Education, Success and Rewards

Success and failure

Recently, I was at my daughter’s graduation, a lovely day not only for myself, my wife and daughter but other parents, relatives and the new graduates. Everyone dressed in their finery ‘glowing with pride’ as their offspring went up to receive justifiable applause for their achievements. Such events have been taking place across the country, and rightly people are proud.

One of the traditions of these events is the awarding of honorary degrees for the great and the good. During the ceremony we were brought down to earth by Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, who reminded us that not all the language about young people is positive and so much of it is couched in negative words like unruly, feral and anti-social. These descriptions contrast with the positive views and opinions being expressed at the graduation. Her central theme, if memory serves me correctly, is the decline of spirituality in the United Kingdom and the need for ‘kindness’ to be at the centre of all our work with children.

Camila Batmanghelidjh’s words and ideas were thought-provoking and in a tangential way connected with ideas presented by Will Hutton in his book of the 1990s: The State We’re in: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome it[i]. In this book, if I remember correctly, he presented a case that Britain was divided basically into three strata – one group of the population that was very wealthy and secure, a second group that was basically managing, albeit they would run into difficulties very quickly if unemployed, and a third group who are struggling.

Social exclusion

Although Will Hutton’s idea is somewhat simplistic, at the time it was a stark warning that a group in society is becoming separated, what New Labour referred to as the ‘socially excluded’, a term that is not just about economic poverty but describes people who feel disconnected from mainstream society.

One of the criticisms of New Labour in the current climate may be they have lost sight of their constituency. Recently a report on the BBC newsnight programme was looking at young people living on an estate in the north west of England, and the piece concerned gangs who were operating on the estate, and the territorial nature of their behaviour. When asked by the reporter why they continued with the behaviour, one young person said that was ‘All I know’ – a philosophy of no hope.

Although this Government is credited with doing a considerable amount for children, we know that we still have high rates of child poverty and high inequality on indicators such as health and education. As a country the United Kingdom is at the bottom of the league of industrialised nations in terms of social mobility, a factor that is clearly linked to educational achievement. As a group of researchers found in 2005, “The strength of the relationship between educational attainment and family income, especially for access to higher education, is at the heart of Britain’s low mobility culture and what sets us apart from other European and North American countries.”[ii]

Rewards: what do people really want?

In the sixth and final summary report presented to The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Inquiry[iii], the committee looked at the issue of values. In this report they looked at issues such as the importance of children being listened to and highlighting concerns that many adults have about the portrayal of children in the media, the latter’s ‘preoccupation with celebrity’ and the overemphasis on material wealth. So much of this has an emphasis on the superficial – instant solutions, success and fame, a culture of the game show.

People of all ages need to have a sense of belonging, a belief and a feeling of hope. One of the concerns I continue to have is that there are considerable numbers of young people feeling they are beginning to be cut off and have no hope.

The Government’s obsessions with targets and performance management has in many ways lost sight of the real person. Education and social work with young people is not an exact science; it is more of an art form; it is about dialogue. The focus on a narrow curriculum for a significant number of children seems to have limited relevance to their own lived experience. I was reminded of this recently when one of my own tutees (who recently graduated) left me a thank you card in which she had written a message to myself and my colleagues which said, “Many thanks to you all for helping me realise my potential”.

It is the word ‘helping’ that I would emphasise because her educational journey was not merely about the acquisition of knowledge; it was also a process that challenged her values and hopefully made some connections to her own life which will be of benefit to her in the future. Education is not merely a passive process of being taught by an expert but an experience in which the student is equally involved in learning.

My tutee’s comments may make me ‘glow with pride’ but they fail to acknowledge how much I and my colleagues learn from our own students, because much of education should be a participatory form of learning rather than an expert / novice didactic process. Yes, people need the 3 Rs of writing, reading and arithmetic but they also need the skills to survive in a complex world of which they need to feel a part.

[i]Hutton W. (1996) The State We’re in: Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome it. Vintage[ii] Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Steve Machin (2005) Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America… (accessed 27/7/2008)[iii] See:… (accessed 27/7/2008)

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