Schools – setting a bad example?

Richard Boston with a letter from our December issue.

Ave Kotze’s November response to Pooky Knightsmith’s September article ‘Breaking down barriers’ struck a strong chord with me. Most notably the suggestion that schools might be part of the problem when it comes to children’s resilience, and not only a part of the many potential ‘solutions’.

I’m an occupational psychologist working with people in senior positions, mostly in the private sector these days. I’m also the parent of a teenager. Recently, I wrote a piece on resilience. Perhaps, I wondered, instead of seeking to increase people’s ability to deal with all the difficulty they face in the workplace, organisations or businesses more broadly could look at ways of reducing those difficulties in the first place?

Like Ave, I wonder if the same question should be asked about schools (and maybe society as a whole)? Certainly, education needs to prepare future generations for the challenges they will face as they navigate through life. It is possible that something inescapable about the world will mean the extent of that challenge will continue to increase, generation on generation. However, it seems to me that there is plenty society can do to stop contributing quite so damagingly to that increase.

Going too soft on children can obviously have its downsides. However, to take just one example: not the perennial bugbear of over-testing kids, but rather homework... I believe there is no real evidence that homework contributes to children’s learning or performance – except, perhaps, when it keeps them engaged with the subject matter and the process of learning during the longer summer holidays, where many kids slip backwards and the children of less-educated / motivating parents appear to be more disadvantaged than others.

Why then do we persist in what often proves to be a damaging process of sending children home at the end of their working day with extra work to do, and work for the weekends? It is a pattern that can mean schoolwork takes up almost every waking moment during the week, particularly when children are encouraged to attend as many after school club activities as possible to enrich themselves. It also limits the child’s capacity to engage in other activities and spend time with their friends and family at the weekend. Enforcing the completion of homework also has the potential to be a repeating source of discord in the home, particularly as parents’ ability to help with any questions diminishes year-on-year, as the child’s education typically moves further and further beyond their parents’ capabilities.

So many of the clients I work with are still caught in that damaging pattern of taking their work home with them and failing to manage the boundaries between work and the rest of their lives. Often, it is a really big deal when someone finally realises they can leave work at work, turn off their devices and reconnect with their loved ones and other non-work nutrients.

I hear repeatedly that teachers and children are exhausted, even before half term – just four to five weeks into the school year, after six to eight weeks off. It’s pretty clear that we are running an unsustainable model. Sure, a fair amount of that will come from government directives. But I imagine schools themselves can be looking at what patterns they are laying down for the children in their care and the teachers whose task it is to care for them.

Richard Boston
Managing Director, LeaderSpace

Illustration: Tim Sanders

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Thank you for your response Richard and for extending the ideas further. 

You have spoken about some very valid points....we are setting up a pattern of living that extends into adulthood. The constant push to do more, to achieve more, to prove our worth... while at the same time forgetting to have fun and....well, live :)

Is it that today's children (and adults) are less resilient or is it actually that the pressures are more pressing? The same question remains :) how far to you stretch an elastic band before it snaps? So I suppose the question is, how could schools/governments start to tackle the problem?