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Our target-driven culture

Published on 13/01/14

No straight lines in nature: the 'race to the bottom' we should really be concerned about The season of public exam results – followed, as surely as night follows day, by the season of school league tables – was, once again, dominated by discussion of the evils of grade inflation.

The small decrease (69.4 to 68.1%) in the proportion of A*-C grades awarded at GCSE in 2013 was presented as proof that the campaign to reverse the 'race to the bottom' in the world of qualifications, through more rigorous assessment, is working. (The stats produced by the Joint Council for Qualifications actually tell a different story – and one to which I will return presently.) This traditional bonanza of number-crunching and editorialising satisfies the demand for news of media outlets becalmed in the shallows of late summer's ennui and, by its emphasis on this single issue, makes of grade inflation a performance indicator not only of the nation's schools (and, thereby, of the government's education policy) but also, in some ways, a litmus test of the quality of our methods for preparing our children for adult life.

Yet, it might be argued that an equally (or possibly more) valid measure of this exists in the proportion of young people suffering depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness. And here we find a state of inflation besides which the statistic on exam grade inflation pales into insignificance. Witness the recent findings of the Nuffield Foundation that the number of 15/16 year-olds reporting feeling frequently anxious or depressed has doubled in the last 30 years (to one in ten for boys and one in five for girls). Add to this the dire warnings by experts such as Professor Tanya Byron about the swift rise to epidemic proportions, especially among girls, of depression and anxiety disorders borne of a fear of failure.

Might there be a connection between these two forms of inflation?

I would like to suggest that there is and that it is to be found in the crude teleological mindset, underpinned by a cult of measurability, that has taken hold of every walk of modern life, framing our thinking and saturating our language. Consider the ubiquity of the vocabulary of steps, tracks, targets and goals in our everyday lexicon. An example, among tens of thousands, taken at random from an internet search comes from Bradley Foster's Giant Steps Coaching. Here we have 10 steps to successful goal-setting, showing us that even our goal-setting can be rated. Step 6 ('stay focused') tells us 'your mind will notice that there is a discrepancy between where you are now and where you want to be, which will create pressure to change.' Here, in a nutshell is the problem – presented to us as the solution. We are encouraged – and we encourage our children – to view life as a gap to be filled between the Here and Now and an end point of achievement and success (personal as well as professional) on the horizon straight ahead of us. From this, it is logical, and indeed sensible, to find the shortest line between these two points (the Now and the End).

In doing so, we forget that there are no straight lines in nature and life is not a vector.

Young people especially, in their hunger for life experience and in their eagerness to make a success of themselves, will be in a particular hurry to reach and pass the milestones. For many in 2013, this meant crossing the qualification threshold, resulting in thousands of 15-year-olds being pushed through early-entry GCSE exams for which they were, in many cases, under-prepared or unprepared. (This, rather than a return to rigour, is the real explanation for the reversal of the upward thrust of A*-C grades at GCSE in 2013.) For many more, it meant a crash course initiation into the riskier precincts of adult behaviour – of binge drinking, drug-taking and sexual experimentation (or, even, exploitation) - which led to an increase of a third on the previous year in the number of children aged 11 or under attending Accident and Emergency with alcohol-related problems.

We are teaching our children that success is about the survival of the fleetest while seeing all around us the culture of acceleration undermining their stability and self-esteem. This is the real 'race to the bottom' for many young people – the race to the bottom of a slippery slope of anxiety and despair, culminating in depression, self-harm and, even, suicide. It is this 'race to the bottom' that we should be particularly concerned about, as a judgement on our methods for preparing the young for adult life.

Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow, points to our linear sense of time, coupled with our infatuation with the cult of speed, as at the root of what he describes as the 'full throttle treadmill' which has brought many of our adolescents to 'the verge of burn-out.' We speak of moving forward through time and, to reinforce that impression, we measure it in numbered blocks in ascending order (for example, from 1am to 2am, from 2012 to 2013 and so on) rather as we measure distance stretching ahead.

Yet, our experience of time's passage – in relation to what we see and know and what we cannot see and do not know – is very different. From this perspective, the future is behind us, since it is the part of our life we cannot see, whereas the past is in front of us, laid out like a vista to our mind's eye, complete with the memories we retain and the knowledge and understandings we have gained. If we viewed life's progress in this way, as going backwards towards our future, we would stop seeing it as a vector, recognising the impossibility of walking backwards quickly in a straight line for 80, 90 or even 100 years. We would begin to entertain the possibility, even inevitability, of mis-steps and cul-de-sacs, of false starts and fallow patches, pauses for reflection and reorientation which, in truth, are a necessary part of the process of maturation.

A straight line has no depth and a life lived according to the model of a vector will have momentum but lack those 'moments of being' (to use Virginia Woolf's phrase) which give the experience of living, at any stage, its texture, its quality and its meaning.

Two potential problems lay in wait for the young person rushing headlong in pursuit of her life's goals. The first is that her plans don't work out – and a setback in her late teens or early twenties takes on the aspect of the wreck of a promise which cannot be overcome. The second is that her plans dowork out and, having reached the top of the ladder, hit the bull's eye, raced to the end of the line, she finds herself looking around and thinking 'now, what?' while all the while feeling a gnawing sense of things missed along the way.


Bradley Foster, Giant Steps Coaching, Huffington Post

Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slow

Ham and High, 26 September 2013

Telegraph, 3 July 2012

Nuffield Foundation, Changing Adolescence March 2012