I didn’t go back to school this week. After twelve years of returning from the six-week summer break to inset days and Learning-to-Learn days, this lack of attendance marks the start of a new era for me. I am no longer a school teacher. And I grieve for my career.
I had a conversation yesterday with a woman in the park whose son was experiencing his first day of secondary school. We were quite well into our conversation about schools in the area before she ‘admitted’ apologetically that her son was now at a local independent school, and that she had also moved her daughter from my sons’ primary school to a local independent girls’ school. Her argument is one I’m hearing more and more where I live. They don’t want their children’s opportunities to be limited by their education. Wow, that’s a difficult to sentence to write as a member of the teaching community. It’s one reason I grieve. Because she’s not wrong, is she?
The cutting of the arts from the curriculum was her first concern. Now, we have to really question the motive behind this. We all know how the working world is changing and how the skills developed when studying the Arts will prepare our students perfectly for this future. We also know how expressive the Arts are. You need to free your ideas and question, be prepared to challenge and even transgress to succeed in this field. But our current government does not want this. Schools today are places where compliance and performance are encouraged. There is an agenda here to shut voices up, not free them. My own GCSE Art teacher told me my homework was better than my classwork. Her theory? Uniform restricted my creativity. This statement has stuck with me since. My identity was squashed by the enforced dominance of the school’s. As a university drama student, I had to wear all black for our practical sessions. Now, this might sound pretentious, but the idea was to strip you of your identity so you could become a canvas, so to speak, to leave you open and uninhibited to allow exploration and expression.
I was, however, told by my favourite local Executive Head that creativity needs to be controlled: ‘Get the shoes shiny and the tie straight, get control and then you can enable creativity.’ Now, I entered the teaching profession because I wanted to inspire learning and help children blossom into happy, productive adults. I never said, “I really want to control children.’ When the word ‘control’ is used so freely by senior members of our teaching community, we must look at the agenda leading reform. Education is being used as a tool to divide and rule. Most likely my opportunity to wear all black and become a vehicle for artistic expression, even transgression (I did get to perform the role of Simone in the Marat Sade) was a privilege I earned by getting a place in an elite university.
But those able and inclined to make the choice to take their children into the independent sector are rewarded with earlier access to a breadth of curriculum and opportunity. As for everyone else? We are told untruths. I know of a school in a challenging inner-city context that has shut down all its arts and vocational courses, making numerous teachers redundant, but it’s okay because they have introduced Latin. What’s the story here? On board with the Conservative agenda, they will bombard these children in this difficult context with the academic rigour of the EBacc, and this will enable them to compete with those at the independent schools surrounding them. This is dangerously misleading. I once attended a university open day with year 12 students from my school based in an equally deprived area. We piled off our coach straight into another recently arrived cohort. Just by looking at the two groups, it was obvious that my students were already a step behind in that competition. Apart from the fact those we’d met were literally double their height, the way the two groups dressed told a visual story of a social gulf. My girls were in little dresses and shiny shoes, our competitors in fashionably ripped denim and hair flicked dramatically from one side of the head to the other. We could get the academic results out of our students but their social naivety, their lack of access to a world inhabited by this other group would always keep their ceiling lower, the rungs of the ladder harder to reach. And stripping the Arts from those lower down the ladder will ensure their ideas remain latent, silence their voice in debate, and, let’s face it, halt the possible revolution which surely would follow if those currently held down by the system were exposed to the real agenda. As my conversation buddy said, you only get one shot at this. For some that shot will always fall short of the target. But maybe I’m just cynical, sitting here in the ashes of my career; no, I’m sure a weekly Latin lesson will level those ceilings perfectly.
