Mediocre Failures

Which of these children are “mediocre failures”, “dragging down standards for brighter pupils”, according to Tory policy?

Which of these children are “mediocre failures”, “dragging down standards for brighter pupils”, according to Tory policy?

My children are adopted. They were adopted at the ages of three, four and six. As with nearly all children adopted in this country over the last couple of decades, this means that their early life experiences were pretty terrible. As each was born, their collective experience of life became more damaging, as their circumstances worsened. So the eldest is least affected as her first years were perhaps less difficult experiences, while the youngest is most affected, as her entire first two years of life were appalling. I’m not going to go into detail here about their specific early life experiences, but if you want to read up on the sort of effects which can result from serious neglect or abuse, then you could read this .

Why am I writing this ? Especially now after midnight in the middle of the Easter holidays ? It’s because I’m so angry I can’t sleep. I can barely see the screen through the red mist.

Hyperbole ? No.

The cause ? This :

I want to find the people who produced this policy, and tear their cold, desiccated, hearts out. I want to shove a burning copy of this mindless sociopathic rag up their shrivelled, self-righteous sphincters.

They just called my daughters “mediocre failures”.

Children aren’t machines. Tories : take note of this remarkable discovery

Let’s be clear about this. My two youngest will not achieve Level 4s in their SATs at the end of Year 6. There’s a small chance that middle child, now in Year 6, will reach a Level 4 equivalent in parts of her English, but even with all the extra classes and drilling which the school is throwing at her, maths just isn’t going to happen. As for youngest, my beautiful baby in Year 5, she won’t achieve any level 4s next year. Not because she doesn’t try; she tries so, so hard. But because her early experiences mean she doesn’t have sufficient fine motor skills to write as her peers do, and because both she and her middle sister have serious difficulties with concentration, memory and retention, and all those issues deteriorate even more when in stressful situations like tests. But more than anything else, it’s because they can’t do it. They just can’t. And I’d love to tell you that it’s because of X, and so if we do Y then it’ll be fixed, but that’s not how life works. People aren’t machines with blueprints allowing you to track down and repair malfunctions. Like most clever people who don’t have difficulty with language or maths or spatial awareness, or other academic activities, I fundamentally find it impossible to truly understand whythey can’t, despite endless practice, remember how to spell basic words, or how to do basic sums. The school have tried all sorts of different methods of teaching it, and so have we at home, but one day it’s there, and the next it’s gone. Some things stick for a while, some things don’t stick at all.

That’s not to say they can’t learn anything. They can. When youngest entered reception class, she was assessed by a child psychologist to be about 2 years behind her peers intellectually, socially and in terms of her physical co-ordination. Two years behind, at the age of four, and in the very bottom percentile for motor skills. She’s probably two years behind still, but she’s now ten. So she’s made a lot of progress. But she’s not catching up, or “closing the gap”, as Ofsted like to say. She’s maintained a distance, but that difference is now probably stretching away again somewhat. She’s what has always been termed by the professionals we’ve seen as “developmentally delayed”. The result is that she, along with her middle sister, struggle at school with all their subjects.

The school’s been great. They’ve offered extra tuition throughout, and a marvellous, endlessly patient, learning support assistant has dedicated a fair portion of her last seven years to all three of my kids, helping a succession of classroom teachers to try to bring them on. The school has made them feel safe, and happy, and interested. It’s a testimony to that school that our girls, despite being different in so many ways, haven’t been made to feel different. Their cardboard Anderson Shelters, and their decorated poems about the sea, may be rather less polished than their classmates’ but they’ve been no less enthusiastic about bringing them home and showing them to proud parents.

And they can read now. Eldest is an avid reader of typical 13-year-old chick-lit, middle is ploughing unenthusiastically but capably through Hettie Feather, and youngest is about to finally finish the Oxford Reading Tree ladder (I’ve been through Chip, Biff et al’s adventures three times now – enough already !), and she can read proper books. Hesitatingly, to be sure, but she can read, when for the first couple of years, that looked very unlikely. The younger two do struggle a bit socially, and neither has especially close friends, as both are socially less sophisticated than their rapidly maturing peers, and more comfortable playing with younger children. But nevertheless, they do mix with other children, and play well in large groups. At home, they are delightful, loving, awkward, stroppy, generous, always hungry, funny and, above all, happy.

But they won’t “pass” their Y6 SATs.

