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Do you know that if you are poor you can’t be expected to hold a pen for three hours?

I’m fuming. Just fuming. I love the blogosphere as it gives people a chance to air their opinions and even though many are vastly different to mine I often find them very interesting. I like seeing other points of view and debating them. I’ve even been known to change my PoV based on these debates. It is one of the reasons that the blogosphere is just fantastic. However I today read a paragraph in a blog post on the new exams for 15/16 year-olds that made me just go mental.

Stretching the length of an exam to 3 hours also makes the examinations more unequal. Poorer children with less nutrition will struggle to maintain mental stamina. Children who grow up in high rise flats from birth will have much weaker fine motor skills than children who have enjoyed healthy outdoor climbing and active pursuits from birth. Expecting inner-city children to hold a pen for 3 hours and write furiously to reach that mythical gold standard will punish those who over the years do not have the necessary endurance due to health and income inequalities.

Now of course the fact the author used the numerical 3 instead of the written three did annoy me a tad. The rule of thumb is single figure number are written and double digits and above the numerical form is used but that was small-fry compared to the sentiment.

Basically if you are poor then you won’t be able to sit still for three hours or hold a pen. If you don’t have your butler or maid serve you a fresh green salad each night and instead have a diet of Iceland frozen fish and chips then you won’t have the ability to concentrate. I seem to recall that I didn’t have a maid or a butler and in fact grew up on a council estate and didn’t get to do such things as outdoor climbing but I was one of the very best in my school at exams. One of the very best.

You see exam ability has nothing to do with your diet or your income or what you do in your spare time. It has far more to do with your ability to think on your feet (or sitting down but you know what I mean) and recall information and be able to get that information written up in the best way possible. Some people are better at exams and some are better at coursework. That is a fact but there isn’t a shred evidence to say it has a thing to with diet or income or anything else.

I was pretty awful at coursework because I was a lazy arse. I preferred to watch TV or play football in the evening’s than sit and work. For example I have an A-Level in Geography at a B grade but in the five exams I got five A’s, three of them above 97%. That shows just how awful my coursework was. I actually started my coursework at 12:07PM on the Sunday before it was due and finished at 07:40 on the Monday when it was due to be handed in. So I worked for 19+ hours straight (bar dinner and many drinks/loo breaks). Is this because of my diet or background or is it because I was a lazy so and so?

Yes if you have a better home life then you’ll have a better chance to succeed but heck rich people have bad home lives and poor people can have amazing home lives. It depends far more about on the parental interest and situation than it does on money. If a rich parents are always at each others throats and having affairs then the kid may not have a great home life and be forgotten and left to his/her own devices. If a single mother or father is there showing a strong interest in their son/daughter and helping them closely through life then they’ll have a stable home life.

Background has zero to do with an ability to sit a three hour exam. Zero. To suggest such a thing is effectively writing off a large percentage of society and belittling them and telling them they’ll amount to nothing if we go to an all examination system. This is a disgraceful stance to have. Disgraceful isn’t a strong enough word. Lets go to a thesaurus to see if I can find a stronger word. I’m going to go with opprobrious and even vulgar would do.

You may not like these proposals. A lot won’t (but on the other hand a lot might). I know I’d have done far better in an all exam based system because I relished the challenge. I never ever failed any examination at any level because of this. It won’t be for all but it would’ve been for me. It would’ve fitted in with my psyche. However my diet wasn’t great but to say this would’ve effected my ability to hold a pen for three hours is madness. Sheer and utter madness.

I’m still livid and it’s been nearly half an hour now since I read it. How dare someone effectively say that inner-city children don’t have the ability to sit still and hold a pen and concentrate for three hours. Of course they can and many get amazing exam results. Many people living in posh households get rubbish exam results. To just tarnish a whole section of society like this is egregious.

I need to go calm down a bit…

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  1. […] Do you know that if you are poor you can’t be expected to hold a pen for three hours? on The Rambles on Neil Monnery. Neil Monnery says that the fine motor skills of inner-city children […]

  2. The irony about all this is that the evidence I’ve heard people cite makes the opposite point – exams rather than coursework are better for people from more disadvantaged backgrounds, as coursework benefits most from stable households, well-educated parents who can give help as you do it, quiet space at home to work in and so on. Those are all things which tend to be found more in middle class households, individual exceptions aside of course.

