Lucy Clark describes herself as the mother of a daughter who didn’t ‘fit’ the education system. Seeing her own daughter ‘fail’ led Clark to recognise that what counts, and what is counted, are not the same thing, even though the education system fools people into thinking they are.
The overarching thesis of the book is that standardised testing has influenced education for the worse. It places, Clark maintains, an inordinate amount of pressure on students (as well as teachers, parents, and even politicians) and all for pretty much no gain. Worse, the effect on education and on students is actively harmful. Education suffers because what is taught becomes overwhelmingly geared towards students doing well on particular, measurable tasks, and breadth and creativity are sacrificed in the name of box-ticking in anticipation of standardised marking. The students suffer because they are forced into a system that expects everyone to be the same when they are not, and because of the intense pressure to ‘succeed’ placed on them at every step. The students who don’t ‘succeed’ according to this narrow conception of success are, by definition… failures.
Clark argues that our current perceptions of what educational success and failure look like have shifted significantly because of the narrowness of what can easily be measured. Success is now defined in terms of doing well on these narrow measures—tests like NAPLAN and the ATAR. Because the results of these tests are prominent and public, students, parents, teachers, schools, and indeed whole countries, have bought into this new, impoverished definition.
Chapters 3 to 11 enumerate the ills associated with such an education system, including the loss of free time for students, high rates of anxiety, mental illness and medication, the prevalence of tutoring and streaming, and high drop-out rates. I have no doubt most school parents would find much of what Clark says easy to relate to: the enormous pressure on students, the anxiety of parents, the humiliation of the ‘unsuccessful’, the frustration of the teachers. These are the issues discussed at the classroom door and school gate. We know students who are so busy studying for the Selective test that they don’t have time to play; the parents who get into financial difficulties for the sake of private school fees; the frequency of self-harm and eating disorders; the competitiveness and ranking and concomitant pride and shame.
One of the strengths of the book is the question mark it raises over the central place of competition in education. Competitiveness is so ingrained in our educational systems that it can be hard to conceive how it could be otherwise, and Clark points out interesting ways some educators are working around it to the benefit of their students.
However, I don’t think Clark goes far enough in disentangling standardised testing, competition and reward scarcity in the Australian context. Clark’s diagnosis is that the testing itself is the biggest culprit. But standardised testing gets its teeth from competitiveness, and competition is fuelled by there being limited desirable outcomes worth attaining. What are these limited desirable outcomes? Unfortunately, not ‘an excellent education’, which in theory, need not be a scarce commodity. The rewards are limited places—in Gifted and Talented classes and Opportunity Classes, in Selective Schools, in private schools, and in out-of-area public schools (where the grass is inevitably greener than at the local). Ultimately, there are limited places at universities (especially the ‘right’ universities), and it is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged that a student in possession of a school education must be in want of a degree! Sometimes, ironically, this whole system is called ‘choice’, but in practice, there is little. The place your child will be offered at each stage is predetermined by their ’success’ in the previous one (and to some degree by your financial situation). Unless, of course, you are willing to question the whole value system these pecking orders presuppose.
From Chapter 12 onwards, Clark steps back from the problems of the current system to ask What should education be and Where do we find it? There are no easy answers to the first question, but Clark identifies a number of elements that contribute to good education:
She finds these elements in a number of settings: a school here and there that refuses to play the game; and of course, writ large in the educational poster child, Finland, with its system that aims for equality and routinely tops the international excellence charts. (It’s hard for many parents not to hanker after the Finnish model: no selective/non-selective or public/private divides; an anti-competition ethos; high quality valued teachers; no streaming; and no vast gaps in resources between schools. It’s so different to the high-pressure Australian model that has ‘one of the widest learning gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged schools of any OECD country’, p271.)
Beautiful Failures is an engaging, easy read, though some sections are little more than a collection of snippets strung together on a given topic: an expert opinion, an anecdote, a quotation, a study. These are interesting and thought-provoking, but don’t allow for the development of a sustained line of argument, which is frustrating at times. But Clark is not an educational expert, nor does she pretend to be. She offers the perspective of a middle-class parent. There is no comprehensive strategy for improving the Australian system offered, just desirable goals and glimpses of contexts in which they’ve been achieved. In the end, the value of the book is not in offering solutions, but motivating an attempt to improve things by showing how harmful the status quo is at so many levels.
Clark’s contention that the current system needs top-down change for the sake of students’ personal and educational wellbeing is shared by many parents and educationalists. But Australia is demographically diverse, and arriving at a consensus over how it should be changed is clearly a challenge. However Clark does suggest some very simple grass-roots ways of combatting the destructive competitive culture of education and the narrow idea of ‘success’ it perpetuates:
Perhaps if enough people join Clark in rejecting the labels the education system puts on our children, and start seeing their strengths beyond a few narrow academic measures, change might be possible. These measures look simple, but it takes a lot of courage to swim against this powerful tide. Christians have more freedom than most to be countercultural in this area, and much of what Clark writes resonates with Christian patterns of thought. Like Clark, Christians (should) know better than to buy in to the narrow account of ‘success’ on offer. Clark rejected it on the realisation that the education system’s definition didn’t match hers: a happy, productive, fulfilling life with good relationships (ch 2). Christians reject it on the knowledge that what ultimately matters is seeking first the kingdom, persevering in doing what is right, and trusting God (Mt 6:33). If we do this, we will honour God and all those made in his image—‘successful’ or not.
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