But because her early experiences mean she doesn’t have sufficient fine motor skills to write as her peers do, and because both she and her middle sister have serious difficulties with concentration, memory and retention, and all those issues deteriorate even more when in stressful situations like tests. But more than anything else, it’s because they can’t do it. They just can’t. And I’d love to tell you that it’s because of X, and so if we do Y then it’ll be fixed, but that’s not how life works. People aren’t machines with blueprints allowing you to track down and repair malfunctions. Like most clever people who don’t have difficulty with language or maths or spatial awareness, or other academic activities, I fundamentally find it impossible to truly understand why they can’t, despite endless practice, remember how to spell basic words, or how to do basic sums. The school have tried all sorts of different methods of teaching it, and so have we at home, but one day it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Some things stick for a while, some things don’t stick at all.

That’s not to say they can’t learn anything. They can. When youngest entered reception class, she was assessed by a child psychologist to be about 2 years behind her peers intellectually, socially and in terms of her physical co-ordination. Two years behind, at the age of four, and in the very bottom percentile for motor skills. She’s probably two years behind still, but she’s now ten. So she’s made a lot of progress. But she’s not catching up, or “closing the gap”, as Ofsted like to say. She’s maintained a distance, but that difference is now probably stretching away again somewhat. She’s what has always been termed by the professionals we’ve seen as “developmentally delayed”. The result is that she, along with her middle sister, struggle at school with all their subjects.

The school’s been great. They’ve offered extra tuition throughout, and a marvellous, endlessly patient, learning support assistant has dedicated a fair portion of her last seven years to all three of my kids, helping a succession of classroom teachers to try to bring them on. The school has made them feel safe, and happy, and interested. It’s a testimony to that school that our girls, despite being different in so many ways, haven’t been made to feel different. Their cardboard Anderson Shelters, and their decorated poems about the sea, may be rather less polished than their classmates’ but they’ve been no less enthusiastic about bringing them home and showing them to proud parents.

And they can read now. Eldest is an avid reader of typical 13-year-old chick-lit, middle is ploughing unenthusiastically but capably through Hettie Feather, and youngest is about to finally finish the Oxford Reading Tree ladder (I’ve been through Chip, Biff et al’s adventures three times now – enough already !), and she can read proper books. Hesitatingly, to be sure, but she can read, when for the first couple of years, that looked very unlikely. The younger two do struggle a bit socially, and neither has especially close friends, as both are socially less sophisticated than their rapidly maturing peers, and more comfortable playing with younger children. But nevertheless, they do mix with other children, and play well in large groups. At home, they are delightful, loving, awkward, stroppy, generous, always hungry, funny and, above all, happy.

But they won’t “pass” their Y6 SATs.

There are plenty of other kids who won’t “pass” their SATs too. Even small percentages represent thousands of children. Then there are many more who might be drilled to pass (or have a marker squint generously with one-eye at their test papers), but remain much less accomplished than others of their cohort. That is life. They are children, and they are not as able as their peers. Just as there are adults who will never be able to do what other adults do academically. Maybe those children will be at that developmental stage in a year’s time, or two years. Or maybe they’ll never get there. Maybe they’ll be late developers in their teens or early adulthood. Or maybe they won’t develop in a way which allows them to get the 5 A-Cs which Morgan laughably claimed this morning would “set them up for life” – such utter rot. But it won’t be through lack of trying.

A teacher reads to schoolchildren in a primary class 


Which of these children are “mediocre failures”, “dragging down standards for brighter pupils”, according to Tory policy?

I wonder if there’s anything else a school can usefully do other than drill kids for a single test ? Surely not.

So what can we do for these children of mine ? These beautiful little people who had the worst possible start to life, and are now trying so very hard to grow up as healthy, functioning adults, to build the confidence and self-esteem which we all need in order to get out of bed and make our way in an often uncaring world. They’re not going to be doctors, or lawyers, or CEOs. They’re more likely to be at the other end of the income spectrum (and, God, I fear for them in this neo-Victorian nightmare the Tories are building, of zero-hours contracts, job insecurity and poverty pay). The answer is, it’s hard, but we can do quite a lot.

  • All schools can offer small group teaching as long as the funding is there. There are still too many schools suffering a complete lack of imagination when it comes to using the pupil premium, and of course the funding of the pupil premium was a bit of a slight of hand as well, but additional provision can be found with real effort.


  • Schools should offer more than a one-size-fits-all curriculum – especially secondary schools. There’s really no reason why schools should waste a child’s time forcing them to do hours of KS3 RS or French every week, if what they really need is help in being able to write basic English words. I don’t care at all if they never get to learn about the great world religions. I do care if they can’t read a letter from a bank, read a newspaper or fill out a form. But more than that, why do we insist on children with different talents all spending the same amount of time doing the same things ? My middle daughter has a great ear for music, but no interest in computers. My youngest is tone deaf, but demonstrates a real interest in ICT. Yet both will go on, in all likelihood, to do the same music and ICT allocation. And, of course, neither music nor ICT play a significant role in SATs, which is now, apparently, all a school should focus on.


