Health: Are we putting too much pressure on our children?

Britain On The Couch: Education becomes a process for stunting creativity and fostering mindless obedience
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK I wrote about the damage done to the mental health of children by educational pressures. This week I want to ask: in whose interest is the suffering of the millions of young people currently doing their exams? Advanced capitalism, that's what it's all for.

It would be rash for any parent or teacher with the best interests of their children at heart to ignore the new emphasis on qualifications to obtain almost any job. Yet the real beneficiaries of the present system are employers, not the self-esteem and fulfilment of future employees.

If schoolchildren are forced to believe that their economic future and independence is wholly reliant on educational performance, it encourages subordination and conformity. Education becomes a process for stunting creativity and fostering mindless obedience to authority - useful traits in a workforce but not, surely, the ultimate goal for the system.

The getting of A-grade A-levels does not tell me that someone is able to think, only that they are able to please. Exams do not test knowledge or scholarly intellect but the capacity to please the examiner. I formed this view from conducting IQ tests on children as part of their overall emotional assessment (when working as a clinical psychologist). IQ tests are a good predictor of academic achievement, and can also tell us a good deal about the psychology of exams.

In many cases it was the children who did well on the test who gave me the most cause for concern. In the verbal section there was a question along the lines of "You are playing with a ball when another child takes it away and refuses to return it. What would you do? The obvious and honest answer always seemed to me to be "thump the bastard if he or she is not bigger than me, until they give it back". But this answer scored nul points.

I found that the "clever" children would dart a piercing, inquisitive look at me when asked this. It looked as though they were thinking, "That's an odd one. I know what I would really do but something tells me that that is not what you have in mind." They would then put on a Goody-Two- Shoes face and answer, "I'd go and tell the teacher."

These children were "bright" only in the sense that they were good at picking up what the examiner wanted. This kind of brightness is exactly what employers are looking for, but it is highly debatable whether fostering it above all else does the emotional and intellectual development of children much good and, interestingly, in the long term it is not at all in our national interest.

One of the most intractable truths facing developed nations is that they cannot possibly compete with the low wages paid in developing nations. Our future lies in high-tech, high-skill industries. Above all, the more inventive and creative we can be, the better our chances of sustaining our present affluence. If we create a nation of Yes people and banish the non-compliant to low-paid jobs or unemployment, our reputation for innovation will soon be at an end.

Anyone doubting this assertion needs only to look at Japan. The notoriously competitive, exam-obsessed Japanese system is hideously effective in suppressing imagination and creativity. So effective, indeed. that a scientific charlatan was able to sell vast numbers of a book there claiming that the lack of creativity was due to a crucial bit of kit missing from the Japanese brain. The obvious alternative explanation - that it was due to a destructive educational system - was barely mentioned.

I shall not labour the point that most great thinkers, inventors, leaders and so forth were famously useless at school. Winston Churchill, Van Gogh and so forth would have had the odds hugely stacked against them under the present system. While I do not remotely regard myself as comparable to such people, I can safely assert that I "would not be where I am today" (wherever that is) had I gone through the present education system.

My story is illustrative of how an average, somewhat delinquent, upper- middle-class achiever would be handicapped today.

The charitable view is that I was a late developer. I failed the entrance exam to my public school so badly at the age of l3 that I was extremely lucky to be given a second chance (which I took). Today, I would have been weeded out as a no-hoper at age 11 and not allowed to sit the exam for that school even the first time.

At public school I immediately slipped back into my old laggardly ways, and after scraping seven lousy O-levels, today I could have been ejected from the school as someone who might lower the overall A-level pass rates. In fact, I buckled down and worked like a maniac. Despite all this effort my A levels were dismal (B, D, E).

A charitable housemaster let me stay on and take Oxbridge entrance, an exam that has since been abolished but which offered some opportunity for reasoned thought compared with the mindless fact-recitation of A-levels. I did reasonably well and got into Cambridge.

As you wipe away the tears that have doubtless been forming while reading this moving tale of self-improvement, I would remind you that the equivalent person today would have been culled at the end of his first A-level year. None of my masters would have predicted me to get good A-levels at that stage, so I would not have been considered for Oxbridge.

Perhaps that would have been more meritocratic, but what is more fair about a system that strongly discriminates against late developers? Above all, what is the point of all this hothousing?

If qualifications are king, it helps employers to select the subservient people most likely to obey them. Understandably enough, huge retailers want neat, clean, obedient folk and detailed reports on their academic and personal performance at school dating back to age five are useful in selecting them.

Allied to batteries of psychometric tests, many of which have no sound scientific basis as predictors of the best employees, the education system suits employers just fine as a way of finding the most productive labour.

But what does it do for the many of us who are not neat, clean and obedient? In the name of economic growth - misguided, as it happens, because original and deviant personalities are our best long-term hope in a global economy - it asphyxiates us with labels and makes access to fulfilling, productive paid employment increasingly unlikely.