This One Quality Alone Can Repair Our Schools And Everyone’s Sanity

Why a “no more fun” approach doesn’t work.

What is the biggest problem with schools today? In a word, fear. I have seen it first-hand. But why it is such a problem? And what simple change can we make to turn the tides and reclaim our schools?

First let me take you on a familiar journey. The more familiar it is, the more tragic for you I am afraid.

PROBLEM: Each night Isabelle worries sick about her son, Jonny. He has done badly on his last round of tests. At parents evening, Isabelle listens to how Jonny is sometimes away with the fairies. He could do with concentrating 100% of the time. He has also missed a few homeworks.

RESPONSE: Isabelle resolves to take all distractions away from Jonny until he improves. No sports, no friends, no nothing until he starts hitting his targets. Above all no fun. She sends an email expressing her concern to the head of department, copying in the classroom teacher. If he fails his exams, he will not get a good job and then what will become of him.

PROBLEM: Meanwhile, Alex is Jonny’s maths teacher. He has other students in the class not hitting their target. He is warned by his head of department this is not good enough. He then faces parents, suggesting improvements, while batting away accusatory looks. If he could only control the class better? Or teach more efficiently? Or give more time to my Jonny… it goes on.

RESPONSE: Alex resolves to tighten up the classroom. No more fun. As soon as the students arrive there will be a task on the board. Students are to enter in silence, put equipment out and work independently for 5 minutes. They will then get straight into the lesson, where every minute is accounted for.

PROBLEM: Outside of this merry dance, the head teacher has looked at results. The year-group is under-performing in Maths. If things continue on this trajectory, there will be a 5% decrease in passes. This is unacceptable. The governors will be outraged and Ofsted will be next.

RESPONSE: The head teacher calls the head of department into their office. Things need to improve and fast. There is not a second to lose. No more fun. Jonny is taken out of Drama and PE to focus on his maths skills. In total a group of 25 in each year group will do the same. Books will be marked every week by teachers and checked meticoulously by line managers.

Now, before we go on, let’s all agree that every person described above wants the best for Jonny. They want him to do better in maths so he can do better in his life. They want him to “switch on” so that he can see the benefits of the GCSE fully and have more choices later in life. There are thousands of Jonnys, Isabelles and Alexs in this world. Sadly, they are all are scared to death and acting out of fear, oblivious to how Jonny feels.

As well-meaning as these motives are, they are not helping. As we all know, the most dangerous people in the world are those who think their doing good.

For the purposes of the story Jonny is 13 years old but he could just as easily be between the ages of 10 to 18, such is the toxicity with which exams pervade. Such is the fear.

We as teachers, parents, headteachers, managers and politicians need to be brave. Otherwise, the same tired tropes and anxieties will continue to make everyone’s lives a misery.

All of this leads to the major point of this article. We as teachers, parents, headteachers, managers and politicians need to be brave. Otherwise, the same tired tropes and anxieties will continue to make everyone’s lives a misery.

It is not right to take sports or creative subjects away from Jonny. He needs balance to cope with the pressures of modern-day schooling. Taking these things away will affect his mental and physical health. They also lead to an under-current of resentment which will likely backfire in the classroom and on the parents, making the situation worse not better.

We must admit changes designed to help one thing often have a broader impact than we expect. We must ask questions of ourselves as well as Jonny.

The truth is a lot of what we are hyper-focused on is not as important as we think. It is certainly not worth the countless sleepless nights we collectively spend anxiety riddled. Think of what we could achieve if we used that energy productively. Think of the challenges we face as a society.

There is a lot good about the school system but zoom out for a second. What are we as parents, educators and industry leaders searching for? What does success look like? Somewhere along the line we have lost track.

I designed THE Triumph program because I believe that most of what Jonny bangs his head against the wall to learn, can be learnt in 12 weeks of intense study – in Maths at least. I designed it because as a teacher I was startled by the number of students there are like Jonny – paralysed and unhappy. To me, Maths needn’t dominate students or parents lives. THE program is designed to draw a line under it and give the student the choice of how far they want to excel afterwards. Crucially, this decision will be a confident one and not out of fear!

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