The conversation moved on to another concern: Who will actually be teaching her children? She has seen there is a recruitment and retention crisis. The NEU reported that in 2016, one in every ten teachers left the profession. And of those who qualified in 2010, nearly a third had left five years later. And connected to this level of exodus, it was reported last week that children across the country are not being taught by subject specialists. I was told by the Head of my nearest secondary school that yes, they do teach formulaic lessons (all teaching the same lesson content at the same time, planned by a teacher who has some knowledge) because, and this is a direct quote: ‘Well, you can’t get the quality of teachers these days. You can’t trust them to do it themselves.’ Wow! That’s a bold statement to a parent touring your school.
The irony here is that I left teaching partly due to this peculiar ‘Schooling in a Box’ approach infiltrating our education system. I don’t believe I am the only member of my generation of teachers struggling with this lack of pedagogical freedom. I was told in my last school to start every lesson with a ‘Do it now!’ task. A teacher friend of mine told me learning walks in her school are used to check if you are on the right section of the lesson at the right time. Another told me at her school they had to ensure the ‘Eight Must Haves’ were in every lesson. They were so focused on meeting this they weren’t really focusing on the needs of the individuals in their classrooms, and were criticised for this in observations. Left drained and teary, they could only question what more they had to do? And put yourself in the shoes of a student: every lesson so predictable in structure, every lesson requiring the same performance. Inspirational stuff!
This flummoxed me in what turned out to be the final observation of my career. In previous years, I had used observations to test and develop myself. For example, I taught agenda in war poetry with half the class sitting in trenches constructed using our desks and chairs, whilst the other half of the class were army generals sitting around large board-room tables. They wrote stanzas for a poem about the soldier’s life in these contexts. And they got the importance of writer’s agenda. However, in my final observation I felt the pressure to tick the list of school requirements, and I failed to take ownership of the content. My husband’s feedback on my lesson plan summed it up: ‘It’s not your usual stuff.’ He was absolutely right. It was dictated and therefore impossible to deliver. I left teaching feeling a failure and a fraud.
But I am no fool. I understand the agenda here. I’m an experienced and effective teacher borne from an era when teacher training focused hugely on pedagogical research and experimentation. No question, many unnecessary gimmicks came out of this period, but what it instilled in this generation was the energy of inquiry and commitment to the art of teaching. I treasure memories from my PGCE days of university-based sessions designed to support my classroom practice: fantastic sessions on educational theory; interactive workshops on behaviour management with some of the most experienced practitioners in the field; work on how to use your voice effectively; being surrounded by academics who made you question and reflect all the time.
Today, in England, we have teachers with the least amount of training in a culture of ‘chuck ‘em in and see if they sink or swim’ schemes. They have come into teaching at a time when you are not being trained to question or reflect, as you only have time to get on and teach what you’ve been told to teach. If we want to compare this practice with the global high performers, we see that Singapore advocates a theory-practice teacher training; a four-year undergraduate degree or between 16 months to two years for a postgraduate course. Finland is five years university-based training resulting in a Masters level qualification. Their investment in teachers demands a commitment to the long-term as well as a high level of academic achievement. In return, teachers leave their training with the tools to step into the classroom and take ownership. Plus, they are trusted to do so.
So, I have sympathy with my friend in the park. Students are experiencing a high turnover of teachers, and may have a year or so with a number of supply teachers endeavouring to get them through. Sometimes they will have a PE teacher teaching them Geography because they did it at A’ level. With budgets tight, the experienced teachers are expensive, so take a glimpse at the TES job pages and see how many ask for NQTs, especially those beast-sized MATs. I have sympathy too for her argument about the creative subjects. I witnessed the shrinking of the Art department at my school as the Science department crept quietly down the corridor, transforming art studios into laboratories every few months. The Arts will become the preserve of those who can afford them, those who are allowed to have their say in this divided nation.
Despite my sympathy, I would ask my friend in the park, and others who are debating their options to consider how their choice to step into the independent sector may ensure their children’s future, but it only serves to further reduce the opportunities for those without such a choice. I would urge those parents to stay with us and fight for the best teachers with the most impressive training, and demand teaching is valued as much as in other countries. I would urge them to demand access to the Arts for all; to ensure spaces are open to all to express their emotions, talents, and ideas. Don’t let others get left behind.
