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Why Congratulatory Letters From the Office of Willetts Will Only Fuel Our Misconceptions of What Achievement Is

16/05/2013 11:47 BST | Updated 14/07/2013 10:12 BST
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With the news that universities minister David Willetts is proposing to roll out a new initiative that sees pupils from poor backgrounds that achieve top grades at GCSE receiving letters of congratulations, comes a cloud of controversy. Whilst at first it appears to be a rewarding scheme whereby achievement in the lower socio-economic classes is recognised (as it should be), it does little to give credit where credit is due; I'm not talking about grades, I'm talking about effort.

It is a well-known reality across the education sector that education is not a meritocracy, a reality of which can be regularly recognised due to the public outcries that are formulated after announcements from the Department of Education. The idea that these letters will go to pupils that achieve high grades and derive from what constitute financially poor backgrounds spearheads a perceived effort from the government to increase recognition of academic excellence across the class system. A small yet positive step towards an equal education system it may seem, but in fact it would likely only encourage the opposite.

What this proposal really shows is that the matter of achievement is associated only with the acquirement of the higher grades and not when a student is awarded with a grade that corresponds with their potential and effort. The proposal to send out such letters will only allow for misconceptions of what achievement actually consists of to be continued within the discourse surrounding education, moving the goal of a meritocratic education system where individuals thrive upon their own merits (whatever they may be) further out of reach. Also, the divisive decision to send letters to GCSE students from poorer backgrounds would only draw unwanted attention to their financial status, which will in turn only promote exclusivity rather than inclusivity within school culture.

It is perhaps also important to mention that such letters will most likely be perceived as inauthentic by students; they will essentially be mass-produced for thousands of pupils across the UK, with the only personal element being the salutation. A simple 'well done' would do little to justify such exertion on the pupil's part and it would be absurd to suggest that this would go unnoticed by those in receipt of such a letter. This is why events such as award ceremonies in schools are vital for pupils. As a former school pupil that has been to such an event, I can vouch for the real sense of success that comes with being personally recognised as an achiever. What is more is that it tends to be the case with these events that not only high grades are celebrated but also the development of skills, individual character and also, more importantly, effort. Whilst it is perhaps easy to deem such ceremonies as patronising, the point is that they place acknowledgement where acknowledgement is deserved.

Achievement simply can't be rewarded as part of an initiative that works within a meta-narrative, for it only captures specifics. The government would be better placed to invest time and money into helping those without the financial means to thrive rather than to help fuel the association between high grades and achievement. Identifying achievement should not be about grades or background, it should be identifying effort, something of which Willetts' letters will never be able to genuinely applaud.