  3. It doesn’t make you a scientific miracle because as we all know everyone reacts differently.

    Drinking sugar is not necessarily going to make your memory bad, it increases the likelihood though but those with diabetes type 2 will generally have their memory affected and diabetes type 2 is getting diagnosed more and more in the teenage years therefore to say it doesn’t affect some 14-16 year-olds is naive.

    I believe it would be naive to assume it isn’t being affected without evidence. It would also be naive to say it is absolutely affecting them but I have been clear that it is unclear and therefore for me naive to assume either way.

    The most accurate thing to say is it could be affected.

    I eat loads of sugar and fizzy drinks at times all I ever drank was fizzy drinks.

    I have recently had blood tests that confirm my blood sugar level is normal and therefore my memory is likely to have been unaffected but just because that at the moment I have no risk of diabetes or Alzheimers doesn’t mean that I won’t in the future.

    Indeed there are other factors, but to say diet doesn’t effect exam ability when it clearly does, as to how prevalent it is, I don’t know but to just dismiss it like you did in the article was wrong I believe as it does have an effect.

    BTW, fat people tend to have high metabolisms and thin people slower metabolisms.

  4. Neil, I agree that it is far too simplistic to say its a rich/poor divide. I’m not saying it will affect the poor more than the rich.

    I think there are arguments to say it might affect the rich more and arguments to say it might affect the poor more, the likelihood is it will be pretty even.

  5. I agree with a lot of this.

    Diet does play a role though. If your starving that stimulates new neurons to grow, so helps with memory recall. Only if its the right amount, obviously if you become malnourished and starving to the point your organ shut down, clearly isn’t helpful. But there is a level of starving/fasting that is helpful according to the latest research.

    Again, the latest research is showing that eating too much sugary foods and fizzy drinks causes alzheimers, if your brain becomes insulin resistant that is. The more you eat, drink sugar causes your brain to develop alzheimers earlier, now how this affects the memory recall of 14-16year olds is unclear but to say their memory isn’t being affected would be naive.

    Of course, this doesn’t divide neatly into a rich/poor divide. Poor people are more likely to go hungry, therefore improve their memory but they are also likely to have the worst diets and the most sugar affecting.

    Then again rich spoilt kids are probably likely to eat a lot of sugar as their parents may well be bad at disciplining them when it comes to the food they eat.
    At the same time, their also more likely to know the latest research and act accordingly. Therefore its swings and roundabouts.

    Your comment however, that diet does not affect performance is simplistic.

    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      The more you eat, drink sugar causes your brain to develop alzheimers earlier, now how this affects the memory recall of 14-16year olds is unclear but to say their memory isn’t being affected would be naive.

      Why would it be naive if it is also unclear how it effects 14-16 year-olds?

      I am in a place where I can use me as a great example. Throughout my teenage years and until just a couple of years ago all I drank was coca-cola (mainly cherry but that’s not important). I have a terrific memory. Does this make me a scientific miracle or is this research not conclusive? I never failed one exam and in fact always outperformed what my teachers thought I’d do in exam situations. Now that is of course only one example but it shows that clearly not every kid with a bad diet or a fondness for sugary drinks will do badly at examinations.

      Diet effects your physical ability to do things. Those who drink a lot of caffeine will be more sluggish if they go for a few hours without caffeine. However does this have anything to do with being rich or poor? Do rich kids who have say six cans of coke a day react better/worse than poor kids who consume the same amount? Please point me to a study that has looked at that specific situation where all the factors are equal bar money in the family because I’d love to see it.

      Are fat people better at exams because their metabolisms are slower than thin kids? Do kids who share a bedroom with another sibling do better or worse at exams?

      There are so many questions that people can point to. Diet effects you but diet is not the prevalent cause for whether kids can kid down for three hours at once and concentrate. There are just too many factors to point at so you can never point at any one factor as the dominant reason for success or failure.