  • The qualifications offered by any school system should recognise that not all children either want to, or are able to, follow a traditional academic curriculum. I can’t begin to describe the pointlessness of forcing children who struggle to comprehend a written paragraph to take a history GCSE; vocational qualifications like Health and Social Care are much more likely to allow them to make their way. I once had a twitter argument with someone who proclaimed with messianic zeal that allowing children to choose less academic subjects for GCSE options was akin to child abuse, as it was denying their life chances. No, mate, I’ll tell you what’s denying my childrens’ life chances : forcing them to do subjects they can’t succeed in, so that lazy adults can produce self-serving arguments for maintaining a restricted choice rather than putting in a bit of extra effort to allow those kids to pursue useful goals which they can achieve. And if you think the only useful goals in a school are the bloody Ebacc qualifications, then you’re suffering a failure of imagination and empathy so profound that I hope nobody with your blinkered worldview ever gets anywhere near teaching my kids. Sorry that 140 characters couldn’t convey that at the time.


  • If I wanted to go to the really radical end of the spectrum, then I would advocate repeat years in primary school. I know in my marrow that my youngest would have benefitted from another year in reception before finding herself unable to do nearly all the activities her classmates were doing in Years 1, 2 and 3. I know this is controversial, but I don’t care. It would at least be an attempt to help rather than simply taking in every child, irrespective of ability, and grinding them through the same sausage machine.


  • I know this next one might be incomprehensible for the inhuman auditors of the current government, but perhaps we could even stop drawing a line in the sand and declaring that those on this side are successes, while those on that side are failures. We might use assessment as a way of identifying strengths and weaknesses, and then tailoring a response, rather than standing at the end of the platform directing one group directly to the cattle trucks. It’s clearly insane to pretend that someone who achieves a C grade in a history GCSE with 48% is a success while his classmate with 47% is a failure. Yet that’s what we do, because someone has to fail, right ?. And now the government wants to bring this demonstrable madness to our eleven year-olds. Good effort.


Perhaps most importantly, we could offer kids like mine what their primary school has offered them already : care, compassion; an opportunity to shine at non-academic activities like swimming, or telling stories, or singing; a safe place where dedicated adults try to find what they’re good at (even if they’re not actually that good at it) and nurture those abilities and interests. Rather than saying “Look, kid, you’re 11 now, so jump through this specific hoop, or you’re a failure”, we might see it as our duty to try and offer at least a range of different approaches to education which allow all children to get something valuable out of their last half-decade of schooling.

I occasionally say that the reason we chose the secondary school our daughters are going to was because it was the nearest school which wasn’t a Harris gulag. That’s partly true. But the other reason was that when we did the visiting rounds, the school had a real emphasis on applied subjects, with beautiful D&T projects, a great dance and drama set-up, and teachers who visibly seemed to enjoy being with the children, and didn’t talk solely about results. I felt that when my non-academic kids got there, that school would nurture them, help them find their talents, and ensure – insofar as any school can do this – that they continued to see school, and learning, as an opportunity they could grasp, and not something to fear because of a repeated failure to come up to scratch. It goes without saying that the school also achieves excellent academic results, but which simpleton ever thought that it was impossible to both provide a valuable experience for less able kids, while also providing more traditional academic opportunities for the straight A students ? Oh, that’s right : Gove.

Those are just suggestions off the top of my head, in the middle of the night. Give me a few hours of sleep and I could flesh them out a bit. Put me in a room with a few dozen experienced and dedicated teachers, and we could probably come up with many more ideas. We might even dust off the “Every Child Matters” agenda and remind ourselves what life was like before the new Dark Age descended on education policy in 2010. It just takes a bit of effort, and the willingness to accept that some children, like mine, through no fault of their own, are not going to be able to fit in that one-size-fits-all centrally-dictated education system which DFE Ministers seem hellbent on creating, and we have a duty not to cast them on the scrap heap. It means that when children like mine don’t achieve average results in their SATs, the secondary school might use that to tailor an education for them which they can benefit from. You know – an intelligent education system.

Or, we can just do what this article says Tory policy now is, and test them on some spurious criteria which some preaching politician has decided is the only desirable outcome of years of education, so that they fail. Then test them again on the same narrow and unachievable criteria, so they fail again. And keep testing them, repeatedly, so they fail, repeatedly. And then call them “mediocre failures”. Because it’ll be their fault, won’t it ? Or their teachers’ fault ? Or their school’s fault ? We can blame someone for their inability to fit in with a restrictive and damaging idea of what matters. If the horse isn’t getting up, just flog it some more.


