Education: A breeding ground for failure

Our education system drives too many children into apathy or worse. And it's in danger of damaging the talents of the children it neglects. Martin Newell knows - he's been through it and dragged himself up

It's that time of year again. The A-level results are out today and the media will make a meal of it. In recent years, television footage of the agony and the ecstasy of anxious examinees has provided the main course of this banquet. Hysterical scenes of teenagers crying and hugging each other in the corridors will be captured for posterity in photographs and posted up in the broadsheets for our ultimate delectation.

Other, darker items may be omitted from this menu: the depression and fear of failure. The kids who feel as if they're in the employment bargain bunker. Worst of all, the occasionally successful suicide attempts which sometimes result because of pre- or post-exam failure. In my own area, one girl recently threw herself off a multi-storey car park because of exam phobia. I felt angry and depressed about this, because it made me remember my own hatred and terror of exams.

I've been writing light verse and other stuff for this newspaper since 1990. I nearly always read the Education supplement because I'm fascinated by the Passed/Failed column. I like to read how the distinguished men and women who feature in it each week got on when they were at school. I'm always heartened if I discover a captain of industry or famous author whose own education was plagued by failure or disruption.

As a poet, I've often been invited into schools to talk about my work. I may also be the only pop poet who's experienced a full week of the tender mercies of the Ofsted inspectors, since a residency I held at a high school coincided with an Ofsted week. Partly because of my experiences, I've developed strong views about education. I believe that there are children who simply slip through the net and drop out of the system, for no other reason than that they can't take the pressure. I also believe that the way education is headed, we may encounter more and more of this sort of thing and that the talents and abilities of those kids who give up may be lost forever.

People often assume that I went to university. I was actually the eldest of three boys from an army family. I went to 11 different schools and finally left aged 15, before taking any O-levels. I have never taken an exam in my life - apart from the 11-Plus, which I failed. I briefly attended secondary, grammar and comprehensive schools and, apart from being "good at English", that's it.

By the age of 18, I'd already been a working lad for three years. I did factory or cleaning jobs. My friends, who were mostly at college, persuaded me that I should try to get back into education. I walked into my local college and told the lady that I wanted to come out of the cold. She asked me about what I'd been doing and then enquired as to whether I had any school records. When I replied that I didn't, she said that she didn't think I stood much of a chance. "Oh, all right then," I said. And promptly gave up.

I took to singing in rock bands at night and working by day. When I was in my mid-twenties I was persuaded to try and got into the local university. They interviewed me and asked me to write an essay. I wrote one about Orwell's 1984. "Very good," they said. "Now go and get an A-level at the local college." They also gave me some baffling forms to fill in. It was all a bit much. I gave up and joined another rock band.

I don't feel that I am unique by any means. I know several people in the music industry and art world whose stories are not dissimilar. But my own story is a fairly extreme example and it's something of a miracle that, in my forties, I now write poetry and books and am sometimes invited into schools to try and encourage others to do so.

A philosophy lecturer I know once sat me down in a pub and explained to me the function of the Socratic Principle in education. He told me how its use had been eroded, if not pushed into obsolescence, in recent times. My own generation may have been the last to benefit from that "simple thirst for learning" I was told about, which once in place, would carry someone through life even if the education process was interrupted or curtailed. Reading books was the saving of me. I read anything which took my fancy. From Jackie Collins to George Orwell, I made no distinction. I just read.

I believe that we place too much emphasis on learning goals/targets. We take no account of those young people who may feel as I once did. If we want to drive kids to apathy, drugs or depression, then current methods might be the way forward, since they don't take any creative or lateral intelligence into the equation. A growing human being can be an incredibly complex and fragile thing. Feed it a few acrobatic adolescent hormones and then try and squeeze it into a One-Size-Fits-All educational straitjacket and you're asking for trouble. I know - I was that trouble.

I also believe there should be some kind of an educational "sick bay" where people such as I once was can be treated a little more kindly. In the absence of any brighter ideas, perhaps they could simply be encouraged to read. I am extremely angry about what's happening to a proportion of young people nowadays as a result of the uni-directionalism of modern education - I'm talking about senior administration here, not teachers. I would like to be able to say: "Look, if a sleepy chowderhead such as I once was can do it, then so can you." I also want to scream: "If you don't pass your exams - in fact if you never take another exam in your life, it is Not The End of the World."

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