Back in the summer, we went to York for the 50th birthday party of a former school-friend. It was a great event, and I met up with several people I hadn’t seen for nearly thirty years. Most of us were at grammar school together; one I was at primary school with as well, and a couple of others had joined us when the school turned into a sixth form college in 1980.
I reflected on how time has treated us. From what I could tell, we are all happily in stable relationships, even if one or two had a slightly bumpy ride getting there, and several have families of seemingly happy, well-balanced children. We are all in responsible, professional jobs – not rich, but comfortably off; the exception (always the most outwardly ambitious of us) has indeed made his money and has a rather higher-profile job in London. We all seem to be quietly enjoying life, with modest aspirations which are largely being met.
I couldn’t help wondering how today’s politicians and educational gurus would view us. Bearing in mind that we were largely grammar school top-stream people, we would probably all be a terrible disappointment. We are not captains of industry, carving our way through the world economy, generating great wealth, spending it on gold-plated taps for our mansions, agonising over which of our fleet of Rollers to go out in today – or tipping it into political party coffers. We all did pretty well at our exams and got into established universities and now we are in middle-age, solid and unpretentious; clearly the powerful minds still function well, many are active in various cultural activities – but not generating huge bank balances. I suspect we are not alone.
I wonder what difference a few more points on our exam results would have made. (The concept already existed as a tariff for university admission, but not in the target-setting sense that carries all before it today). In terms of human happiness, I suspect the answer is close to absolutely none. My own exam results were adequate but no more, largely the product of innate ability rather than hard work, something I wasn’t very good at as a child. Actually I’ll change that; it was just that my real interests (which I pursued untiringly) were not congruent with the direction in which I was being pushed academically. I wasn’t the only one – but the trade-off was a legacy of interests and skills which still enrich our lives today.
I myself am blessed with an excellent marriage; we have a home that pleases us greatly. I have a largely-fulfilling career and enough money to meet our needs and interests. I have had a book published, and received a degree of recognition for my personal interests. My wide-ranging if restless intellect is a source of great reward. The only thing that my less-than-maximum exam results may have deprived me of is my idle dream of an academic career – but that has only emerged much later in life anyway.
John Tomsett, the York head teacher whom I mentioned previously seems like a humane and principled man (he is also the same age as me). Thus it was with some disappointment that I read in his latest post the following, “[pupils’] start in life will only be enhanced by gaining the best grade they possibly can.” Well maybe – if the emphasis remains on ‘they’ rather than what the education system can game for them. And at what cost to their wider interests or happiness?
Certainly the climate has changed since I was at school, and the issue is very different for those facing disadvantaged starts in life – but I still can’t ignore the nagging doubt that the difference between, say, a B and an A really makes a significant difference to people’s long-term lives. The B-grade you lives the life you have; you will never know what your A-grade life might have been – and does it really matter? I doubt many people lie on their death-beds regretting their lack of A-stars.
The only people to whom it really makes a difference are those preoccupied with claiming credit for maximising the nation’s financial growth, and those whose jobs are on the line if their schools don’t deliver the results that will supposedly do that. It’s rather sad that even principled people like Tomsett are having their horizons forcibly narrowed, let alone the price being paid in terms of general life-satisfaction for the single purpose of meeting that narrow remit.
Personally, as I too near fifty, I lose no sleep whatsoever over those lost ‘A’ grades. Maybe a modest, balanced and happy life is not a bad aspiration for our pupils – even if they won’t be able to afford the gold taps…