Morgan publishes new Tory education policy

The real “mediocre failures”

I know Tories like a bit of blame. They like to blame teachers. Or schools. Or children. They like to separate the world into winners and losers; outstanding and inadequate; deserving and undeserving. They like the idea that life is a contest, and they’re very, very good at deliberately not noticing the fact that they’re starting halfway down the track in a Ferrari while some people have iron chains around their ankles. It’s one of the many reasons why I’ve always despised the Conservative Party. But they are planning to institutionalise a policy which will repeatedly label my children “mediocre failures”, which will deny them their right to an education which they can access and achieve something in, and which will force schools to offer less and less of what my children need and deserve, in order to try and achieve something which isn’t actually achievable in the first place. And they’re proud to boast about this to the world on the front of their in-house journal.

My children have already succeeded against odds you cannot imagine. They already have to put in heroic efforts just to do the things which many children have always been able to do without thinking. They are not going to find school, or life, easy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve useful outcomes. It just means that they need a school system which accepts more than one incredibly short-sighted and narrow view of what useful outcomes are.

So, Gove, Morgan, and any other cloistered, uncomprehending Central Office SPADs who had a hand in producing this execrable policy, and that quote in particular, let me tell you what failure is. Failure is an adult who, through ignorance, stupidity, laziness or a simple callous lack of empathy, happily labels the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children in the country as “mediocre failures” simply because you haven’t the wit or humanity to care about the impact on them of a policy which will make their educational experience narrower, less useful, more soul-destroying. And for what ? A cheap headline in a propaganda rag.

My children may not pass their SATs, but they’ll never be as much of a failure, as a human being, as those politicians who would condemn them as “mediocre failures” simply for being who they are.


665 thoughts on “Mediocre Failures

  1. I know you probably won’t have time to read all the comments but I still wanted to say you’re a good Mum. No child is a failure. In a ideal world we would want every child to be able to read and spell and do complicated maths. This is not an ideal world and for some children we need to set achievable goals like basic reading before we try and force a second language on them.
    I remember asking how I was sposseed to be able to learn French when I was still finding English so hard. I never got an answer just a wasted two hours a week looking at words with even less meaning.
    We need to find away to help bright children flourish and provide leading for children who are not academically strong. Seems like we need to educate the education system.

    Liked by 3 people

    • This is SO important. Think about this…………..if the soul, before birth, chooses the amount of difficulty the child is going to tackle before the physical manifestation on the earth-plane, the more advanced souls are those who try to take on the greater difficulties. Ergo, who is the most advanced spiritual person, the one with the difficulties and progressing, or the testers and assessors who collect statistics for eventual political gain?
      Thanks for this article. I shall see that it reaches as many people who are still able to take ‘the path less travelled’ as I can, in the next week.


    • I can remember my belated Mum (an infant teacher at the time) coming home after difficult staff meetings and bewailing the introduction of the National Curriculum in the late 1980s. Having been a KS2 class teacher myself for a while, I totally agree with the sentiments of this author regarding the state’s inability to accept each individual child as an individual with their own gifts and needs, and speed of learning, and simply wanting to put them all into little boxes, which mean that some children are deemed to have ‘failed’, when the truth is that they have not been given the time, space and care to learn things at their own pace.


  2. I have an 18year old son who is autistic and ADHD he was never able to sit any exams but he has the living skills I am proud of he will say hello and goodbye to you also please and thankyou and is able to dress himself and prepare himself a meal that is all I wanted for him to be able to do when he was younger he may never be employed but he has been at college for 2 years and they have been wonderful but if the government take the surport away he will not succeed or progress any further in life


    • Yes, I already have similar comments from one sociopathic Tory arse which I left in place as an example of how unpleasant these people can be. But I don’t see the need to accepttrolls on my own blog. Disagreement, to be sure, but not just the sort who types abuse with one hand while carrying out self-abuse with the other. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your children can be thankful to have such an amazing, thoughtful and committed mum. The system has always stunk. One has to do what one can to steer them through school with minimum damage, and with maximum effort to help them find things in which they can excel.


  4. I’ll be honest – I didn’t read the whole thing – I didn’t need to.

    Although you are adamant support is still vital. You’re children will not be failures.

    My husband was adopted in the 50’s which was a pretty cruel time for it. In his life he has found many many successful skills despite his reading/writing/numerous levels being somewhat lower than my own (being nearly 40yrs his junior). Many of skills are that of building/mechanics but his knowledge of physics is astounding and as a result he became the owner of a several million £ a year business. Unfortunately he lost this through divorce but even this does not make him a failure.

