To Help Poor Children, Schools Need to Foster Individuality

Poor chidren are still being let down by England’s education system, according to a speech being given today by Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Pointing to a severe gap between the attainment of children on free school meals and those not, the speech will highlight how the proportion of children on free meals has not changed since 2005.

This is clearly a serious problem with state education in England, and while radical reform of the state sector would go a long way towards improving social mobility, let’s focus instead here on the experience children have at school.

Sir Michael’s reported comments focus heavily on structure and discipline. He describes how children from poorer backgrounds lack clear boundaries at home and the school environment provides a more disciplined environment.

This is definitely an important point. In adult life, discipline is essential to success. This doesn’t simply mean listening to authority, but rather an understanding of how to impose discipline on oneself in life, in order to achieve goals and be productive.

It’s crucial for schools to get this balance right. Too little discipline, and children from undisciplined homes come away without the mindset needed to succeed in a competitive world.

But too much can be harmful too. An over-disciplined school environment engenders a mindset of resentment and rebellion, and can cause problems with authority in later life. This is an issue that is often overlooked, and over-emphasis on structure and discipline may do more harm than good to the goal of improving social mobility.

So what is the solution to addressing the imbalance of achievement in schools? This comes down to a more fundamental question: what are schools for?

The function of education is to give children the tools and skills they need to succeed in adult life. That covers obvious subjects such as language, science and history, as well as more intangible concepts like discipline, commitment and perspective.

What the modern English education system fails to do is provide these tools in a manner that allows for the variety in different children’s needs, ambitions, areas of aptitude and individual characters.

At school, individuality and the structured system are cast as opposites in conflict. Basic discipline, like uniform rules and punctuality, becomes constraining because individuality is not factored into the way education is being delivered.

Sir Michael talks about testing and the importance of it in offering opportunity to disadvantaged pupils. Testing is certainly necessary, but the over-focus on examination and results as opposed to more fundamental learning is what really harms the prospects of all children. We have a system set on achieving numerical results, not on producing successful individuals.

While some of Sir Michael’s comments are certainly welcome, especially his drive to ensure undisciplined parents don’t harm their children’s chances, they also reflect a failure to understand the more fundamental problem with education today.

Education has become about society, not about the individual. Yes, there is a strong need for discipline and structure, but that needs to be in a system that works for the individual child, playing to their individual characters and embracing their own unique ambitions and identities. Yes, testing is important, but that is only one element in the larger picture of preparing children for life in the real world outside.

If we want to help disadvantaged children succeed at school and in life, we need to welcome them into an inclusive system that works for them, not force them into one that’s driven by a higher ideology and only serves to foster resentment and ultimately leads to exclusion and failure.


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