We all have our memories of school. For many of us they aren’t great memories. School is the first time we come across social groups. We are put amongst people who don’t love us like family. We have to get on with different types of people. We learn that children can be mean, that adults can be mean too. We learn so many things but we learn to stand on our own two feet, we learn to defend ourselves, to push ourselves forward, or we learn to shrink back, to hide ourselves in the background. So much of our lives and personality is formed in those formative school years.
My husband was bullied at school and I couldn’t be considered ‘popular’ and we therefore both know how important it is to do well socially at school. I’ve never been concerned about my eldest’s academic promise, she’s a very bright intellectual girl, but every parent’s evening I’ve asked “does she have friends?” “is she happy?”. Now that she’s 10 she fits well and truly into her social group and I think she’s very much like me. She has her group of friends and gets on with most people but she isn’t ‘popular’. She doesn’t get invited to all the parties and knows that she’s not part of the ‘in crowd’ but she has accepted where she is. It’s me that worries for her. I encourage her to play with a wider group of people, I want her to be popular. I don’t want her to miss her best friend when they are sick from school and she has no one else to play with, I don’t want her to be disappointed when she misses out on things because she’s not popular.
The thing is, she already feels these things. I’ve been quite upset with her school lately because they seem to be making these divisions worse. I wrote a couple of years back about the disappointment that Bean felt when she wasn’t voted in to a school council role. She learnt very keenly and quickly at the tender age of 8 that being popular wins votes. Academic premise or any other merit is pushed aside, and the most popular kid wins. At the time her school dealt with it well, her disappointment was recognised and she was given a role to play, and she was happy again, but a lesson was learnt and it made it’s mark. Would she put herself forward for such a role again, knowing the disappointment she felt was so painful, and knowing that there is nothing she can do to win, that the decision is a popularity contest rather than a merit contest?
Fast forward a couple of years and she once again feels very keenly that she is missing out on opportunities because she isn’t popular. I’ve noticed that the same children are being selected for school trips and for certain after school clubs. Time and time again. I’ve chatted with other parents and friends who are teachers because I’ve felt very strongly that this approach is unfair. Other parents have noticed the same happening and teacher friends confirmed the same so it’s not my biased perspective. The popular kid will be voted onto school council or similar and then get to go on all the extra curricular trips that involves. Teacher friends say that it is the cleverer, louder, more confident children that are chosen to represent the school because the teachers know that they will behave and perform well. Obviously if you are the teacher’s child or have parents who are friends with the teachers you are more likely to get chosen too.
I can understand all that, to an extent. And again, to an extent I can understand that this a preparation for how life is. But life shouldn’t be like that. We shouldn’t be preparing our children for a life like that. My problem with it is that surely school should be a place that offers equal opportunities for all, regardless of social standing or academic ability? If there aren’t enough spaces for everyone on a trip or in a club then names should be pulled from a hat, or pupils take turns at such opportunities. They should at least know why they haven’t been chosen, so that they have something to aim for, something to work towards.
It bothers me that we limit our children at such an early age. Being a part of these councils, clubs and groups is a great experience for sure, but what does the experience teach the ones who don’t get in? Are they inspired to work harder at maths? Are the inspired to read more books, to travel to more places, to experience more of life? No, they learn from a very young age that life is a popularity contest and not everyone can win. Knock backs when we are young have lasting impressions. Life long lasting impressions. There is plenty of time in life for that, I don’t want my 10 year old to feel that. I want her to have fun, to enjoy her childhood, to not feel social pressure. I want her to have fun and have the most experiences that she can.
I think that the education system needs to think long and hard about this. Bean now turns to me and shrugs that she didn’t get to do something because she isn’t the teacher’s favourite. Is she inspired to try harder? No, because she knows that there is nothing she can do. What can she try harder at? She is a polite, friendly, clever, well spoken girl. She’s just not ‘popular’ in that sense. The child I have in front of me now is a different one to the one who stood for school council when she was 8. She is jaded, she is defeated and she has no incentive to try harder, because she doesn’t know what she should try harder at. Academically she may succeed, but where has she been left in other ways?
Social peer groups are a part of life, but I feel very strongly that as adults we shouldn’t be going along with this. Let’s inspire our children with opportunities that they can achieve, let’s not leave anyone out, let’s be inclusive. Let’s leave the popularity contests to the playground, and if we start this approach young enough, it might even transform playground behaviour, and leave lasting impressions into adulthood. We could inspire a new generation to treat their peers better, to accept that people are different, to embrace those differences and to allocate opportunities on merit rather than popularity and social standing. Let’s teach children that you don’t have to be popular to succeed, let’s teach them that being a nice person and working hard is enough. Because it should be, and that’s the social world that I want to bring my children into.
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