No More Gold Stars – Chapter 9: Education – a poisoned chalice?

It’s a long time since my last post, diverted as I have been by this new member of the family!

Gold Star for helping to make the bed?

Digby, now four and a half months old, is currently fast asleep after a ‘puppy play date’ this morning and a wild walk on the common this afternoon. In terms of achievement, it’s all been about doing as much as I can to socialise him before he hit the magic twenty weeks old when, apparently, his super sponge-like puppy brain will become resistant to new input and he is likely to be scared of anything he hasn’t already experienced. In our frenzy of encountering buses, trains, livestock, sliding doors, people of every type imaginable etc, we are bound to have missed something and I will find out the extent of my failure as time goes on. Pigs! We definitely didn’t meet any pigs. Darn.

Meanwhile, in my spare moments, I have been re-reading Alain de Botton’s splendid ‘Status Anxiety’ which I highly recommend. He reminds us that we have Matthew Arnold and his seminal work ‘Culture and Anarchy’ to thank for the start of state education in Britain and the rise of meritocracy, and discusses how a meritocracy, however fair and reasonable it sounds, is actually responsible for a great deal of misery.

I cannot rise to De Botton’s wonderfully liturgical prose so apologies to him as I briefly and rather crudely summarise.

Essentially, it goes like this. In the bad old days, people knew their place. You were born into a particular rank in society and that is where you stayed. If you were of high rank and were a decent type, you were a responsible landlord, and took a kindly interest in the welfare of your tenants. If you weren’t (think Sheriff of Nottingham), the poor suffered. It would have been nice if Robin Hood had come to their aid but he’s probably a product of hopes and dreams, rather than reality.

Image by David Reed from Pixabay

That’s how it was and, if you were poor, at least it wasn’t your fault. You were worthy of compassion and might even get into heaven ahead of the pesky rich, who were going to is as difficult as a camel would to get through the eye of a needle – or so the church told you.

Fast forward to the twentieth and twenty-first century. The situation is very different because now, education is available to all. Now you can, if you make the effort, become a self-made man. Bring on emancipation for women and they too, with considerably more difficulty (we are, after all, still living in a patriarchy) can start climbing greasy poles and breaking through glass ceilings.

If not, why not? There is no excuse any more. It’s a double whammy. Not only are you poor, but it is now your own fault. Surely you could have pulled yourself up by your own boot straps?

What a radical shift!

And so Gold Stars really begin to matter. If we are not seen to be achieving, we are lazy, idle shirkers. We are the authors of our own miserable destiny and contempt is what we deserve. The liberal-minded might consider that we had a difficult start and mutter about unequal distribution of ‘cultural capital’ but Pandora’s Box has been opened. The idea is out and about and never very far from being uttered. If we’re poor, we deserve to be poor. We are not trying hard enough.

Oh glorious, wonderful, liberal education! Are you a poisoned chalice?

Image by daves19387 from Pixabay

I include here a wonderful piece written by a great friend and teaching colleague who taught in comprehensive schools for many years, in response to a previous post. The school values she writes about are such noble, equalizing values, so intentionally in contrast with competitive ideas about ‘aiming high’, ‘striving for excellence’ or ‘doing our best’ –  but the second is still ‘Ambition’. Perhaps you will feel that she ends on a depressing note. But in myself, I feel hope. I was a child in sensible brown lace-ups and my sister’s old fawn socks that constantly fell down. At that age, I would have prized black patent and white lacy socks. But sod it, I’m past that now. Maybe a sure-fire antidote to Gold Star addiction is simply to grow old enough not to care anymore.

Anyway, I leave you with my friend’s thought-provoking creative response:

The grandmother studied the photograph in front of her. Nine small children in a line on a hastily assembled stage in a school somewhere in East London in 2022.  She was aware, as she looked, that the multitude of national flags in the playground proudly proclaimed the school’s diverse intake. A school for the future, its values encompassed in the acronym CARE:  creativity, ambition, responsibility, empathy. What a long way to have moved on from those old school mottoes along the lines of Per Ardua Ad Astra and the striving to be top of the class, she thought.