    I wish you and your family all the very best. In life i have learnt it’s not if you mess up its if you can fix it. Xxx


  5. I was enjoying reading this & agreeing with most of your arguments until it turned into a political rant :/ The torys are no worse than labour I‘m afraid, I have worked in education for many years & have watched ideas & priorities come & go. No one has got it right & labour screwed the education system up just as much. My children are in their 20‘s and the education system under Tony Blair failed them just as much as yours might be failed. Know this though, with loving caring parents like yourself your children will be fine and will find their place in the world. I have 4, all of whom I am extremely proud of regardless of their academic abilities, the world will always need people of different abilities to make it work.
    If you had written this without the political bias, it would have had much more meaning 😦


    • Cat

      I agree wholeheartedly that New Labour’s obsession with testing and micromanagement did much damage – indeed, there’s an unhealthy consensus across the three main parties. However, as I mentioned in a comment above, this piece was written in response to a Tory policy with quotes from a Tory Prime Minister in a Tory newspaper, for the Tory manifesto.

      So you’ll forgive me if the target of my ire was the party which was responsible for this announcement, this quote and this policy.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think you are an amazing person and mother. The hardest job in the world, for which there is no training, no academic qualifications are needed, no exams need to be sat, no-one says ‘you are now prepared for the job!’ So if we parents (adoptive parents, guardians, grand-parents etc.) can do the hardest job in the world without formal qualifications, how can anyone say that someone without a formal qualification is a failure! Too much emphasis is put on academic qualifications. If everyone was an academic scholar then who would write the music, who would fill our worlds with art, who would nurture our gardens, who would design our wedding dresses, who would build our houses or our roads, who would do all those myriad jobs that are essential to our present day lives that no amount of academic qualifications would make a person suitable for. This world is a diverse place with diverse needs but all are equally important. I cannot paint, nor write music, I cannot speak a foreign language and I cannot spell, my special awareness is virtually non-existent, I cannot play any sport, I am untidy, forgetful and disorganised. But I do have an academic degree and a masters degree, so does that make me less of a failure than all those people who can do all the things that I cannot do but who simply don’t have an academic qualification. I think not!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One of the most heartfelt and down to earth articles I have read in recent times. You have hit a very rusty nail right on the head. Despite Cat’s dislike of your focus on the Tories, it is the Toadies who are doing the real damage at this time. I have lttle faith in labour or Lib dem alternatives either, they seem to be almost as out of touch as the current bunch of posh boys. They are all like some kind of educational ISIS and have clearly never taken a blind bit of notice of the actual research carried out in classrooms over the past couple of decades, choosing instead to preach their own vote focussed ideology! Kids develop at different rates and squeexing them all through the same hoops at the same age is so counter productive it beggars belief. As you so brilliantly pointed out the real mediocre failures are the Goves, Camerons, Osbornes and Millibedes who run their campaigns on PR not practical solutions. There should be no tolerance of the two faced lying B’stards in Whitehall from any political party. May 38 degrees, Avaaz, Sum of Us and the other campaigning non parties keep pulling the cliques to account.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My adopted children are at the beginning of this journey and face many of the issues you talk about so have all of this to come. I hole heartedly agree with you and worry about secondary school they are very lucky to be in an amazing primary school.


  9. I was academically bright at school. I was bullied and taunted. The kids who became my friends, gave me an emotional shelter, included me, never judged me, just accepted me, were the ones right at the “bottom” of the ladder, the ones who were in the “remedial” class, the odd ones out. I will never, ever forget that early lesson in emotional and interpersonal intelligence and how it is entirely dislocated from academic performance. There are so many types of intelligence and ability out there, everyone is so different, and we just keep shunting academic brightness to the top of the pile as it were the only valid aspect of a person.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Your children may well turn out to be the lucky ones. I have known a number of children who were pushed too hard in school and could not cope later in life. You have great instincts for what is important and it seems to me that your three will grow up with the values they need, if not the academic qualifications. PS. My own son, born prem, took 15 years to catch up and with virtually no qualifications is now a happy working man with wife and child. Don’t ever give up on them. They may surprise you.


  11. I’m sorry to hear about you and your childrens’ unhappy experiences. I was interested to read this because I am adopted myself, and I can assure you, I would have hated it had my adopted parents made this a milestone to hang round my neck throughout my childhood. They always had the highest expectations of me, and gave me every chance to succeed. We lived in an area where grammar schools were – and still are – in existence, and I passed the eleven plus and went on to university. This despite suffering from severe epilepsy, as a result of damage sustained during my early life. You have written movingly from the basis of your personal experience, and I have written from mine. I hope you will take this in the spirit it is intended. Being adopted is not a life sentence. Please don’t make it one for your children. They live in the real world where they will be expected to achieve at an age appropriate level in school. It’s not impossible – please have higher expectations. You could be pleasantly surprised.


