‘Sometimes ambitious children need to slow down’. On state schools, aspiration, and a failure of tone

by Stephen Tall on February 14, 2012

The TES published an article — Maths – Put the brakes on — which has attracted a great deal of opprobrium in the last 24 hours for appearing to show a lack of aspiration in the state sector for children to excel.

The author, Jonny Griffiths, is a current maths teacher. Here’s an extract which gives you a flavour of the piece:

“Pleased with your C3 score, Michael?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I only just got an A.”

Now Michael is staying behind after college to seek my reassurance. “It’s just that I keep making silly mistakes,” he pleads. “I don’t want to fail to get an A just through silly mistakes.”

“But, Michael, we all make silly mistakes,” I say.

“It’s just that I know I can get an A, I’ve set my heart on it. I’ve started to cover the wall of my room with yellow Post-its …”

I have a sudden vision of Michael’s bedroom looking like an advert for Kraft cheese slices. I can stand no more.

“Apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A level?” I ask, firmly.

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.

“I mean, I care, of course,” I add, swiftly. “But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?”

Michael is too stunned to reply.

The Telegraph reported the piece under the headline, ‘Maths teacher criticised after suggesting Oxbridge candidate may be happier at Bangor’. Somewhat inevitably Toby Young weighed in, too, with the self-explanatorily titled ‘The TES publishes brilliant send-up of trendy, Left-wing teachers’ disdain for academic achievement’.

Here’s my view, as posted on the TES website:

I *think* I get what the article was *trying* to say: kids shouldn’t drive themselves so hard to succeed they end up making themselves miserable. That’s fair enough.

Unfortunately the tone of the post completely fails, and appears to celebrate ‘coasting’.

It’s one thing to say, “An A* isn’t everything; you must absolutely do your best; but don’t work yourself into an early grave.”

But it’s wrong to say to an A-grade student, “It doesn’t matter, a C-grade is just fine.” That’s a shocking squandering of potential.

I stand by that. But because I’m not a Torygraph columnist, fairness compels me to note two things.

First, Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk, rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted in its recent inspection — so this is clearly not a failing school.

And secondly, at least three of Mr Griffith’s students have commented on the Telegraph story (here and here and here) to praise him highly — and I think that must count for something.