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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”.

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O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!

This week I came up short against an unflattering image of myself. I am sure it is good for the soul, to meet your distorted twin occasionally, but probably best not to meet it too often. Apparently I am a pushy dominating mother. (Sometimes I beg the children to let me do a bit of pushing and dominating, but they never let me.)

One of the school staff has started mentoring Duncan – trying to help him cope with exam year. You have to remember that staff doing this are frequently giving up their (very rare) free time, because they honestly want to make a difference to students’ lives. But it’s no surprise to find that, untrained, they can drift into pop psychology. This is what happened here: Duncan told his mentor that he wanted to study Physics at [Scary University], and his mentor thought that very outlandish. How could a child – a child with his problematic school record – have dreamt up such an ambition on their own? It must come from the parents: “You don’t have to live your parents’ dreams, you know.” Throw in bits of gossip about Julie heard in the classroom, and the mentor was convinced he was on the right track: “You don’t have to get as good grades as your sister. The two of you don’t have to get good grades just because your mother expects it.”

(He probably doesn’t know much about Julie and her illness. He may know she has been in and out of school. Perhaps he believes she is just highly strung, made a bit anxious by pressure from mum. He likely doesn’t know about the hospital, the medication, the sadder reality of mental illness.)

Duncan wasn’t getting caught up in all this. He was cross with his mentor. “He doesn’t believe that it’s what I really want to do.” he said, “You’ve never pushed me into anything. I do want to get good grades and go to [Scary University]. I don’t secretly want to do something else: I just want someone to help me do this!”

As Duncan is the first to point out, from his perspective the real problem is that his parents haven’t been pushy enough. We never have bothered ourselves about his grades; we are convinced that his many good qualities will help him succeed in the end; and we think he should work out for himself what he wants to do in life. (In fact neither of us think much of this plan to apply to [Scary University], but it has to be his call.) Anyone who thinks we have been pushing him around doesn’t know Duncan: the last time I successfully pushed Duncan around he was in a buggy.

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