Don’t let other children’s opportunities be shut down by their education.
Parental choice: the schools all look the same so do we simply get to choose our favourite colour blazer?
I am going to hazard a guess: I think a lot of parents heard the Conservative manifesto about the Big Society and the free school movement in 2010 and, quite understandably, thought to themselves: ‘What a great idea! We get to have more say over our children’s schooling! We get to tailor it more to their needs!’ What an exciting opportunity! Free from the curriculum! And, apparently, it’s worked a treat in other countries so how can it possibly go wrong here?’
You see, Michael Gove did state in the 2010 white paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ that ‘convincing international evidence’ existed to prove ‘the galvanising effect on the whole system’ of allowing ‘new entrants in areas where parents are dissatisfied with what is available’. He also went overboard with excitement about the ‘innovation’ this was going to lead to – twenty-eight times he mentioned some derivation of the word! Oh, and the autonomy these academies and free schools were going to experience would be the ripping off of those chains so tightly held by the hands of the State. It was going to be all about developing specialisms, ethos and character.
The picture created was utopian for any parent. Imagine, ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ begins in September, and you are skipping and weaving through a myriad of opportunities and innovations which blow your mind. You’re inspired to question thoroughly, ‘Where would my child be happiest? Here, this school is demonstrating advanced problem-solving skills with a strong focus on STEM through project-based learning, whereas yesterday, down the road, I listened to students’ compositions being performed by the school orchestra …’ Long-gone are the days of walking through the corridors of ‘OFSTED GRADED OUTSTANDING’ posters and tedious conversations with the Key Stage 3 coordinator for English about the texts they will be studying in preparation for the GCSE texts in a couple of years’ time, and watching some bored volunteer year 9 students fumble for answers to questions about what they like most about the school. This was to be the beginning of a new era: everyone engaged with education; everyone leading on education; everyone achieving in education. At last!
But, I am going to stop right there and take you back to that ‘convincing international evidence’ Michael Gove found. He was inspired by the free school movement in Sweden and the Charter School programme in The United States of America. Now, I looked extensively at the Swedish reform in 1993 introducing the free school system there and, quite simply, I don’t agree with him.
When, for example, the Swedish Education Minister, Bertil Ostberg, said in 2010, ‘We have actually seen a fall in quality of Swedish schools since the Free Schools were introduced’, what bit of that statement did Gove find convincing? Plus, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Country Note on Sweden, after the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results, stated that the gap between rich and poor had increased since 2006 and was wider than the average across the OECD countries. Again, where does this support Gove’s pursuit of this policy? I mean, he did state clearly that one lesson to learn ‘of the best education systems is that no country that wishes to be considered world class can afford to allow children from poorer families to fail as a matter of course.’ If he wanted to achieve this, the OECD names Canada, Estonia, Finland and Japan as the best performers with regards to high levels of performance and high levels of equity in outcomes. Why on earth weren’t Gove’s minions out policy researching in these countries to discover how England – because it’s not the whole of the UK having to trot along with these inflicted reforms – could choose and adapt the most suitable practices from these nations to improve the equity here and address all those issues of social justice Gove wanted to tackle so desperately?
Because it was nothing to do with that. There is turmoil in Sweden, there is turmoil in the United States, and now we have a system in chaos right here in England. Where I live, a free school was given the go ahead in one of the early waves of agreed proposals. A group of parents led on it and immediately the local parents jumped on board! Straightaway, the free school was their first choice. Nothing to evidence its strength as an educational institution, but it was at the top of their list on the applications. Of course, I was grumbling about my dislike of the policy. If a government wants to ensure social justice, it holds on tightly to the institutions which will ensure this, not hand them over to anyone with their hand up…oh, and with a lawyer and an accountant in their steering groups in order to be able to actually navigate the process. I was asked numerous times, ‘But as a parent, what would you choose for your children?’ Somehow, I was supposed to want something different for my children than for those I taught. I never understood this distinction – I want my child to have as good an education as the next, and the next child to have as good an education as mine. But, yes, of course, this policy was based on individual needs, not societal needs. But then Gove did mention social justice a lot when promoting his reform. And the notion of social mobility is at the heart of recent Conservative rhetoric on education. Just look at the digging up of grammar schools, but that’s for another week.