    • Paula

      Thanks for your story. With the best will in the world, though, this issue has got nothing to do with being adopted. It’s about less academically able children. Most such children are not adopted, and face exactly the same issues. In addition, your story has limited relevance – by passing the 11+, you were clearly a very academically able child at age 11, compared to your peers (irrespective of adoptive status). Those are not the children this article is about.

      I grind my teeth in frustration a bit when people talk about “high expectations”, as if other people’s expectations are somehow the determinant of outcomes for a child. They are absolutely not. Following that logic through, you’d have to point at every parent of every child who didn’t get straight A*s and accuse them of having insufficiently high expectations of their own children. Not sure I’d want to face the righteously angry mob which would result. It’s exactly the sort of blaming the child/parent which I just wrote about. To pretend expectations can account for the sort of differences in ability we see between the different ends of the ability range is, in my view, just the sort of fantasy American-Dream kind of nonsense which excuses a society from actually acting to help more disadvantaged children rather than simply telling them to pull their socks up and have high expectations. Certainly writing children off without evidence would be terrible, but by the time you have years worth of schoolwork, expert opinion, professional assessment and even medical expertise, all pointing to a child with developmental delay, or simply not very academically able, then expectations need to be high but realistic, not Disney fantasy. This has got nothing to do with expectations, and everything to do with reality, and to be honest it’s a bit of an insult to both the parents of less able children, and to their teachers (of whom there may be many), to imply that the reason for a child not performing at school is due to their low expectations of that child.

      In many ways, this issue is at the heart of what I wrote about. Current education policy is based on the idea that with ephemeral fluff like “expectations” or “the growth mindset”, then all children should be able to learn at exactly the same rate, in exactly the same way, and achieve exactly the same results by following the same curriculum to the same exams. The fact that this is demonstrably untrue hasn’t stopped this particularly pernicious myth taking hold. The result is that we aren’t even trying to provide an education system which caters to people with different ability or interests, because we hide behind the idea that a bit of positive thinking or “grit” can ensure we all turn out as academic clones.

      Sorry for the frustration, but being told that one “doesn’t have high enough expectations” is insult to injury. If my expectations weren’t as high as they could possibly be, I’d sit back and let them roll through the school system uncomplainingly, being failed and labelled at every stage, and emerging from the other end with nothing of value. It’s exactly the sort of blaming the child (or the parents) which allows governments to continue to ignore the desperate need for a more rational approach than our increasingly one-size-fits-all education system.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have to say I really agree with disidealist here – I have (non-identical) twin daughters in Australia in grade 8 and for some reason while one absolutely blitzes her exams, the other (brought up in exactly the same home environment, with the same expectations and the same quality teaching), struggles to pass her maths and science tests. I only have my experience to go on, but expectations don’t seem to account for their differences in achievement standards. It breaks my heart to have to send my ‘non-blitzing’ girl back into the fray to face the next maths exam which she goes into knowing she won’t achieve a pass mark on. Each time it gets a little harder for her to paste that smile on and walk through the school gate only to be told that she’s a failure. I watch and wonder what is this doing to her sense of herself as a worthwhile person when all focus appears to be on getting this wonderful girl with a big personality to achieve a maths score of better than 30%. I see she has so many qualities, so much to offer this world (other than mathematical ability of course). But it seems that scores are what we reduce children to now both in Australia as well as the UK. I resent that our schools can’t find better ways to assess how a child’s understanding of different disciplines is advancing. Our children deserve more. Thank you for shining light on some of the complexity of this issue disidealist.


  12. Data is a crazily ‘important’ thing in education now. If we were all plunged into a dark age tomorrow, no one would care who got a level 6 or 7. I’m a teacher and it’s getting very uncomfortable to constantly measure students in this way. I was just wondering whether your children get any special dispensations or scribe services? kids in my (secondary) school can get 25-50% extra time in public exams and a scribe if they really need it. I’m not saying this because I think your kids should try to ‘measure up’ I’m just offering a suggestion or how to make the system work harder for YOU and not the other way round.


  13. I described this as a insightful yet devastating article on the state of our current education system. I am a SENCo and have serious concerns over these proposals and the impact it will have on our childrens’ self-esteem. Having previously worked in a PRU I have seen first-hand the impact that our edcuation system, obsessed with testing academic attainment, has on the self-esteem of some of our young people. These same young people have gifts and intelligences in other areas but give up on themselves at such a young age and label themselves as ‘useless’.
    Good schools and teachers do what they can to reduce the impact that the governments educational ‘reforms’ have on our children. Unfortunately, the same reforms are also having a huge impact on our teaching staff and it is hard to motivate others when teachers themselves feel so demoralised, over-worked and under-valued. When you hear the likes of Michael Morpurgo and Michael Rosen voice their views on education I long for them to take up the post of education secretary!
    I wish parents could have a deeper understanding of the experience of education for children, not get caught up in the belief that this one size fits all approach to education and the goal to a ‘level four’ or ‘secondary ready’, is the ‘holy-grail’. Then I wish we would all come together to do something about it!