There are plenty of other kids who won’t “pass” their SATs too. Even small percentages represent thousands of children. Then there are many more who might be drilled to pass (or have a marker squint generously with one-eye at their test papers), but remain much less accomplished than others of their cohort. That is life. They are children, and they are not as able as their peers. Just as there are adults who will never be able to do what other adults do academically. Maybe those children will be at that developmental stage in a year’s time, or two years. Or maybe they’ll never get there. Maybe they’ll be late developers in their teens or early adulthood. Or maybe they won’t develop in a way which allows them to get the 5 A-Cs which Morgan laughably claimed this morning would “set them up for life” – such utter rot. But it won’t be through lack of trying.

I wonder if there’s anything else a school can usefully do other than drill kids for a single test ? Surely not.

So what can we do for these children of mine ? These beautiful little people who had the worst possible start to life, and are now trying so very hard to grow up as healthy, functioning adults, to build the confidence and self-esteem which we all need in order to get out of bed and make our way in an often uncaring world. They’re not going to be doctors, or lawyers, or CEOs. They’re more likely to be at the other end of the income spectrum (and, God, I fear for them in this neo-Victorian nightmare the Tories are building, of zero-hours contracts, job insecurity and poverty pay). The answer is, it’s hard, but we can do quite a lot.

  • All schools can offer small group teaching as long as the funding is there. There are still too many schools suffering a complete lack of imagination when it comes to using the pupil premium, and of course the funding of the pupil premium was a bit of a slight of hand as well, but additional provision can be found with real effort.


  • Schools should offer more than a one-size-fits-all curriculum – especially secondary schools. There’s really no reason why schools should waste a child’s time forcing them to do hours of KS3 RS or French every week, if what they really need is help in being able to write basic English words. I don’t care at all if they never get to learn about the great world religions. I do care if they can’t read a letter from a bank, read a newspaper or fill out a form. But more than that, why do we insist on children with different talents all spending the same amount of time doing the same things ? My middle daughter has a great ear for music, but no interest in computers. My youngest is tone deaf, but demonstrates a real interest in ICT. Yet both will go on, in all likelihood, to do the same music and ICT allocation. And, of course, neither music nor ICT play a significant role in SATs, which is now, apparently, all a school should focus on.


  • The qualifications offered by any school system should recognise that not all children either want to, or are able to, follow a traditional academic curriculum. I can’t begin to describe the pointlessness of forcing children who struggle to comprehend a written paragraph to take a history GCSE; vocational qualifications like Health and Social Care are much more likely to allow them to make their way. I once had a twitter argument with someone who proclaimed with messianic zeal that allowing children to choose less academic subjects for GCSE options was akin to child abuse, as it was denying their life chances. No, mate, I’ll tell you what’s denying my childrens’ life chances : forcing them to do subjects they can’t succeed in, so that lazy adults can produce self-serving arguments for maintaining a restricted choice rather than putting in a bit of extra effort to allow those kids to pursue useful goals which they can achieve. And if you think the only useful goals in a school are the bloody Ebacc qualifications, then you’re suffering a failure of imagination and empathy so profound that I hope nobody with your blinkered worldview ever gets anywhere near teaching my kids. Sorry that 140 characters couldn’t convey that at the time.


  • If I wanted to go to the really radical end of the spectrum, then I would advocate repeat years in primary school. I know in my marrow that my youngest would have benefitted from another year in reception before finding herself unable to do nearly all the activities her classmates were doing in Years 1, 2 and 3. I know this is controversial, but I don’t care. It would at least be an attempt to help rather than simply taking in every child, irrespective of ability, and grinding them through the same sausage machine.


  • I know this next one might be incomprehensible for the inhuman auditors of the current government, but perhaps we could even stop drawing a line in the sand and declaring that those on this side are successes, while those on that side are failures. We might use assessment as a way of identifying strengths and weaknesses, and then tailoring a response, rather than standing at the end of the platform directing one group directly to the cattle trucks. It’s clearly insane to pretend that someone who achieves a C grade in a history GCSE with 48% is a success while his classmate with 47% is a failure. Yet that’s what we do, because someone has to fail, right ?. And now the government wants to bring this demonstrable madness to our eleven year-olds. Good effort.


