x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Interviewing tiny tots for kindergarten should outrage us all

Screening preschoolers is an educational oxbow lake, cut off from progressive thinking and obsolete.

Everyone remembers a great teacher. Mine taught geography, through the medium of banter, beard-tugging and mad rambling tangents.

It was back when school was old-school. Track suits were flared. Classrooms were gloriously diverse, not depressingly homogenised. Geographical themes were avoided in our geography lessons when there was more interesting stuff to talk about. "If you have seen one oxbow lake, you have seen them all" seemed to be his message. If his teaching was a river, it would be at the meandering stage of development.

"Do you know the problem with us?" he would ask the class rhetorically. By "us", he meant the Irish public of the mid-1980s, rather than the spotty class before him.

With an economy blighted by emigration, inflation and Eurovision - and with just two television stations to distract us from it all (one bad, the other worse), there were more important things to be talking about than bits of rivers that nature had already deemed irrelevant.

"The problem with us," he would continue, clearly outraged, "... is that we lack a sense of outrage." He was referencing author Liz Shannon, the wife of a former US ambassador to the country, who wrote a book about her experiences in the country.

Had my old teacher been teaching today, he would surely be outraged. Education is being commercialised and commoditised like never before. On its balance sheet, parents provide the capital, children the profits. Carpe diem has become Carpe dime. It is a global phenomenon.

The same lack of oversight and regulation that created such distortions in our financial markets threatens to do the same in our classrooms.

Headmasters boast about children being put on their school waiting list "in utero", confusing basic supply and demand with some sort of misplaced sense of their own accomplishment. Our waiting list is long, ergo, we must be great educators. That is true only for schools that achieve academic success through an honestly inclusive approach to learning and recognise that kids are different.

The practice of kindergarten "interviewing", reported in The National yesterday, is the thin end of a wedge that at its worst can be the clumsiest of tools for schools to achieve the reputations they seek in the most cost effective way. Interviewing often means screening - and it can be straight out of Kafka.

Forget asking about what the school is screening for because the answer is locked safely away in classroom 101.

Four-year-old children are notoriously unpredictable interviewees. While there is always the potential for them to articulately outline the skills they may bring to your organisation, there is also the risk that the pint-sized candidate may burst into tears at any moment or demand to see his mummy. Worse, if there is some play dough lying about, they may simply ignore your questioning and elect to make shapes instead.

It's why there are almost no four-year-old children running FTSE 100 companies today. They're mavericks, frankly.

Some schools are deliberately vague about the purpose of these interviews because the practice of screening such young children runs counter to every universal understanding of what education should be about. It is unpalatable and so, unspoken.

For the right-on headmaster well-schooled in political correctness, it is uncomfortable to concede that screening three and four-year-old children may just be about spotting kids that are a bit different: the loud kid, the quiet kid, the bouncy kid, the still kid - the outliers.

In fact, any child that might require extra resources or may compromise that school's ability to gain an outstanding rating becomes a potential problem. And don't think for a minute that it's their problem. It's a system that both panders to and feeds off the anxieties of the modern middle class parent, obsessed with primary educational excellence in a way that no previous generation has been.

For weak schools and weak head teachers, screening can be an expedient way to achieve the outstanding gold stars from standards authorities they seek for their own endorsement. My old geography teacher would be outraged and we should be too.

That is why the decision by the Abu Dhabi Education Council to ditch the practice of interviewing tiny tots should be genuinely commended. Other regulators should follow suit.

Screening preschoolers is an educational oxbow lake, cut off from progressive thinking and obsolete.