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A Parent’s Dilemma: The Fork or the Sunbeam. How do we protect our children’s happiness in the current assessment culture?

‘I didn’t turn up, fam. Didn’t do it…sixth time I haven’t done it.’

I overheard this while queuing in my local JD Sport – a recent habit demanded of my parental status. I’d guess the speaker was nineteen-years-old. Full of bravado about his lack of qualification, full volume declaring his failure to tick the criteria. His friends advised sensibly: “It was an hour and a half! Now you have to do another year!’ I fear this is going to become more and more common under the new assessment regime. Struggling with this performance culture, students become a burden and impact negatively on their school’s Progress 8. Hence the ‘off-rolling’ reported recently in the press. Disaffection will become a place to escape to. Paint yourself the rebel but, underneath, I felt this lad on his entrance to adulthood was screaming ‘I’m a failure! Just leave me alone to fulfil this role!’. A bad end to another academic year.

This academic year started quite badly in my household. The word ‘failure’, if tallied up, was creeping up our ‘Top Ten Most Used Word List’. Initially by me as I headed towards my final days in the classroom, but even more worryingly my eight-year old son walked into the kitchen one November morning crying, near-hyperventilating:

“I haven’t practised my guitar…the teacher will tell me off…and mental maths is getting harder after Christmas…and I only got 17 last week…so I won’t be able to do it …and I don’t want them to think I’m a failure!”

To rewind a little, I moved to a new school last September as Lead Practitioner. I had always been considered an outstanding teacher, so this role excited me. However, by the half-term I was signed off with anxiety and depression. Where had this come from? With time to reflect, I feel the current assessment culture brought me to my knees: the conveyor belt of children I was being asked to process through the system to hit targets – theirs, mine, their Heads of Year, my line manager’s, the school’s.

On the first day of term, I asked my year 7 form group to complete a short questionnaire about their school experience: What had they enjoyed at primary? What excited them about this new adventure? What were their concerns? Their answers to the final question stick with me today: bullying (an expected response from the smallest fish in an unknown pond) and failing. Eleven years old and this is a fear?

Confidence amongst this cohort was low. Pummelled by SATS, the most common response to any classroom activity which offered freedom to play with ideas was shut down with ‘Miss, I don’t get it.’ The word ‘assessment’, which I tried to downplay seeing as they were asked to complete two GCSE style assessments in the first six weeks, inspired only a sea of glazed faces and a louder chorus of ‘I DON’T GET IT!’ I didn’t get it. I wanted to draw them into the text, inspire them to respond, to formulate their own interpretations. But it was witnessing a sensitive, hardworking boy with ‘weak literacy’ have a panic attack that shut me down as a teacher. As far as I was concerned, if I was eliciting that from children, I was failing.

And where does this pressure on students lead them? My son is smart, a high achiever – he’s been told that, knows all his levels, so now feels the pressure to maintain that role and not drop a mark, nor let anyone down. He’ll be a key statistic in Progress 8 so he will be boosted through intervention after intervention.  I fear we will have to manage his journey closely to prevent anxiety and depression – I mean, he shares my character traits, he’s a perfectionist. He’ll destroy himself rather than fail a test, rather than fail anyone else’s perception of him. Will he end up exhausted after 28 or so exams, but with straight 9s (still sounds strange) and fearing the next round in two years? Or will he be in JD Sport, strutting about with feigned machismo in light of failing in a system which determines success in one, limited, short-sighted measure: The exam?

A fork in the road has appeared in our children’s education: take one direction and they tick the relevant boxes at the expense of their mental health; choose the other, down which they run and hide, leaving those boxes unchecked. I am not happy with this choice for my children. I want them to one day look back at their school days as a time of learning and exploration, a time when they were able to satiate their curiosities and start determining who they want to be in this world. However, I am already hearing how many marks out of 10 were achieved, who did best in this test, that test and who will get the certificate for getting every single spelling correct last year. I don’t want their vision of their future to be a fork in the road, I want it to resemble a sun beam (my child gave me this image): many directions in which to travel, shifting options which may lead them down a completely unexpected path, and new ideas appearing to challenge, excite and inspire them. At the moment, the fork is winning the battle. It’s time we fight to hold on to that sunbeam.


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