Let’s move on a couple of years, after a false start and the school not opening when it was initially due to, and then a head teacher leaving after a year, and of course the school eventually opening on a temporary site (where it will remain for another four terms, at least), they now belong to a Multi-Academy Trust. This happens to be a MAT started by a Church of England school, so now the school’s ethos is based on ‘a Christian framework’ and the uniform is changing this September to fit the ‘brand’: tartan skirts and crosses on the blazer pockets. The parents who were singing and dancing about the new school five years ago now sound a little muffled. They didn’t sign up for a religious school. They were happy with the uniform. But now, the parents’ voices have been muted by the words ‘These changes are non-negotiable.’
The MAT is a powerful force. The Executive Head of a MAT is hard to find, let alone question. The parent is no longer anywhere near the centre of this policy. In fact, a recent report from the Sutton Trust and the National Foundation for Education Research stated only one out of five free schools have been opened by parents. It is the MATs and heavily-sponsored academy chains sweeping up schools – especially those still run by the LEAs whose money is becoming tighter, resources limited and therefore their futures overshadowed by the looming, grasping claws of Ark and Harris, or any of those being fed money by the Department for Education, as they willingly ride the Govian agenda and swot their impoverished competitors aside.
So, I am not excited about entering the ‘Autumn Term Secondary School Open Evening Season’ with my eldest in a couple of years’ time. My choice will be Ark down one road, a (now) Christian academy down the other, or my only LEA comprehensive which is now a little too far out of reach since the Christian school will be opening on its permanent site at the end of my road. I think I am going to be sold two brands, which fundamentally will look the same as they are corporate operations now, not innovative learning spaces, all being driven by the high stakes accountability game, undermining the whole concept of free schooling from the get go. I will still be listening to targets and data and how they prepare for GCSE from the day my children cross the threshold. Let’s face it, I won’t be skipping and weaving through anything apart from brand taglines, hefty blazers, and data. In fact, I won’t be skipping.
‘Miss, don’t worry. I’ve already been told I won’t get English or Maths so I don’t have a future.’
These words were said to me two years ago. This was a year 11 boy who had ADHD. I had taught him in year 7 and made him my project for that year. He had failed a spelling test early in the year after which he proceeded to burst into tears, which I found devastating. I researched ADHD and the obstacles this could present for students. I attended training, tailored my teaching appropriately, gave him personalised target sheets for each lesson and extra lunchtime sessions on how to use mnemonics and other strategies for spellings. He had a good year. But by year 11, when he was back in my English GCSE group, he had given up. He is the reason I stand by the closing sentiment of my leaving speech that year: no child is the challenge, the system is.
His words stopped me in my tracks. I had for years been working with target grades and aspirational grades, and seeking ways to ensure students achieved them. But these should not be defining young people and, as we await this year’s GCSE results, it truly concerns me that this is exactly how they view their success or failure. This boy is a creative soul, a wonderful artist, witty and unique. He absolutely has a future – he’d be a joy to work with – but he has no GCSEs of note. The pieces of paper he takes with him from school say he has nothing to offer. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so something is very wrong with the system, definitely not with the child.
