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The Pressure Pyramid

Pyramid of PressureThe students at a perfectly normal, local, secondary school have recently set up a project, “Who Asks Us? to help understand the pressure and consequential stress that teenagers face under the school system.

Last night they presented the results of five month research in the form of a film (it’s on You Tube too).

Going one step further they want to help fellow students deal with the worst effects of stress and, in particular exam pressure.

It’s no surprise that they find that there’s pressure, as never before, in students, their teachers, the schools, the LEAs and even the parents.


Where does the pressure come from?

As the students and they’ll tell you they’re caught in a double whammy of subject teachers and parents.

Of course, every parent wants their child to do well so it’s natural that they will be tempted to apply pressure.

Teachers are under almost as much pressure as their students to turn in good and ever improving grades, particularly at the key measuring points of GCSEs and A-levels.

Headteachers and governing bodies have the reputation of the school at stake and one of the most common measures applied is achievement in GCSEs and A-levels. Any dip in performance, relative to other schools can have serious consequences in terms of filling places at the school. Reputations depend on ever-improving performance.

We have seen, in Suffolk, the depth of concern felt in the LEA by the massive relative in achievement when compared with the other 150 LEAs in the regional league table – Suffolk currently stands at position 141 and the local politicians are in a flat spin about it. Even central government is worried that it reflects badly on both local and central policy – just a couple of days ago the Prime Minister visited Ipswich to say how the government was “helping” with:

“More academy schools, free schools, a tougher curriculum, a very clear set of results publication. All of those things can make a difference. I know the county council is going to work very hard to make sure that schools in Suffolk do better.”

Doubtless they are but are more competition and a bigger stick of shaming the LEA and schools necessarily the answers?

There is clearly pressure on the politicians to demonstrate that their way is the right way, before the next election (it was ever thus) or it may contribute to their losing their highly addictive position of power. So they delegate as much of the pressure as they can to the LEAs but publicising league tables and shaming the low achievers into better performance.

The LEAs do what they can with new initiatives and delegate the pressure to the school governing bodies and management who also do what they can although mostly this entails teaching exclusively to the tests and applying more pressure to students.

So, the chain of delegation of pressure starts with the politicians and ends up with those at the bottom of the food chain – the already highly stressed students.


The lesson learnt

What do many students learn from school?

  1. That grades are more important than anything else in education
  2. That low achievement is your fault.
  3. That education comprises memorising and learning for examinations and this will be even more strongly learnt if Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove’s ideas for grades based exclusively on final exams with no re-sits available, go ahead.
  4. That if you don’t get at least 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C you’ve let your school down, your parents down and yourself.
  5. Without the grades you’ll never achieve anything.


What are we measuring?

Essentially, we’re just measuring grades, which were described last night as being dependent (under the proposed linear exam-only system) on an ability to memorise and regurgitate facts and, to a lesser extent, to demonstrate an understanding about how facts relate to each other.

Grades the easy measure of that particular aspect of school performance; but are they, alone, what’s really important?


Education is what’s left

It has been said that “Education is what’s left when all that has been learnt has been forgotten”.

I increasingly find that I want to live and work with people who have had an education in that sense.

  • People who’ve experienced things, observed and thought about issues, looked at the detail and reached their own conclusions by talking things through with others.
  • People who’ve worked with others and learnt about how different people tick and how to get along with them and get the best out of them.
  • People who’ve had the time to learn to fly a kite or ride a unicycle, really well, just for the joy of learning the skills and feeling really good about their capacity to learn from every situation they find themselves in.
  • People who’ve had the space and time to be reflective learners and developed a life-long passion for learning.

“Educated” people, I would contend, are not exclusively the high achievers by the crude measure of grades.

We have collectively fallen into the trap of measuring on what is easy to measure rather than what is important, but more difficult, or impossible to measure in a way that allows it to be pout into a league table.

Charles Handy once drew an illustrative parallel. If asked to measure “love” the chances are that someone would end up counting sex and we all know that’s not the same thing at all.



When I task employers to describe their ideal employee, they invariably come up with a description of someone who is “educated”. Someone who can communicate well, who can work effectively with others, who can use their own reasoning to solve problems and above all, who is able to learn new “stuff” quickly, in a range of ways to make them adaptable and a highly valued member of the team.

So why do they insist on that old chestnut of 5 GCSEs and A*-C?

I think it is a combination of laziness – setting the bar at that level will filter out a lot of applicants. In Suffolk, it will remove 49.5% of 16 year-olds and the misguided assumption that the best people for the job are all in the other 50.5%.

However, employers don’t really trust the exams and formal qualifications either. If they did they’d not put themselves through the long and expensive process of interviewing applicants. Why would they?

If the exams told the whole story they’d surely just pick an applicant with the right qualifications at random, knowing that they could do the job. Instead of which they spend a lot of time checking out all those non-examined skills and character traits which make people worth employing, even if “recruited for potential”.

Sadly, of course, the fact that employers are demanding 5 GCSE A*-C for every vacancy reinforces the collective wisdom that it really is all that matters.

 Education is not about filling buckets; it’s about lighting fires” – Bill Gates

So what’s the effect of this apparent over-reliance on grades?

  • We have a simple measure by which one important aspect of school performance can be measured and pressure applied by politicians and their like.
  • We write off 49.5% of young people in Suffolk as being worthless by the age of 16.
  • We deny almost all our young people the time and space to grow, become educated and fulfil all that they may achieve in whatever opportunities life throws them.

I’m sorry, but in my view, that’s just not good enough.

In Suffolk, the pressure is on to seek new ways of bring out the best in our young people. This could be just the opportunity we need to re-think the purpose of education and to transform it from something that is seen as rather akin to measles in that it happens to you when you’re young, is it is very unpleasant to endure but once you’ve had it, you’re immune for the rest of your life.

The Raising the Bar inquiry is looking at the state of education in Suffolk and will be reporting, with recommendations, later this year. It is of great reassurance to know that the inquiry is being managed by the RSA and that chief executive Matthew Taylor is closely involved.

Will it make a difference?

The truth is we don’t know but I’d put good money on the likelihood of more confident, less stressed students having a more inspiring time at school where the big lesson they learn is that learning is great might just turn in better grade results anyway.

If only one person is going to be brave enough to tell it like it is and bring some fresh thinking, let’s hope, for the sake of future generations of students, that it’s Matthew.

I’ll be back with more thoughts on how education could be different (and better). Meanwhile if you’ve got any comments or suggestions, that’s what the box below here is for!

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