  14. After a lifetime in education teaching ‘mediocre failures’ – starting in 1976 with what were in those days called ESN (M) schools – Educationally Sub-Normal (Moderate) to secondary mainstream and ‘remedial’ classes and Special Needs Units through to post 16 Further Education I have yet to see ANY form of intervention make any significant difference to achieving the levels current educational policy would wish for all children – if there was such a solution and given the number of students affected someone, somewhere would have made themselves rich beyond their wildest dreams in successfully changing the lives of millions – the fact that nobody has in this age of entrepreneurial endeavour is evidence in itself that such a solution does not exist – as the article says, most of these children work harder and try harder just to achieve what the lucky minority find come naturally. Every person is equally as important as the next – measuring ability within the context of an education system which is at present obsessed with achieving targets means that the whole system is now corrupted by it – it has become formulaic and prescriptive in the extreme with the contrivance of the examination award bodies in order to achieve consistently better results. This and then this make the point from the end user of today’s system all to painfully clear!


  15. I have three kids, one academically very bright, one in the middle and one (my youngest) who struggles. My youngest’s verbal communication was more than a year behind the average when he started. From my point of view I am broadly in favour of the changes suggested by the government, because:

    1. I think we all wish that tests weren’t necessary, but if schools aren’t assessed, problems are not found and teaching can’t be improved. The reality is that there are a lot of poor schools and poor teachers (I experienced more than my fair share as a child). If someone works out a better way to monitor school’s and teachers’ performance than testing the kids I’ll be onboard, but until then, tests it is.

    2. In my experience nobody makes big deal out of the tests. There are NO teachers calling kids failures. It is part of the role of teachers and parents to set a child’s expectations, so that they know what success looks like for them. It is perfectly possible to push a child to achieve and for them to have a sense of accomplishment even if other children in the class are achieving better results.

    3. As for your point about the EBAC I do feel this is a step in the right direction, there are many bright kids who are held back because they (and their parents) make poor choices for them in year 9. In my view children should all have an opportunity to experience a wide range of subjects and one should not pander to the “i’d don’t like (insert subject) mentality. Of course I’m talking about the majority here, but in my experience there is nothing rigid in the way this is taught, for example at my daughter’s school her friend with dyslexia has extra english lessons instead of doing the two MFLs that the other children do. None of the children think this is strange and there is no stigma attached to it. But in my opinion if children are able to learn an additional language they should do so.

    4. Enrichment activities are crucial at school. At my eldest son’s school they have over 100 to choose from. They take part in west end theatre, have won many national sporting competitions, and have choirs, orchestras and rock bands, they exhibit in both photography and painting. My point being that the school puts much effort into finding SOMETHING the children can enjoy and do well. Much of the life of the school is not focused on academic tests, but recognising achievement in a wide range of subjects. In my opinion this is what Michael Gove meant when he said that he wanted state schools to be indistinguishable from a minor public school.

    As I said at the start I have a child who struggles so I don’t say this lightly, but schools are run for the 80% in the middle, if you have a child at either end of the bell curve then I agree schools are not focused on your needs. Maybe in the past your children would have been at a special school, I think we have moved on and that including them in mainstream education is a step forward, but for the majority of kids the tests work and do allow parents to monitor the progress of their children and for the government to monitor the school. In my experience schools work well around the curriculum – the example I gave earlier of extra english lessons in place of MFL for dyslexic children is a good example.

    I would add that as a parent it is incredibly difficult to monitor how your children are doing. Teachers tell me that my oldest is very bright and should be able to get A* in all his subjects if he works hard. The problem for me is what does working hard mean? I’m not a teacher, I have no other benchmarks. I like the continual assessment as it reassures me that whilst he might look like he’s coasting, he actually is working pretty hard and is on track. He had a new science teacher last year and all the children’s results were terrible, she did not last long at the school. Without the tests to highlight the poor teaching how long would this substandard teacher been allowed to carry on?


  16. I work in a nurtue group In a primary school and every day that we start we have some members of staff who don’t like what we do .some of our children come from the most traumatic backgrounds. Just recently we had to fight tooth and nail to get the school to agree to let us have a display board for our nurture group saying it was a waste of time. They were all very surprised when they saw the results of our children needless to say my colleague and I were very proud of them all and we hope that this is the start of a better understanding of theses children.