Now, in my opinion, there should be no national assessments at the age of 16 years. I reflect on my own experience as a GCSE student and how I was very lucky that I came from a family of books and ideas. Sunday lunchtime in my house was a time of debate or ‘higher order thinking’ as it would be termed today. I fought to get a word in edgeways as the youngest – don’t worry, I’ve made up for it since – but I had so much cultural capital to bank by the age of sixteen, I sailed through exams I had barely revised for. I really wasn’t interested. As a teacher, I reflect on the number of students I have had to drag to the finish line. I was about to write ‘kicking and screaming’, but at the age of 16, it was more of a sloping and grumbling. I have literally taken table tennis bats out of students’ hands to lead them into the classroom and sit them in front of a piece of incomplete work. I have observed teenage boys trying to work out how to sit their gangling physiques at desks and place their growing limbs comfortably for the duration of a sixty or ninety-minute lesson. And they just have the sound of stressed teachers’ warnings in their ears. I recall as a lead teacher, standing in front of a year 11 assembly and saying, ‘If you don’t have English, doors are closing.’ I feel so guilty for these words. It’s not true. I know from my own experience and from observing the transformation that takes place between sixteen and eighteen years of age, that national assessments at eighteen actually serve a purpose. Those gangly boys have filled out and have physically become men, and with that their maturity has developed. They take themselves seriously and have a vision of their future.
I was the same. Though there are so many problems with the current approach to national assessments which create problems for these GCSE students. Why on earth are children choosing their options in year 8? My son turns nine in a couple of weeks and bubbles with curiosity and questions. The idea that in just four short years, he will be selecting subjects which will shape his career path is ridiculous. Puberty will only just be kicking in and he’ll be making crucial life decisions. I know, for one, I chose all the sciences based on the idea that the doctors on ER looked pretty fabulous. I soon realised science wasn’t really my thing and I didn’t actually want to be a doctor, I wanted to be an actor so my engagement with ER wasn’t completely misguided, but my ability to make wrong and limiting choices based on a popular TV series was, and I had to be dragged through two stressful years.
Today, issues abound with regards to options. The highly academic Ebacc dominates choices. As one means of measuring school performance, students will be sent down this route for the needs of the school, not their own. Arts do not feature in this. Something I have never understood. This distinction is false. In conversation with the Executive Head of a local MAT, she commented on how their schools do Ebacc in the morning and creative subjects in the afternoon. The idea that Maths and English are not creative is so unhealthy, and the idea the Arts do not require high level thinking is ridiculous. I taught A level Theatre Studies for one year. Not one of the four boys on the course had achieved grade C in GCSE English and so had been placed on the ‘less academic’ Theatre Studies course. It is therefore not surprising that when I asked what they were doing with the other teacher, the answer I got was, ‘We’re looking at Berbatov’s adaptation of Kankov’s ‘The Trial’.’ I believe Berbatov was a striker for Manchester United, whereas Stephen Berkoff had had a go at adapting Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. They struggled with the subject throughout due to this misguided perception that the Arts do not demand some of the highest-level thinking and skills.
Schools are faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. Children have to become data. Students choose options from boxes so if their two favourite subjects are in the same box, but don’t appear in another, they have to forgo one of them. They are then placed into those subjects which need filling up. Those with artistic talents will be redirected to Computer Science as it’s worth more to the school – especially if the school has shut down its Art, Music and Drama departments. It is therefore not surprising that along with the issues highlighted about the more rigorous and old-fashioned assessment structure, students are also shutting down to learning and feeling the pressure of education, rather than the joy. It’s not going their way, they are not empowered in the process. I remember, as a Head of Year 11, leading a student down to his Graphics teacher to discuss his poor-quality folder. Flicking through the pages of the portfolio, it was evident he had been placed in this subject to make up numbers. The teacher was telling him what more he had to do but it was highly obvious the poor lad couldn’t draw! This subject was a burden – he’d never wanted to do it – but potentially one he was going to have to carry through life with a terrible grade. He dropped the subject at the last minute, when you were eventually allowed to let students do so, but he is now one subject down due to a series of decisions made by others. And this occurrence can only become more frequent in the Ebacc era.
