This isn’t a new phenomenon I’m sure. I’m sure it happened when I was at school oh so many years ago. During my years as a teacher, I have seen and heard rumblings of it. But the subject has suddenly become a hot topic of conversation in our house recently with my children.
I don’t remember having the conversation with my eldest son. He is a very clever young man. For many of his school years, he relied a lot on natural talent and a great memory and I am pretty sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that. But when it came to a time when he had to work, he worked. He worked because he wanted to get good results. He didn’t care what anyone else did or said, he was really focused and he achieved great A Levels and has continued to do well at university.
All of my children are clever. I am really proud of that but they also work hard. Some more than others, but generally we are greeted with positivity at every parent’s evening and they all do what is expected of them, sometimes more. Two of them are in middle school and the youngest still in primary yet from both schools there is a worrying undercurrent of children who want to undermine other children for being clever and successful in school.
In the primary school, it is low level. Comments made to my daughter about her ability to do times tables. Fortunately for her, she inherits her maths ability from her dad and she finds maths both interesting and fairly easy. She loves times tables and is ahead of her peers. We don’t push her at all but she asks us to help her learn them, but most of the effort comes from her yet she has come home saying that some of the girls in her class have had a go at her about being ahead and told her it isn’t fair and that she is cheating. She was quite upset by the comments and already, aged 7, I can see how peer pressure has affected her as she suddenly said that she didn’t want to practise anymore.
Now, I know that children can be mean to one another and one thing I have discovered from having a daughter is that little girls can be the meanest but why do they have to put each other down so much? Fortunately, the school itself has always had an ethos of celebrating success in and out of school and a weekly family assembly allows parents to join in and see the children receive a star of the week award along with any child who has a certificate or award from something outside of school is brought to the front and applauded too.
Then they go to middle school and everything seems to change. The school that the boys attend is in an area where it has more than its fair share of high-achieving children. The catchment is, on the whole, a fairly affluent area and it feeds into an outstanding high school. The school itself is excellent with a high level of teaching and learning which makes it oversubscribed year after year. It was always the school that I wanted my children to go to.
Yet even in a school like that, it is uncool to be clever. It is also a school that celebrates achievements. Commendations are awarded for exceptional work and even though they are harder to earn, a written postcard home is sent to parents, telling them what their child did to achieve the award.
Neither of the boys has had many but they were talking about why they hated getting them the other day over breakfast. Apparently, as they walk up to the front of the hall to be acknowledged for their achievement, other kids jeer at them and make derogatory comments. Not loudly enough for the teachers to hear but the kids receiving the awards hear them and according to my son, that makes a lot of kids prefer not to have them. He said that it is really embarrassing to have to get up for an award. He doesn’t want to stand out. He doesn’t mind standing up for a team award if it is a sporting achievement, though, that isn’t so bad. I guess there is strength in numbers.
They also talked about friends of theirs who have purposely forgotten to do homework, so that they can appear cooler in the eyes of other friends. What is that all about? I know some kids have an aversion to homework, I have one of those, but he always does it as he hates getting into trouble. But for some, they would prefer to get into trouble as it makes them look good?
This conversation made me feel really disappointed. I talked to the boys a lot about it and said to them that they really should be proud of any achievement. We have always encouraged the children to want to do well at school and that it isn’t all about rewards, but they should have a sense of self-worth. The end game is in sight now with R heading to high school in September and L following a year later. I know that they can both do well at GCSE and A Level and beyond if that is their chosen path. I am not going to force them to do well, I want them to achieve for themselves.
Ultimately, for me, I want them to be happy but I still try and encourage them to have a good work ethic. Before they left primary school, my husband I had long conversations about the choice of schools for them all. Private education was never a viable option financially but we did give grammar schools serious consideration. There are quite a few excellent grammar schools within driving distance. But with three very different children, this posed a number of issues.
R had a rocky start to his education and for him, staying with his friends is more important than anything else. On the whole, he has an amazing group of friends and I don’t want to take him away from that. He does work hard and I am fairly confident that he will come out of high school with everything he needs to do well in life, both socially and educationally. The high school has a really mixed catchment and I think this will help prepare him for life in the real world.
L was the one we worried about. I still think that a grammar school might have been the best option for him. He has started to become disaffected by school and his grades have slipped. He thinks that messing about and being ‘one of the lads’ is more important than doing well and homework will be done, but with as little time and effort as humanly possible. But with him in a grammar school potentially 10 or more miles away, I would have to be in two or three different places at each end of the day and that would be rather tricky.
But would grammar school solve the problem? I am sure that the work ethic and general attitude towards success and achievement must surely be better? If you look at the statistics at GCSE, over 95% of pupils in grammar schools achieved five good passes as opposed to just under two thirds at comprehensives. So the statistics shout loudly about success and achievement which is great but in a system which possibly encourages competition, does that cause other issues such as elitism and a gap between those who are naturally academic and those who are tutored to within an inch of their lives to get a place?
I’m not against grammar schools at all, I hasten to add, that is a whole other debate, these are simply the thoughts that I have had whilst considering the best options for my own children.
So if grammar school isn’t the answer, what can you do to encourage your children to be proud of their achievements and shake off the pressure of their peers.
Talking to them certainly helps, rather than ignoring it and hoping that it will go away. Without lecturing them and taking time to listen too. I have discussed the fact that working hard and being successful at school will have so many benefits to them in their adult lives; going to university and getting a job is only the start. I don’t want them to look back and regret not putting in the effort when it was needed.
Be a positive role model. Whatever your own experiences are of education, they do listen to their parents (occasionally) and I do believe that by always talking positively about school and education will help to influence their thinking. Take an interest in their school work and what they are learning.
Failure isn’t the end of the world. We all get things wrong and I always say to my children that that is how we learn. Don’t give up. Pick yourself up and get it right next time.
Ask them why some of their peers are mocking their successes. When I asked that question, the response was that they weren’t the sort of kids that ever received commendations. When I pointed out that maybe that was the answer right there, it made my son think. Perhaps they were jealous? Perhaps they felt that they would never achieve it, so their defence mechanism is to mock the system?
I will be interested to see how this situation develops when the boys move to the high school. I realise that success at school isn’t everything and whatever their successes or failures, there are always other options, but I hope that they will keep listening to me when I talk about being proud of their successes. It is cool to be clever at school, whatever anyone else might say.
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