  17. This brought tears to my eyes and at the ripe old age of 64, not much does these days. What a brilliant mother you are and 3 wonderful children who are so lucky to have parents that can see past these draconian education standards. I was lucky enough to be at school when there was a path for everyone and it was recognised that not all children are the same but that does not make the non academic ones any the less valued than the academic. It’s about time we started treating children as children. Each one precious in their own way. Of course we all want to think that our children will grow up to be doctors and lawyers but that is not realistic and whatever they become, if they are happy and healthy (and perhaps minus a few exams) then what else matters. Education is important but it has many faces and cannot be defined simply by statistics. I wish this family all the love and luck they so deserve and that these children will learn that they are not the failures, it is the system that is failing them.


    • I feel the need to respond briefly to your comment. I am sure you meant no offence by it, but it really grates for me when “happy” and “healthy” are lumped together. Although my life is undoubtedly more complicated as someone “unhealthy”, I am definitely “happy” and feel incredibly lucky to have the life I do. Suffering from serious health problems may be far from ideal, but it is important people realise that, like lack of academic ability, it does not mean life cannot be fulfilling, enjoyable and we’ll worth living. Please don’t just write off the worth of a life lived dealing with on-going serious health issues.


  18. A brilliantly written article which I agree completely with. However I have one major “but”. Children should absolutely be treated as individuals within the education system but we need a way of measuring the relative performance of a school or a teacher otherwise how do I know that my son or daughter is achieving his or her individual potential? I want my children to go to a school that pushes them to achieve their potential whatever that might be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stephen, just to be clear, I’m absolutely not arguing against assessment. That’s a key tool in every teacher’s armoury. The issue is that assessment is helpful if it leads to appropriate provision. But appropriate provision in the current system often means simply saying “do it again, but work harder”. Parents, teachers and schools can still access information from those assessments about how their child is doing in relation to whatever system replaces levels, or GCSE grades or age-related expectations and so on – there’s a range of ways of assessing progress, none of which require a high-stakes test at 11.

      Secondly, there really is no need for this cliff-edge pass/fail mentality. Achievement is on a continuum for all of us, adults or children. We accept this at A-level, for example, where the difference between an E grade and an A grade is vast, but we don’t class E grades as “failures”. Even the word for below E is “unclassified”, not “fail”. It’s a big difference. Children understand that there are other children who are more or less able, and they can deal with that in my experience. But start coming along and stamping “FAIL” on the foreheads of the least able is simply obnoxious and inhuman.


  19. An excellent article. However – a word of hope – I spent 10 years tutoring a severe dyslexic – went to secondary school with a reading age of less than 6 – he came out with a 2.1 in fine arts eventually, and the ability to read and write fine essays! Yes – I would LOVE to see repeat years – as most of more sensible Europe does. It would ease the load on the kids and their parents enormously. And help everyone’s self-esteem.


  20. The whole idea of testing for intelligence and learning makes mt stomach turn – perhaps through the recollection of how I felt when I was a child.
    Why stay within the system when it is obviously lacking? Why not home-school your kids?

    When you home-school, the pressure is off, both for you and (more importantly) for your kids. Homeschooled kids can forget all about such concepts as achievement and failure. They can simply enjoy the experience of learning whatever they want to learn.

    As an example – : My three kids were all home educated; none of them has been to school, and nor did we follow a curriculum. Essentially, I provided whatever materials were needed for them to pursue their own interests, only occasionally “interfering” with demands for written work.
    The older two successfully took and passed GCSEs and A levels. My elder daughter was mathslexic – at the age of 14 she still couldn’t do long division or long multiplication – but when she was told that she had to pass GCSE maths or forget about university she simply sat down and learnt. It’s amazing what we can do when we actually WANT to do it…
    This child scored 5 A levels and sailed into university, were she excelled.

    The oldest child also passed his As but he opted out of the idea of university. The youngest (still only 17) has thus far shown no interest in taking any exams.
    This is the key point about home schooling, and about any worthwhile system of education – it allows the child to make his/ her own decisions all the way through. I earnestly recommend that you take the pressure off your kids.


  21. Thank you so much – Disidealist!
    Like so many others I take my hat of to you for expressing, so clearly as well as so passionately, these vital concerns. your children are very lucky to have you!
    As a newcomer to all this my question is – where does all this go? I see there are some folks involved in education posting on here, but how does it reach or influence decision makers? Or does that happen somewhere else? I write as someone who has recently taken my (academically sound) child out of school because of a seemingly complete lack of understanding of emotional needs. When a child comes home claiming that he hates himself – you have to look again, and again and again – and if the teacher, or the school, (which happens to have a really good history of social inclusion) is not capable of finding an appropriate response – you have to wonder why? I assume its because of the pressures – financial and academic, that doesn’t allow for this.
    I opted for m home-education, despite the challenges of being a single mum with ME! Because my son needs time to rebuild his self -esteem, and I don’t believe that school is a good place for that to happen.
    I have also written an ’emotional learning proposal’ which is very simple and I would love to see implemented in all schools, but how can they afford to spend time or resources on emotional learning when they are so busy meeting educational targets?