  6. I agree with much of this but diet does play a role. In fact starving kids, will actually be made to be cleverer as long as they don’t get to the end of being malnourished and the extreme end of starvation.

    Also eating lots of sugar including fizzy drinks can apparently cause some brains to be more insulin resistant and therefore less good at memory recall. If you read the New Scientist the other week, it said we could be eating our way to dementia, now how much this would affect a 14-16year old to sit exams is unknown.

    Diet does have an effect, but its not as easy as to say its a poor/rich divide. For example, in the fasting/starving mode, then clearly those who are unable to afford food all the time might do better and be cleverer but then again poorer families have the worst diets so their memories could be affected. Then again the kids who are rich and learn about this research, could begin an alternate day fasting or the 5:2 diet and therefore boost their memory.

    That being said, I don’t like the idea of sitting one exam as people won’t be able to show they know the subject in various ways.

    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      My issue was only with the rich/poor comment. There are scientific studies that say everything. You speak about how ‘we could be eating our way to dementia’ but of course we also could not be. It is just too simplistic to say that these changes will affect the poor far more than the rich. There are many factors that go into each individual case and money is just one of them.

  7. Eoin Clarke Eoin Clarke

    hi guys,

    There is a lot of evidence that shows fine motor skills in the poor are severely under-developed.

    My son has dyslexia so I have had to spend a lot of time on this material.

    The best way for a young child to develop fine motor skills in particular the joints at the knuckles is to go on climbing frames, and play on swings. It also helps, if at a young age, mummy/daddy gives them cut out projects to develop their proficiency at coordinating their fine skills.

    It builds up stamina.
    It improves handwriting.

    Sadly, all the evidence indicates that inner-city children, abused children and poor children miss out on this crucial development.

    I must confess that you folk are the first Lib Dems I have come across who would dispute this. That makes me a little rueful, but I guess you have your mind made up.

    I have cited 4 reports on my original piece to substantiate where I am coming from on the fine motor skills.

    Best wishes,


    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      …and you think poor kids don’t go to the park and play on climbing frames or go on swings?

      I grew up on a council estate and we went to the park. As did all the kids. Poor kids climb trees just like rich kids do. Cut out projects are the key to developing skills? Maybe, maybe not but to say that poor kids don’t learn how to use scissors or whatever is a fallacy.

      We are not the first Lib Dems who think that saying inner-city children are less able to hold a pen for three hours is crazy. You need to read twitter and the vitriol about that belief that is being sent your way.

      Being poor doesn’t stop you from developing skills.

      As for you adding the four reports to your original piece in an attempt to justify these conclusions. None of these reports are based on the UK educational system or UK children. Only one of them can easily be pointed to as a reputable study. Also none of these reports look at anything except money where in reality there are many other circumstances that can change how a child is brought up. Money is not the be all and end all and to believe as such is a detriment to a large percentage of children around the world. Having a strong and stable home life is important and being able to afford things is well and nice but it isn’t everything.

  8. I mean keyboard, obviously. No idea where that came from 🙂

  9. Eoin Clarke (who, btw, is from a very poor background himself) is simply not worthy of being cared about. If he was, I’d be in a pretty constant rage, as I read him because he speaks for a large section of Labour. Basically he is a typical Daily Mirror reader who has somehow got a doctorate and should be treated as such…

    …that being so, who in this day and age actually holds a pen for three hours in the course of their daily functions? Office workers won’t, because they will be principally online for their written communications.

    The only people for whom such a thing is useful are professional writers who find writing with pen and paper to be an especially useful way of marshalling their thoughts, and they’re a small minority of a small minority. So there’s a wider point to be made about whether it’s a good idea to make youngsters manually write out, especially those whose poor hanndwriting belies the fact that they actually express themselves very lucidly and this could be proven to be the case if they use a typewriter.

    • neilmonnery neilmonnery

      I actually had a computer for my A-Levels as I had extremely poor handwriting due to my disability so these things can be got around. I agree that no-one has to sit and concentrate for three hours straight in the real world and that is a very fair attack on these reforms but to say it has anything to do with your background just lit my fuse at it were…

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