One of my funniest GCSE memories was waiting outside the hall at the end of the old English language exam. The door burst open and the crowd was led by Pooja (grade D target), arms waving through the air, screaming ‘I did it! I passed! I passed!’ You would have thought she had won the lottery. This response always sparks a sinking feeling in teachers’ stomachs, so glances were shared amongst us. You know those who have done well tend to be more pessimistic or unsure. The ‘It was easy!’ response tends to mean they have totally missed out whole sections and sat cockily for an hour doing nothing, wondering why everyone else is taking so long. But thinking even more cynically about this, it also highlights how we train students to pass exams. It becomes a tick box activity and a question of highly scaffolded paragraphs to ensure the key words are there and can be ticked. I think Pooja had done this and so felt chuffed that it was in the bag. It wasn’t. She got a D.
Michael Gove did state that he wanted a more rigorous exam which led to a depth of learning and an avoidance of teaching to the test. I don’t think he’s achieved this. Another major concern which impacts greatly on students’ well-being is the fact that from year 7 they are being primed for their GCSE exams. I challenge Mr Gove, if he’s interested in the impact of his reforms, to visit the year 7 English classrooms of his prized MAT in my borough and tell me these students aren’t being taught to the test. Pages of highly structured paragraphs, target sheets and green pen marking alternate. There’s no visualisation, there’s no exploring the character voice, there’s no creative exploration of the author’s craft. Now, as I understand it, you can’t get those top bands if you don’t present originality in your answer and suggest a depth of learning, but if students are choosing their options in year 8, and school measurement is still heavily on academic performance in the form of the Ebacc, GCSE teaching to test has to be well underway in year 7. High stakes examination and accountability reduces experimentation in the classroom and leads only to the safe, exam focused model so evident today. I would have loved, as a teacher in a school with high levels of EAL and Pupil Premium, to have spent key stage 3 really building my students’ cultural capital that I was so lucky to have built into my socio-economic status.
I, for one, welcome Amanda Spielman’s call to address exam factories, but it will be a challenge in this climate. The reforms were all about international tables of success and where we were placed. Nothing in these reforms was about personal development and the rounded individual. It is therefore not surprising that the Department for Education is standing by the importance of exam performance. The parental voice is required in this debate – it isn’t welcomed, that’s for sure, by our policy makers which makes it even more imperative we shout out to save our children from these factories. No child should be calling themselves a failure at the age of sixteen, no child should be stopped from visualising a desired future, but every child should be engaged with as an individual to ensure their future happiness through freedom to explore and discuss their vision of their personal success.
I send all those receiving exam results the best of luck and want them to know that it’s not everything. Do not be defined by a piece of paper; you will determine how you want to define yourself. You have years ahead in which to do so.
I am a terrible eavesdropper. I have to warn you. Two weeks ago, I referred to an overheard conversation in the queue of JD Sports, and this week I want to start with a conversation my wagging ears found in December, whilst working on my dissertation in one of my local coffee shops. They were sitting next to me, they were early twenty-somethings (so spoke full volume) … it was impossible to ignore. Anyway, they were discussing next steps after their upcoming finals. One suggested to the other that she could do an MA and the immediate response was, ‘Oh no! I’ve had enough of learning!’ Now, this got me thinking, as I was sitting there, aged forty-two years, completing my MA: Is this the feeling we all have when we throw our mortar-boards in the air? Are we all thinking, ‘Thank God that’s over!’? And if we are, doesn’t this suggest something is very wrong with our use of the word ‘learning’?
It was an eye-opening conversation with my eldest lad last week that sparked my memory of this eavesdropping. He laid down his 15-year plan: ‘I want to be a Youtuber, but only in my late teens as I plan to become a footballer for my proper job.’ He asked me to record him discussing his top seven Youtubers. He’d improvised a flip chart with his scrapbook and finished the recording with, ‘Thanks for listening!’ He was good; very eloquent and charming. But, of course, I have a problem with this aspiration. My 15-year plan for my obviously highly able child would be to finish school and head to a good quality university. But these expectations mean nothing if, for him, going to university is simply to tick a box. But he will be university material, I am sure, and should crave such an environment, so I am bothered that these Youtubers seem to offer my son something that maybe is being switched off in the school context.