  22. I know this is completely away from the point and thrust of this moving and thought provoking post (for which thank you) but how weird that everyone keeps referring to you as a mother/mum – doesn’t it distinctly say father back up there? I’m trying to work out exactly what underpins the assumption.


    • Yes, that’s an interesting side issue. I suspect it’s because this gained purchase on sites like mumsnet, and so people made assumptions. I don’t think it’s a big deal. There are plenty of cases where people automatically assume a writer is male. I’m completely fine with it.


  23. Great post. Even though my son is my biological child, I could identify with so much of what you said.
    As someone who went through two different European education systems, including one in Denmark, I find the English one very odd. For one, the inequality of it is staggering. Two, I can’t believe children’s precious time is wasted on prayers, as, even though the country is very secular, half of all primary schools are still affiliated to some religious denomination. I am against publicly-funded faith schools, and I find it very strange that the whole education system in this country is so antiquated. The existence of public and faith schools fosters inequality, which every government promises to tackle, but then refuses to acknowledge that in order to tackle it, you need to make sure very child has access to good quality education, no matter how much money their parents have or to what religion they belong (in Finland, which has the best results in Europe, private schools are banned to ensure equality of education). My son is autistic and has learning difficulties. He is currently at a school for children with special needs. But at first we were offered a place at a state CoE school, and so paid for by taxpayers of all faiths and, as in our case, none, which was not only totally inappropriate, as it lacked even the most basic facilities for autistic children (the sensory room was a small, dirty room, empty, save for one dirty pillow), but would also happily feed him religious dogma (twice-a-day prayer etc), despite our wish to bring him up without it. Perhaps Mr Gove and co should do something about this waste of precious teaching and learning time, before they mess up the system even more. But, as a party, they are in favour of faith schools, so no chance of that. Yes, the whole system needs to change on a fundamental level, it needs to be more equal, but you don’t achieve that by blaming teachers and giving up on less academic children.


  24. I read the SAT plans with utter horror knowing what my own school experience was like. I believe I have undiagnosed dyscalculia; I came out of comp with all A* in all GCSES except for my F in maths. It basically wasn’t (and I think still not) recognised in schools or easily diagnosed short of seeing a three thousand pound specialist in London so to this day I have to struggle on with no support or even an official name to give to my problems. It really can make daily life hell. I was made to resit and revise maths until I had a complete breakdown and no self esteem left because I was too stupid to do maths. It has ruined my life as it is impossible to get a job that doesn’t want GCSE maths, paying for a bus or tipping a restaurant bill is an ordeal that sometimes leaves me shaking I’m so anxious. It breaks my heart to think of other children living this experience. I agreed with every word you said.


  25. Ex secondary Headteacher here. I never has much time for SATs and would suggest to parents that they keep their kids away from school on SAT exam day if they didn’t agree with them. I had even less respect for the system when, during an Ofsted inspection year, we discovered that all the English SATs had been wrongly marked by a rogue examiner. The children were initially given grades one or two below that which was eventually (after a long time) awarded after a major re-mark. Couldn’t happen today though could it??

    As a rough rule if you want to know what an appropriate education for your child might look like, read either the Labour or Tory ideas on the subject and choose the opposite. None of these major political parties base their education ideas on peer reviewed research evidence. Dogma rules and has done for some time..


  26. How could your children fail at anything important when they have you fighting for them and seeing every wonder and flaw and embracing both the same. The early experiences may never be overcome but what you have given them will be more important than any SAT’s mark, any GCSE. I’m a primary teacher and I can say hand on heart that i’ve sat and cried with the feeling of complete impotence because I can’t find the way to get a child to learn something. Going through everyway I can imagine to make number bonds to 10 stick or remember a certain “tricky” word and failing, and trying again only to fail. Every child is unique, every child should matter. And the worse thing is that it’s not only the Goverment who have become obsessed with the results but now parents don’t want to know anything about their children other than if they will get x or y. They don’t want to know how kind their child has been, or how hard they tried when faced with a problem. A parents evening can be filled with me explaining to parents that their child could be pushed to be exceptional but in doing so they would probably have to sacrafice the childs childhood, innocence and natural wonder and been amazed how many parents shrug off the sacrafice as being nothing. Almost trying to convince me and themselves that their child no longer wants to be a child.


  27. A child will work .as hard as he learned to play .WHERE S THE RAINBOW..?? My babysitter and my eldest daughter lesrned to write like my seven yr old . So they could help with his six pages of reputition every s like their shoveing learning down there troats..each of us serve a specail purpose. If it wasnt for social reason and the law. Most kids woudnt go…it was a mistake for them to ban god from the schools..and they do have a kinship with cps.


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