Perhaps most importantly, we could offer kids like mine what their primary school has offered them already : care, compassion; an opportunity to shine at non-academic activities like swimming, or telling stories, or singing; a safe place where dedicated adults try to find what they’re good at (even if they’re not actually that good at it) and nurture those abilities and interests. Rather than saying “Look, kid, you’re 11 now, so jump through this specific hoop, or you’re a failure”, we might see it as our duty to try and offer at least a range of different approaches to education which allow all children to get something valuable out of their last half-decade of schooling.

I occasionally say that the reason we chose the secondary school our daughters are going to was because it was the nearest school which wasn’t a Harris gulag. That’s partly true. But the other reason was that when we did the visiting rounds, the school had a real emphasis on applied subjects, with beautiful D&T projects, a great dance and drama set-up, and teachers who visibly seemed to enjoy being with the children, and didn’t talk solely about results. I felt that when my non-academic kids got there, that school would nurture them, help them find their talents, and ensure – insofar as any school can do this – that they continued to see school, and learning, as an opportunity they could grasp, and not something to fear because of a repeated failure to come up to scratch. It goes without saying that the school also achieves excellent academic results, but which simpleton ever thought that it was impossible to both provide a valuable experience for less able kids, while also providing more traditional academic opportunities for the straight A students ? Oh, that’s right : Gove.

Those are just suggestions off the top of my head, in the middle of the night. Give me a few hours of sleep and I could flesh them out a bit. Put me in a room with a few dozen experienced and dedicated teachers, and we could probably come up with many more ideas. We might even dust off the “Every Child Matters” agenda and remind ourselves what life was like before the new Dark Age descended on education policy in 2010. It just takes a bit of effort, and the willingness to accept that some children, like mine, through no fault of their own, are not going to be able to fit in that one-size-fits-all centrally-dictated education system which DFE Ministers seem hellbent on creating, and we have a duty not to cast them on the scrap heap. It means that when children like mine don’t achieve average results in their SATs, the secondary school might use that to tailor an education for them which they can benefit from. You know – an intelligent education system.

Or, we can just do what this article says Tory policy now is, and test them on some spurious criteria which some preaching politician has decided is the only desirable outcome of years of education, so that they fail. Then test them again on the same narrow and unachievable criteria, so they fail again. And keep testing them, repeatedly, so they fail, repeatedly. And then call them “mediocre failures”. Because it’ll be their fault, won’t it ? Or their teachers’ fault ? Or their school’s fault ? We can blame someone for their inability to fit in with a restrictive and damaging idea of what matters. If the horse isn’t getting up, just flog it some more.

The real “mediocre failures”

I know Tories like a bit of blame. They like to blame teachers. Or schools. Or children. They like to separate the world into winners and losers; outstanding and inadequate; deserving and undeserving. They like the idea that life is a contest, and they’re very, very good at deliberately not noticing the fact that they’re starting halfway down the track in a Ferrari while some people have iron chains around their ankles. It’s one of the many reasons why I’ve always despised the Conservative Party. But they are planning to institutionalise a policy which will repeatedly label my children “mediocre failures”, which will deny them their right to an education which they can access and achieve something in, and which will force schools to offer less and less of what my children need and deserve, in order to try and achieve something which isn’t actually achievable in the first place. And they’re proud to boast about this to the world on the front of their in-house journal.

My children have already succeeded against odds you cannot imagine. They already have to put in heroic efforts just to do the things which many children have always been able to do without thinking. They are not going to find school, or life, easy. But that doesn’t mean they can’t achieve useful outcomes. It just means that they need a school system which accepts more than one incredibly short-sighted and narrow view of what useful outcomes are.

So, Gove, Morgan, and any other cloistered, uncomprehending Central Office SPADs who had a hand in producing this execrable policy, and that quote in particular, let me tell you what failure is. Failure is an adult who, through ignorance, stupidity, laziness or a simple callous lack of empathy, happily labels the most vulnerable, disadvantaged children in the country as “mediocre failures” simply because you haven’t the wit or humanity to care about the impact on them of a policy which will make their educational experience narrower, less useful, more soul-destroying. And for what ? A cheap headline in a propaganda rag.

My children may not pass their SATs, but they’ll never be as much of a failure, as a human being, as those politicians who would condemn them as “mediocre failures” simply for being who they are.

Tories : Bevan was right.



One comment on “Mediocre Failures

  1. Very, very touching. Shall we ever learn what is important in life?

    Liked by 1 person

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