Once children were birched at school. Now they are taught maths

Jun 15, 2018 by

Simon Jenkins

Modern education’s obsession with rankings blights the lives of intelligent pupils – never more so than at exam time

I used to long to be a child again. Not any more. British children seem under perpetual assault from the three horsemen of the apocalypse: obesity, social media and the manic gods of examination. Of these the most needless, and clearly dangerous, is the exam. The signs of stress are blatant. One in 10 schoolchildren now has a “clinically diagnosable mental illness”. Rates of teenage self-harm have risen dramatically in the last decade. Student suicide rates are soaring.

I have never seen the point of exams. If children cannot recall what they were taught two months ago, they will not remember it for life, probably because it was never worth remembering. An exam is like a Dickensian birching. It asserts power, and hurts.

A primary-school child of my acquaintance can handle counting and proportion, but he cannot access the world of complex numbers and algebra. In every way a lively, intelligent, creative boy, he is innumerate. For this harmless failing, he is accused of lowering his class score and his school league place. He dreads going to school.

This boy is a victim of the overpowering cult of maths, which modern education is as obsessed with as the ancients were with Latin. All the maths a normal grown-up needs can be read in John Allen Paulos’s admirable 135-page booklet, Innumeracy. Instead maths has been turned into a state religion, a national ritual, and for one reason alone: because proficiency in maths is easy to measure.

Whitehall officials would suffer agonies trying to measure creativity, imagination, life skills or self-esteem. But even a zombie can tell how many pupils can do an equation. Maths is now the most cited measure of performance. It is how we rank teachers, how we place schools in league tables, and how the UK fares in the world. It is as if schools were a vast ongoing Olympics medals feast.

Source: Once children were birched at school. Now they are taught maths | Simon Jenkins | Opinion | The Guardian

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