I am writing from own experience. I went to university fed upon an accumulated ideal of what it was to be ‘successful’. After all, the word screamed out in so many prospectuses, along with ‘achievement’ and ‘attainment’. What all three words hold in common is that they are relatively empty, ultimately subjective. The suffix of the latter two, ‘ment’ sounds a lot like ‘meant’ – implying intended meaning. Yet for myself, the pressure to achieve and attain stripped my life of the meaning it had .
Some of this is (but not exclusively) in an academic sense. Notice the recent demonization in the press headlines, for example ‘School League tables: more schools fail to make grade.; concerning changes in GCSE results. There are a number of points in this statement I take issue with. Firstly, that schools are placed in a ‘league’ so to speak, as if a sport with which parents are fed fixtures by an impersonal government and await uncertain results. School is more than just a ‘sport’ in the informal sense. Yet there is great that through the emphasis of league tables, children are becoming caught in another word which can encourage emptiness – competition. There is nothing wrong in having your own ambition and wanting to achieve them. However, I fear that the focus on league tables an ideals of achievement is causing learning to become ‘competition’.
What I am looking for is re-definition. Of course there needs to be standards in place to evaluate schools and their effectiveness in teaching children – but this should be on a school level, rather than in terms of the students themselves. On a recent ‘Word of Mouth’ programme aired on radio 4, a psychologist talked of her disappointment on troubled children coming forward to her with feelings such as ‘I am a failure because I did not achieve A*.’
Again, there could be seen as a need for re-definition. ‘I am a failure’ is not appropriate. There may be times you feel like a failure, whatever a ‘failure’ constitutes in your mind, but you only feel so. Our lives are enriched as well as aggravated by feeling – composed by them because we are emotional people made of minds. League tables are driven by them. If we go back to sport, teams lower in the league tables still retain the loyalty of their fans due to emotions such as passion and belief. To ‘succeed’ you do not necessarily have to be at the top. It is feeling at your top which is the thing.
Yet many students do not, and no wonder. If I take another media example, a recent BBC News article reads Top university 'not a destination for many schools'. It was the negativity of the headline which first struck and caused me to question. Not only is ‘Top’ presented as a proper noun, as if some objective ideal, but deemed an apparent ‘destination’. This appears part of a trend in wider society where there is again, this set path for ‘success’, of pushing to the ‘top’. Yet to bring back the point concerning the psychologist and the children, myself and my own experiences, and many more – so many students are unhappy. This is not just the case for university students, but in high schools and primary schools, as children are faced with empty language and leagues of learning which does not reflect their best interests. Young people will do their best when their best interests are addressed. Surely this makes sense?
Yet this apparently not the course for the current government. Nicky Morgan’s announcements of aspirations for all primary school children to know up to their 12 times-tables puts Britain conceptually in competition with other European countries. It is often this competitive streak which fails to provide long-term stability. I have memories of shakily reciting my 7 times-table by rote, in a relay of memory, not necessarily understanding. This appears much of the case within current education – the emphasized regurgitation of information, rather than its understanding and appreciation. It is enough to make anyone feel overfaced.
Yet so much of educating consists of attaching definitions and expectations to minds which are not educated to consider themselves, to think for themselves – surely one of the best interests in life. At university I assumed that ‘success’ lay within the first and flying high. Ultimately, ‘success’ lies within the individual. I know people who are massively enjoying university, engaging with a wide number of events, and many achieve what they want to academically as part of this. Yet so often through the education system, mental health is treated as an aside in regards to the ever-continuing push for ‘achievement’. Yet the passion that punctuates my mind still knows that asides can often be the best bits; especially considering Shakespeare – ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. In Shakespeare, asides often provide the action, enlighten the audience at the expense of the actors. And that is what we need to do - a be part of an understanding audience rather than an actor looking for ‘success’ in a league table. We will find a way to succeed when we find and consider ourselves.
That is why I am supporting Time to Talk, especially in its relation to spreading mental health awareness in schools, supporting children in their passions and putting the personality back into learning – at any stage in life. https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/join-the-conversation