Variations on One Size Fits All Education

When Julie started at sixth form, the very first thing the Maths department did was sit down the whole cohort of Maths students and give them an exam. They wanted to sort out who needed what help to get through the A level. Actually, I think that’s a very good idea: it focuses resources where they’re needed, and makes sure the students understand where they need to put in the extra work. It’s surely the opposite of one-size-fits-all.

But of course it all depends how you handle the kids who don’t do very well in your test. Can you resist the temptation to imply that they are defective? That, but for them, one size really would fit all?

On the basis of her mark in this exam, Julie was duly assigned to the remedial group, needing extra tuition, and given extra homework to complete. A letter was sent home explaining this and making it quite clear that if she didn’t pull her socks up and do better by the end of the first half-term, she might not be sitting her A level in Maths at all. It was one of those “must”, “should not” and “insist” type letters. The message was not “you have a problem and we can help”; the message was unequivocally “you have a problem and you are to blame”. The same message was given to the students in a meeting. Sheep and goats had been sorted, and they were the goats.

Julie was distraught. She had only just started sixth form, and she was struggling to negotiate the crowded classrooms and corridors of the school, after years of having to be taught in hospital, at home or in a separate unit. She was still ill, still heavily medicated, and still needing twelve hours sleep a night. She had done fairly well in Maths at previous levels, but she has no confidence at all. With her time severely curtailed by her need for sleep, the extra Maths classes ate into time needed for her other subjects, and it was impossible to see how she could meet these demands for extra homework. But without Maths at A level, she could say goodbye to her modest dreams of taking a technical degree.

I got in touch with the Maths teacher, and suggested that she give Julie a break. I explained the circumstances, and that testing Julie straight away was likely to give spurious results. But I was talking to a brick wall: it was obvious she had no real idea of the problems Julie had to overcome just to get to school at all. In the end, I told her that I would monitor Julie’s workload, and if there was no time to do the extra tuition or homework they were demanding, then I would instruct Julie to skip them. I told her that when she retested Julie it would have to be with extra conditions – with Julie supervised in a private room and given time for breaks – to cope with problems of concentration. And I told her that if she tried to take Julie off the A level course then she would have to fight me first. I have enough Maths of my own to know that any school should be able to get Julie through that exam reasonably well.

Julie was retested at the end of half term – in the revised conditions – and passed. Actually, not so much passed, as thrashed it: she got 100%. She no longer has to go to extra lessons or do extra homework or attend any more unpleasant meetings to be berated for poor performance. She was never in need of remedial Maths classes, she just needed someone to put more thought into assessing the performance of a student in her circumstances. She was really a sheep, and always a sheep. But in my view she was always really Julie, and nobody is a sheep or a goat.

Now we have a new problem; now she has been reclassified as a sheep, and a prize sheep, there is pressure on Julie to be “groomed” for Oxbridge application. This is no more appropriate than remedial classes were: she doesn’t need the stress of applying to Oxbridge. What she needs is someone to recognize what a fantastic achievement a place at any university will be – what a cause for celebration for a kid who has her illness – not a snobbish insistence that only a place at one unversity or another really “counts”.

  1. Mass education has been a bold experiment with some successes and many failures. I feel blessed that my wife felt led to home-school our children. I pray Julie might be “shepherded” in the way that is best for her.

    • Thank you Tony. I must admit, after watching the struggles of my children in mainstream school, I have often been tempted to take them home and teach them myself.

  2. Words fail me (sort of). I am so sorry Julie has had such a rotten experience. Why try to prepare her for Oxbridge if she doesn’t want to go there? Ridiculous!
    J x

    • Well in fact i’ve told them to take it easy, and in fact i think they are starting to listen a bit now – it’s obvious they misjudged at the beginning. I think she’ll be fine as long as they just let her get on with it.

      • I’m glad they’re listening! 🙂
        J x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


With Celenia Delsol

(Un)Diagnosed and still okay

The life and times of Bridget's family as the navigate an unexpected journey with a rare genetic syndrome


A blog about mental health & mental healthcare


Mental health blog by a service user with bipolar disorder. Winner of the Mark Hanson Awards for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards 2013 and the Mood Disorder category in the 2012 This Week in Mentalists Awards.

Brotherly Love

A personal exploration of autism from a brother’s perspective, including family relationships, philosophy, neuroscience, mental health history and ethics

Side by Side

A web magazine for friends, families and advocates of mental health

The Chatter Blog

Living: All Day Every Day: Then Chattering About It


Stroke and visual impairment


humourless mummy, cuddly feminist


truth slayer

Lily Mae Martin

Life in particular

One Pissed Off Rhino

You wouldn't fight a rhino with a fork - all you'd end up with is one bent fork and one pissed off rhino.

The Riddle Ages

An Anglo-Saxon Riddle Blog


What ships are for...

Thunderhawk Bolt

That weird kid from school... all grown up

The Small Places

Life in particular

The Bipolar Codex

Kate McDonnell: Art, design and bipolar disorder

%d bloggers like this: