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Mark Ellse: Wrapping children in cotton wool does them no favours


Alan was a fragile boy, ill at ease with his peers and very much an outcast. A number of us staff in the science department chatted with him and endeavoured to create something of an acceptance that he was clearly not finding from other students. Over the seven years of senior school, Alan remained an odd one out, Despite advice and encouragement he never really fitted in.

‘I wonder, sometimes,’ said a colleague, ‘if we look after the Alans of this world rather too much. We bend over backwards for them but life after school will be much tougher and they need to learn to cope with some of the difficulties that they will inevitably face.’ These comments were disconcertingly prescient. A couple of years into his university course, Alan had relationship problems and took his own life.

The term ‘bullying’ tends to be overused nowadays and teachers spend far too much time with over-sensitive parents concerned about the tiniest unkindness or thoughtlessness from another pupil to their own child. Schools can do a good deal to encourage children to be nice to each other but a certain degree of rough and tumble is always going to be there. Alan’s story was never far from my mind as I did my best to explain to parents the value of coping with quite a few knocks early on. Though I rarely used the biblical words, there is a good deal of obvious sense in the concept that all difficulties are painful at the time but later bring a harvest of peace for those who are trained by them.

I was thinking about Alan again this week as a long established tradition passed quietly away. For the last time the results for the Cambridge University Bachelor’s and Master’s mathematics degrees were read out publicly in the Senate House. By reputation, Cambridge undergraduate maths is the the world’s hardest degree in any subject. The quaintness of the ceremony befits the oldest written university examination. The waiting mathematicians hear the results read out by a fellow in full academic address who doffs his mortar board after reading the name of the Senior Wrangler, the top performing student. After the results have been read out, results sheets are thrown from the balcony to the assembled students. Other examination subjects at Cambridge are presented more quietly but equally publicly. They are posted on the notice boards surrounding the Senate House for all to see.

No longer. From 2017 examination results will no longer be published. Data protection, a student campaign called Our Grade, Our Choice, and concern that the system can be too upsetting for students who have underachieved have all played their part in ending that centuries-old tradition.

We all want to protect our offspring but life has its inevitable difficulties. There will be relationships desired but unrequited, or consummated and followed by rejection. The arrival of children may involve sacrifice or one may have to accept an emptiness of childlessness. Marriage may be painfully short, or painfully long. Illness and death none can avoid and if postponed it comes with the loss of loved ones and the isolation and discomfort of old age. Would that our children didn’t experience the worst that life can throw at them but some difficulties are inevitable and we build up our children’s ability to cope by exposing them to problems from an early stage.

It is indeed uncomfortable to perform worse than one would have liked to have done in an examination. And it is, of course, difficult to know that one’s result is public. On the other hand, the public posting of exam results forces one to come to terms with a particular truth in a way that one really should be able to deal with. Should we really protect the young from such character-building experiences, or would they be better off having rather more such discomfort and learning that they have to come to terms with that in life? The words of my wise colleague come to mind: ‘I wonder, sometimes, if we look after the Alans of this world rather too much.’

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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