End of year elitism

I’ve been lucky this end of year, I’ve had to endure only one school function to wrap up my daughter’s primary school life and have escaped the plays and performances other parents in this town are suffering through right now.
(Although of course parents are divided into two types: those who love the school stuff and those who don’t – I’m in the latter category otherwise known as the “bad mothers”, we also tend to be the parents who forget the “plate of eats” and don’t turn up for tuckshop duty or knit or bake anything for the fundraisers.)
Anyway if you have to suffer two hours of school pomp and pumping up the value and image of the institution you can turn it into a learning experience – or a column.
My daughter’s school is obviously sensitive to the boredom long prizegiving ceremonies generate so they’ve invented a way of making them really smooth: they give every prize a girl has won to her simultaneously. So if she got a merit award, plus the tennis cup, plus the best speller, plus the most improved at maths – then they read them all out, get her up on stage and pile her high with certificates, framed pictures and ugly trophies (maybe I never craved one of those as a child because I never wanted to put something so garish on my bedroom shelf). They’ve also streamlined the reading out and clapping. An entire category of prizewinners goes up together, gets their loot and then one burst of clapping for all is made.
Rather painless.
But what it does do is illustrate very powerfully who gets all the prizes. There’s a sea of kids sitting down here on the floor getting nothing, a thin snaking line going up the side of the hall to the stage and among the singles getting only certificates are the few carrying so much stuff they can barely stand.
It got me thinking about the way we order our world into the mass and the stand-out, the many and the few, the mediocre and the exceptional.
Why do we do this and why do we to it to our children?
At this time of year when my child gets just a certificate for much improved performance I absolutely hate this system.
It doesn’t make it feel any better that the overloaded are her best friends and somehow it doesn’t seem to damage the friendships or that my child feels not jealous rage but a resignation that that’s way the world is.
In fact that makes it much worse, for me.
In discussion with a colleague I raged about systems of elitism and he remarked: “Not elitism, attrition.” Exactly, the grinding and wearing to see if you can withstand it. And if you can they reward you with a prize. (Although that’s not what he meant.)
But like all tried and tested systems with longevity, it’s hard to propose an alternative.
When we began the shift in this country to outcomes based education the anxiety raised was all about reducing educational systems to producing the mediocre. Why are we so afraid of producing a mass of people who can, instead of a mass of people who mostly can’t and some who can exceptionally?
And why do we save our best rewards only for the exceptional?
And it doesn’t help to try to sweeten this with platitudes like: “every child is an individual” (as though personality makes up for floundering through the system, or being loved by your family is compensation for never getting a foundation that’s strong enough to project you into the harshness that is life to come) and “children grow at their own pace and will blossom when they are ready” (when the system is rigidly paced in step by step learning blocks although anybody with a brain knows that a brain doesn’t work like that).
To return to the ceremony: there’s another connection that’s fascinating. The parents sitting on the stage with the teachers. Unlike me who just avoids because returning to this school is too much like returning to my own and evokes the same feelings of not belonging and not having figured it out; there are those parents who have – figured it all out. And this probably comes with the DNA they inherited. They know that getting it together here when you’re knee-high to a grasshopper does matter. They know these are not salad days. They know.
They also know that their children don’t know and would rather swim and play.
So they bake the cookies and sit on the governing body and coach them through the homework and groom and raise their children to absorb by osmosis the techniques that work the system so that when they go further (in the self-same system – university is just another stage) they are like fish in water, they don’t think they just breathe it in.
My poor unlucky child. Despite my figuring this out and knowing it now, I still won’t join the PTA or run a stall at the fun day.
Too much resistance to this system has been built into me.

November 2003

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