A school (or a government) that requires all children to follow the same curriculum condemns many of them to failure. The most publicly conspicuous example of this is found in the various national assessment schemes and examination systems, but it is only too possible to know that you are failing without having to submit to any tests at all. Those parents and politicians who worry that the less able children do not achieve as much as they should, are, by their very concern, putting the children into a situation where achievement is impossible. But it is not only the less able children who suffer. I was by no means one of the less able children, and yet in certain areas – physical education, music and Greek – I was thrown into situations which I was unable to cope with.
I suspect that everybody who reads this will remember similar experiences.
I failed repeatedly in physical education because I was poorly co-ordinated, but PE occupied only a fraction of the timetable. Those who find academic lessons as impossible as I found catching a ball are humiliated over and over again throughout the school day. The consequence is often disruptive behaviour, and not only in schools for the underprivileged. I saw classes disrupted both at Eton, where I was a pupil, and at Repton, another respected independent school where I taught for three years. In both schools the pupils had been chosen because they were expected to succeed. When they found teachers whose discipline was weak, even these carefully selected boys seized the opportunity to humiliate them.
Where classes are successfully controlled those who have difficulty in coping with the work usually develop a dislike for it, and may well persuade themselves (probably correctly) that it is of little use to them.
When I was sixteen and at last beginning to enjoy lessons in the gymnasium, I was allowed to give the subject up. I immediately did so and never went to the gym again. There must be many children who long to give up certain subjects, and are not allowed to do so. Forcing them to persist inevitably produces hostility and sometimes despair.
My failure in Greek was the result of being promoted in the middle of the year. In my new class the questions we had to answer were set in Greek. This meant that I could not understand any of the questions that we were asked, and therefore could not answer them, even if I knew the answers. Although I had good reason for learning the few interrogative words that were needed, I simply could not do it. My friends did their best to teach me the Greek for who, what, when, where, why and how. There were only six words to learn and yet I got into a mood of despair which prevented me from ever learning which was which.
This must be close to the experience of children who return to school after having been ill for a long time or, more significantly, truants who have been caught and forced to return to their classes. There are two reasons why they are unlikely to be able to catch up: firstly, they may not be able to understand what is going on because they have missed what preceded it, and secondly the problem seems insuperable and they despair.
I am actually quite good at music: I have sung in a madrigal group, I play jazz (piano and tenor sax) and I have written many musicals that have been performed by school-children and adults. Yet when I was a teenager I was discouraged from piano lessons by always being given music to learn that was too difficult, I was rejected from the school choir because I could not sing from written notes and I spent a miserable term doing an optional music class where all the other boys were able to take down music from dictation and sing the instrumental parts from an orchestral score. I was the bottom of the class.
I still feel the shame of this experience, even though I only had to suffer it three times a week. The idea that many children are forced to endure this kind of humiliation all day and every day is a horrifying one.