Billy and Jezza (number one on my son’s Top Seven Youtubers), otherwise known as ‘F2 Freestylers’, have started to grow on me. When my son discovered them, I would be preparing dinner to what I considered the most obnoxious soundtrack: music with beats heavier than lead weights being swung against my head and squeals equivalent to those of nails down a blackboard, compounded by the sounds of their ‘lad laughter’ cutting through this cacophony every few seconds, it was like a drill slowly driving through my ear drum and into my sanity! However, my son started to demonstrate what he had learnt from these two highly-skilled footballers through mimicking them in the garden; he describes in detail the challenges they set one another and with great hilarity explains how they messed things up and had to go again. He watches these videos with wonder and giggles with glee. There is, I would argue, a learning interaction which truly engages and inspires him.
Referring this back to the coffee shop conversation about reaching the end of ‘The Learning Burden’, my son made a very interesting statement about this too. We were comparing his feelings in the classroom with those he experiences at his football training: ‘I think I’m happier at training because Mike and Louis know my personality and my potential, whereas my teacher only knows me as a learner.’ Already, there is a clear distinction in his mind: you are ‘a learner’ at school but elsewhere you are … you. His tone clearly suggested a thorny relationship with the word. Mistakes at training are dealt with as a ‘these things happen’ scenario and an opportunity for demonstration and practice, whereas in the classroom he feels nervous about making mistakes as he fears he will be perceived as a ‘bad learner’, unable to record full marks and therefore not performing ‘up-to-standard’ (a phrase he has heard this year). Already, there are hints that learning, as he understands it, is becoming a burden.
It seems as though his school has taken ownership of the title ‘learner’. In all correspondence, the children are referred to as ‘our learners’. Of course this is meant to be a positive acknowledgement of their hours within the school walls, but I do see problems with this phrase. Firstly, my son has linked learning with assessment and performance – a dangerous limitation on the meaning of the word. And secondly, I actually would prefer my son to tell me that his school teacher, with whom he spends many hours, sees his personality and his potential, recognises his quirks and character traits just as his football coaches do. My concern is that, although he is demonstrably learning from his coaches and has made incredible progress this year with his football, he believes that school is where he is a learner, nowhere else. And, sadly, learning in the current primary curriculum is associated with achieving set criteria via the writing of targets in your books and reviewing these with ticked boxes. For example, I had the most frustrating, if a tad entertaining, post-school chat with him a few months back which highlighted this. It was something along the lines of:
Child: We did suspense today.
Me: Oooh, excellent! So, you had to create mood.
Child: What do you mean? We did suspense.
Me: Yes, I know. Suspense is about building the mood, isn’t it? Making the reader feel tense in preparation for something frightening or unexpected to happen.
Child: What are you going on about? We just had to write suspense.
Me: Okay, so what did you have to do?
Child: We used empty words and short sentences.
Boom! There it is! Two boxes ticked but no understanding of what the purpose of the task was. Does he understand that short sentences and empty words can be used when writing with a different purpose? More importantly, does my child, along with his peers, understand why we write…apart from ticking the set criteria? However, on the football pitch, my son can explain what skill he has used, how he did it and why he has used it, plus, he can apply it to a number of different moments in a game. Now, in which scenario has he really fulfilled the role of ‘learner’? He thinks it’s in the first and if he continues to think this, he will undoubtedly be sitting in a coffee shop at the age of twenty-one, counting down the days until he can remove ‘The Learning Burden’. I think it is in the second, and I have great respect for Louis and Mike, and a level of affection for Billy and Jezza, for inspiring the joy of learning my son experiences on the football pitch. I do really worry that it’s not the same within those school walls.
