Britain On The Couch; How to make schoolchildren feel inadequate

Are good or bad A-levels and degrees more important than emotional well-being?
MY HEART goes out to the millions of young people at schools and universities who are currently suffering the annual examfest. The generalised anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation caused by this barbarous ritual are a disgrace to a civilised society.

On my first day at school, aged five, I picked a fight with an older boy and had a significant quantity of hair separated from my scalp. I probably provoked this assault, being a selfish and aggressive boy, but the experience did nothing to endear me to schooling.

Not that I needed much discouragement, having been raised in a family where academic success was not highly valued. At first I was sent to easygoing institutions, but when I was eight my parents reluctantly accepted the need for me to be emotionally culled. I moved to an extremely tough, old- fashioned preparatory school at which my total disregard for rules and refusal to do any work were met with implacable violence.

Hardly a week went by without the headmaster beating me with a rounders bat. On one occasion my mum took pity on me, suggesting I wear a pair of lederhosen - leather shorts - underneath my regulation kit. It took the sting out of the blows, but there was nothing she could do to protect me from the maths teacher's approach.

Appropriately named Badger (as in Bully - although Reptile would have been even closer to the mark), he would slide alongside me saying, "Come on, James, what is an isosceles triangle? When I failed to satisfy him, he would take a firm hold on the small hairs by the side of my ear and pull with gradually increasing power. "No, James, that is not an isosceles triangle. What is an isosceles triangle, James?"

I did not respond well to this and when I was 10 and a half the headmaster authoritatively informed my parents that I was mentally handicapped and should be sent to a special school.

I wonder what exactly the Prime Minister had in mind when he declared that "Education, education, education" would be his priority in government. Of course, Mr Badger's techniques are no longer legal in our schools, and I realise that the state system is in urgent need of improvement after 20 years of neglect.

But we seem to be suffering from educational schizophrenia. Low-income people are given grossly inadequate schools, yet the rich are doing their best to drive their children mad, as young as possible, by increased competition and time spent on schooling.

The same is true in much of the developed world. Between 1913 and l983 the average number of years' schooling doubled, most of the increase occurring after 1950. The frequency of examination and the importance attached to results have also increased, especially in Britain in the last 20 years.

In 1977, 31 per cent of Etonians left the Top People's School with at least one grade D or worse, whereas only 7 per cent did so in 1996. In 1977 also, 46 per cent achieved a B or better, compared with 84 per cent today. Grade inflation and higher entry standards partly explain these changes, but they also reflect a lunatic new emphasis on exam results.

What nobody talks about is the damage done to the self-esteem of the children put through these exam mills. The research of the developmental psychologist Diane Ruble has done most to demonstrate this.

Until about age seven, children are indiscriminate in who they choose to compare themselves with, as happy to pick an adult as a peer. They do not grasp that they have done worse than others.

Comparing the utterances of three-to-six-year-olds and seven-to-nine- year-olds, Ruble found the younger ones more likely to give voice to their successes. She writes that "preschool and primary grade children show impressive resilience in the face of failure. They are persistent and self confident and expect future success."

But at the age of seven comes a big change. They make less positive statements about their performance, as social comparisons with peers become the means of self-evaluation. This new preoccupation is exploited by teaching methods that make public victories and defeats.

These changes play havoc with the child's well-being. Ruble writes that "by mid-elementary school, optimism and positive responses to failure largely disappear, with increasing ... [lack of] interest in school-related activities. When self-consciousness is induced about their standard relative to others, seven-to-nine-year-old children are not satisfied unless their performance is the best. Because there are only a limited number of `winners' in any competitive system, children may experience a dissatisfaction with themselves. Comparison promotes a sense of relative deprivation and inadequacy, affecting relationships and self-esteem."

Children who do badly "may develop a poor opinion of themselves because they compare frequently, drawing negative conclusions from these comparisons". They show signs of "learned helplessness", believing their actions cannot make any difference to educational or other outcomes in their lives. In experiments, when children were given low scores on tests regardless of how well they performed, they began to display similar symptoms of depression.

The long-term results of this unnecessarily savage, premature and comprehensive coercion of children into an obsessive concern with social comparison are much more profound than many people may realise. It means that the vast majority of us - including many relatively high achievers - leave school feeling like failures. The huge increase in the amount and the competitiveness of schooling is one of the reasons that today's 25-year- olds are between three and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression than in 1950.

I am all in favour of Labour's plans to reduce some of our educational schizophrenia by improving the quality of state education. But the Government must start to question the value of inducing low self-esteem on a mass scale at the top end of the system.

At the risk of seeming absurdly crude, I would say that the issue is as simple as this: are relatively good or bad A-levels and degrees really more important than our emotional well-being?

If the Education Secretary David Blunkett does not understand what I am getting at, perhaps he should ask his colleague Harriet Harman about her schooldays. A graduate of one of the most cruelly competitive schools in the world (St Paul's in London), she is said to have suffered exactly the kinds of humiliation described by Diane Ruble.

Oliver James's book `Britain on The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared with 1950 Despite Being Richer', is published by Century, price pounds 16,999.