“The world isn’t really my oyster though, is it?”
Jayme, by far the most outspoken and flamboyant member of my year 11 tutor group, is simply brilliant. Every morning, after leaving her posse behind, she waltzes in to my classroom, throwing a sarcastic comment in my direction as she goes. She usually catches me out too; I’m not particularly good at off-the-cuff banter, but Jayme seems to manage it all the time without the slightest hesitation.
Last week, year 11 students across the land were unleashed into the real world. The scene in the assembly hall of Galaxy High on their final day was reminiscent of an episode of ‘Animal Hospital’, in which a gaggle of baby geese are released unwittingly into the wild after a traumatic escapade. Despite their months of complaining about how much they hated school, they all seemed pretty sad to be leaving. I was pretty sad to see them go, if I’m honest. Once you get past all the paperwork and uniform checks, form time is actually quite a nice part of the day. I got to know these kids pretty well, and Jayme was by far my favourite.
One of many form tutor duties was to hold a monthly ‘progress meeting’ with each student. The idea was to go through their current grades with them and discuss what they needed to work on, helping them with any college applications, etc. along the way. My meetings with Jayme were always something to look forward to; her charisma and intelligence always putting a grin on my otherwise grey face.
But, despite her erudite and exuberant persona, progress meetings with Jayme always had an air of sadness about them. The final meeting, in April, was no exception.
I opened up Jayme’s folder as she pulled a chair up to my desk. “You alright, Miss? How’s it going? Did you go netball last night with Miss Harris? That’s well funny that yous are mates!”
“Yes, I’m very well thank you, Jayme. Netball was wonderful. Now take a seat, let’s have a look at this folder of yours.”
Her latest progress report lay before us. I cast my eyes over it briefly. Glowing: lots of A and B grades. “Looks like you’re doing very well!” I said, encouragingly. At this point, Jayme took over the conversation, telling me exactly what coursework was still outstanding for each subject and what she was doing to get it done by the deadline. I didn’t really need to add anything to the conversation; she had already come up with most of the answers by herself.
What concerns me every time I see Jayme’s report is the list of subjects underneath her name. According to the list, she would soon receive the following qualifications: GCSEs in English language, English literature, mathematics, business and art, and BTECs in science and health and social care. That means that she would only be receiving 5 GCSEs and 2 BTECs.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of the subjects she is studying; I am not about to start ascribing value judgements to subject domains, although I’m sure many would. What I do take issue with here is the lack of breadth of her education; there are no languages or humanities on that list, which I find (perhaps controversially) to be an absolute disgrace.
A bright, hard working student such as Jayme should have as broad an education as possible. Every child, upon leaving school, should have the choice to go out and do whatever they want. Who could disagree with that? The list of options available to Jayme is now actually quite short. Without a GCSE in science, she could never be a doctor, a nurse, an engineer or a researcher. Without history, she would struggle to get into law, politics or government. Without languages, she would find it difficult to get a job abroad, work for an international company, or become a translator. Fact is, without any of these subjects, the chances of her getting in to a top university are pretty slim, thus limiting her career choices even more.
Towards the end of our conversation, Jayme paused, looked up, and asked me the following question, the question that prompted this blog post.
“Miss, what am I actually going to be able to do with these qualifications?”
“Aren’t you going to college to do A levels?”
“Yeah, but do employers and universities look at your GCSEs? Cos I don’t know if it’s what they wanna see.”
“They might do, I won’t lie. But look, if you work really hard at college and get some fantastic A levels (which I’m sure you will) you’ll do great! In fact, knowing you, I’m sure you will go very far indeed. The world is your oyster, Jayme!”
“The world isn’t really my oyster though, is it? I didn’t choose the right subjects for my options, did I?”
This was possibly one of the defining conversations of my career so far. It is difficult to describe how I felt in that moment. Firstly, I was deeply saddened by what she had said. She knew that she had been limited by her subject choices, and had the maturity to realise the profound impact this might have on her life. She was already, at the tender age of 16, aware that she might not be able to achieve her full potential. I was sad because no child should ever feel that way.
Then, I was angry. Really angry, in fact. After the bell had gone, and my tutor group had wandered off to their lessons, I whipped out my faithful notepad and wrote down the conversation I have just outlined above. Whilst writing, I could not help but think how much of a travesty it was that the system was allowing this to happen. I wasn’t even going to blame the leaders of Galaxy High. This time, it was beyond even their incompetence. It was the fault of the entire system. Everyone in it who has ever said we need to focus on “5 A*-Cs including English and maths”; everyone who has ever said that students should only study what they are interested in; everyone who has ever used Richard Branson or Alan Sugar to demonstrate that kids don’t need a rigorous education in order to succeed; everyone who buys into the nonsense that Ken Robinson spouts whenever he is given the opportunity; everyone who has defended the status quo and hasn’t had the guts to ask why so many children are systematically being failed every single day.
This is not a game
The obsession with the C/D borderline and the belief that having achieved 5 C grades at GCSE is something to be celebrated has made kids like Jayme just another statistic. She will easily achieve this standard, even without having studied a foreign language or a humanities subject. The annual celebration of mediocrity following results day further entrenches the ‘game’ that schools play. Every year, middle leaders and SLT move children from target group to focus group to tutor support group, as if they are pawns in a giant educational game of chess. Everything must be done to get them those extra few marks, to push them over the C/D borderline. And this is something we celebrate.
Why exactly, are we happy that nearly half of children nationwide do not meet the basic expectation of 5 C grades? Why are we happy to continue playing this results-obsessed game? A child’s education should never be viewed as a game, and the fact that the system is set up as such is destructive; we are forced to focus our energies on the wrong things.
What’s worse is that far too many people make excuses for this game, the most worrying suggestion being the “we are improving life chances” argument. Everyone who has ever said this makes me angry, too. It’s perhaps the most toxic and damaging attitude in education today. If we continue to accept mediocrity, and continue not to challenge the status quo, we will never raise the standard, and students like Jayme will continue to be overlooked.
The last day
As I stood in the assembly hall on the year 11’s last day, Jayme came bounding over to say goodbye. Thing is, I know that she probably will do well in life, regardless of her qualifications. People like Jayme always do well, and she has the drive and determination needed to excel in her chosen path. But it shouldn’t have to be this way. No doubt she will figure out some way of navigating the barriers that her lack of subjects has given her, but why should she have to? Shouldn’t she leave school with a wealth of choice? Shouldn’t she feel empowered, with the world at her feet, ready to go out there and do whatever she wants? And what about all the other kids who lack Jayme’s charisma and unrelentingly positive approach to life? What should they do, when they realise that their education is limited?
As I was stood in the hall, all of these thoughts rushed through my mind. Jayme came over, gave me a gentle tap on the arm and said with a beaming grin “See ya Miss, I bet I’ll be famous before you! I always get my way, ya know! Haha!”
And with that, she left, wandering off down the hill with her whole future laid out before her.
Courtesy of Tessa Matthews at Tabula Rasa