Those nine children are the crème de la crème of this reception class. Each has been awarded a prize. Each is clutching a certificate. The child in red football shorts has probably won the Sports prize. The thin earnest one,the Science prize. It is hard to tell who was the most Creative or Ambitious or Responsible, but maybe the child leaning in towards the nervous one, has finally been awarded the prize for Empathy. Who knows? It is hard to tell what great oaks will grow from these five year old acorns, she knew that. The nature/ nurture debate will rage on, as it had when she decided to be a teacher all those years ago.

She  had, after all, been well-trained in the 1960’s, the grandmother now looking at the photograph.  Girls like her had come fresh- faced from single sex grammar schools in the Home Counties, eager to learn how the old order was to be turned on its head. Their own schools had selected the top layer of those who showed ability in IQ tests and Verbal Reasoning, and who had a well-embedded knowledge of how to use a subordinate clause.  They  had dutifully achieved 8 O levels, 2 A levels (after the unexpected and unaccustomed joys of the attentions of a male teacher), Economics.

Now, they realised, the world of education was different.  Comprehensive schools across the land would ensure that eleven year olds were no longer divided into sheep and goats, but ALL would win prizes.

‘All children are equal and NONE are more equal than others,’ the student teachers  learned, as they brought the glad tidings to mixed ability groups of 34 or 35 pupils, ensuring that by careful preparation, the sheep and goats all had accessible tasks, and that abundant praise was scattered like soft rain over all kinds of soil where seeds had been planted. ‘They’d praise them for breathing, if they could,’ someone said. 

Sports days became activity days, for rankings of first, second and third were surely iniquitous, and there was always a prize for trying.

‘Trying your best’ was all that mattered, for ‘the sky’s the limit’ and who knew what could be achieved if only you put your mind to it. Failure was not an option. There was always, ‘room for improvement’, yes, but as long as you were somewhere on a ‘learning journey’, all would be well.

And it was. The 1960’s was a heady decade. They were post-war children, these students, and they were going to change the drab old world.  Beatles for the good girls, Rolling Stones for the bad, and what was this? A college with mixed-sex hostels? What was the world coming to? her father had said, as he began to regret having daughters, not sons.

What the world was coming to, she realised, was a place where the glittering prizes were different from the ones before. A prize for the best team. A prize for the best project. A prize for the best idea for the future.

So rows of desks were inappropriate now. Group those chairs and tables together in four or maybe six. Talk and discussion, that’s the way to get results. Elect a competent leader. Give a presentation to the class. Write up what you have managed to achieve together. Ignore Thatcher’s dictum ‘There’s no such thing as society’.  Why, just look in this classroom: children excitedly discussing their latest project, every bright- eyed face included, and all with a job of some importance to carry out.

‘Top of the class’ means nothing any more. Top of what? Top at quick thinking ? Ten out of ten? At learning by heart? Whose heart?  Who knows what’s in the child’s heart who listens intently and says nothing.

‘Timothy Winters comes to school

With eyes as wide as a football pool’

Ever read The Family From One End Street? You should, my dear. Take care. Ability is not the preserve of the middle classes. Ability can be found in the poor, too. What a revelation.

And so we care. And new acronyms tell us what the prizes will now be for, in this shining world: 


That’s what we want for society to thrive. 

The creative child gets the prize for a wonderful model of a new school.

The ambitious child sets up a thriving business at the school gate and gets the prize for enterprise.

The responsible child takes the newcomer under his wing and explains the intricacies of the gold star system.

The empathic child gives warm hugs freely after playground disasters and is always rewarded.

But what about that child at the end of the row, yes, the girl in the rather fetching hat, with the tattooed hand and sandals? Her certificate says, ‘GOOD AT ENGLISH’ so her grandmother in particular is quietly ecstatic, though mustn’t show it.

Is she herself pleased, that girl in the sensible sandals, to have achieved this accolade at the end of her very first year at school? Is she confident that her particular talents have been recognised? Will she bear away her certificate and stick it with Blutak on her bedroom wall, next to Elsa from Frozen, and her orange painting of the seaside?

Or will she, only a few short seconds after the photo has been taken, look sideways at the other girl in the gingham school dress, and be filled with longing? Not for her certificate, no, no, nothing to envy there, but at the prize she would prefer to have won.

Unlike her own bare feet, in the brown leather sandals, the REAL prize shouts out for all to see. It is, of course, the pristine and frilled white knee socks and the shiny black patent shoes. That, my friends, is the real sign of success. 

Oh brave new world.

August 15th 2022.

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