Boxes, Running Deer School

Boxes. We all like to put things in boxes. We like to categorise, define and identify in this way.

It’s what helps us make sense of the world and our place in it. But what happens if we don’t fit into these boxes? What happens when we can’t be defined by the characteristics that define everybody else?

We have an identity crisis.


This is no more apparent than when we are teenagers. Not only do we have to break out of the box made for us by our parents but we then have to find a new box. We also have to fit into the exam box.

Importantly, however, for today’s teenagers, exams, and the extra pressure they’ve added, makes finding this identity a really difficult thing to do.

It’s no surprise that a spike in mental health issues for teenagers has coincided with the change and restructuring of exams. The shift in focus from coursework heavy qualifications to exam centred course has been dramatic.

Everything about your future is based on your performance in a two hour window on a hot and stuffy July afternoon. School counsellors have waiting lists for those wanting to go on waiting lists and CAMHs is an emergency service triaging the most serious cases.

With most schools starting GCSE courses in year 9 it means that there is now three years of pressure on someone whose brain isn’t fully developed yet.

This works for the vast majority of people and my colleagues in mainstream work incredibly hard and do their best but the system can only ever be imperfect. One size fits most.

The question is…. What happens to you if you don’t fit into that exam box?

Secondary schools are pressure cookers- every pupil is simmering just under the surface, and like pressure cookers sometimes they pop- all the normal safety valves fail and you end up needing help.

Mainstream schools are the way they are; they can only work within the box. So what do you do? The answer to this can sometimes be alternative provision. With more time, space and less pressure pupils can achieve their potential; the pressure cooker doesn’t pop.

Some people, for whatever reason, don’t take the normal path- they don’t sit GCSEs or the equivalent; they don’t fit that exam box.

There’s a whole host of different ‘alternative’ qualifications that people can take. Some are exam based, some are coursework based, some are academic, some vocational, some are classroom based and some aren’t.

If the 1st or 2nd box isn’t the right fit we have to redesign it. We have to build a bespoke package around that pupil. One that meets their needs and creates something individual, like a one off art commission- purpose built.

Where do we start? You have to take time to really think about what that young person needs, not what the school needs or what the parents or society says they need, but what they actually need.

Then you build a package of experiences for that young person that will benefit, engage and challenge them on personal level. It’s then the teacher’s job to find a way to slot these experiences into something that can be used to get that person a qualification-to give them a box.

This way of doing qualifications is time consuming- it is hard! To me it’s teaching in its purest form- what do they need to get better at? How can I do that?

Anything more than that is diluting the process. That’s what teaching is in a school that isn’t mainstream- finding experiences that benefit those people that you have in front of you on an individual level.


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