John Steinbeck, one of my literary heroes, once said, ‘Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’ What a truly wonderful way to see the profession. The idea that it is an art. Something which you are always seeking to improve, to reflect upon; where there is no sense of perfection, but a wonderful journey based on human interaction and connection, crafted to inspire students’ minds and spirits to learn. To become true learners. Lifelong learners. So exciting! But I feel this is far from the experience our children are entering into today. Teachers are being sold the profession on a promise of a quick promotion. How sad that we are not selling it on Steinbeck’s definition where teachers are the valued impetus for learning, and true learning remains a treasured expectation for all.
Silence in the corridor! Is this really the way to create the emotionally intelligent problem solvers of the future?
I didn’t enjoy school. I found it a stressful, threatening environment. Every weekday morning, I woke to a lurch in my stomach. I only came into my own during the sixth-form, but even so, a memory comes to mind of my year 13 Theatre Studies practical exam. I got an A in the subject and went on to study Drama at university, so I was alright at it. My deputy head came over to speak to me after the performances and said, ‘Well done Charlotte! I didn’t know you could act.’ Of course she didn’t know! I don’t think she’d known my name until she looked at the performance programme that day. I had been an anonymous student in that school. I’d sat for silent hours in lessons, moved about the school not making a name for myself. I wasn’t naughty, more a silent anarchist: refusing to sing hymns because I wasn’t religious, wearing my uniform slightly weirdly to slightly undermine the rules. I never really raised my head above the parapet. As a result, I never really found my voice there. I never really felt as though I belonged in that institution. Leaving school at eighteen was a huge relief, though not a complete liberation from the compliant person I had been trained to be within those walls.
As a teacher, I used to tell my students that I’d hated school. This naturally led to the question, ‘So, why are you a teacher then?’ Firstly, I love teaching, but also, I think there was a part of me that wanted to create a different experience for those anonymous students, those who feel squashed by the beast of an institution that is secondary school. And now, as a parent I really want to ensure my children don’t leave their schooling feeling as I did. I’d like them to feel confident in their personalities and their potential; to not just have been another bit of silent data that walked those corridors. But I fear this could be exactly what they, and many others, will become if current regressive behaviour policies continue to flourish.
On the 21st July, Rescue Our Schools shared an article on Facebook about silent corridors in an East London school (Pupils banned from talking while walking between lessons under headteacher’s silence policy). This has been a bugbear of mine for a while as my two closest secondary schools have this silent transition policy in place. Children are to move around the school in silence. In the shared article, the headteacher praises the ‘academic atmosphere’ she has created. In 2016, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of the ‘strictest’ school in England, said it’s in the corridors where the bad behaviour begins, so if they walk in single-file around the school, you prevent the fights and the bullying.
A friend of mine argued that instances of bullying had been minimal in one of my local silent secondary schools. This sounds great, but I question the long-term impact of this. If behaviour, and therefore, bullying, is controlled through silent compliance, teachers will no longer see or hear those actions or words in the school corridors which could reveal signs of bullying, and lead to interventions to support the victim and assist the perpetrator in managing the causes of their behaviour. I would argue that silent corridors do not stop bullying – especially against the force of social media – but they certainly can hide it. In silence, perpetrators are protected, victims invisible. Those corridors become compliant in this and stunt social and emotional development during key formative years.
I’m not recommending mayhem throughout these transitions, but I would argue that silent corridors are all about compliance. My eight-year old son recently informed me that he was a ‘watcher’. I immediately envisaged the Eyes from The Handmaid’s Tale. If he sees someone talking as his class moves along the head teacher’s corridor, he is to report them to his teacher. Consider those embarrassing moments at school – your skirt caught in your knickers after a lunchtime trip to the toilet. In my child’s school, they are not allowed to tell you without fear of punishment. Your water bottle is leaking and forming a potential health and safety risk outside the head teacher’s office. Your friend won’t tell you to reposition it for fear of losing precious breaktime minutes. Any desire to help will be quelled by fear and self-preservation. I questioned this at the school office and was informed this was not a school policy – in fact a teacher present was horrified that they’d be seen to encourage ‘snitching’. However, it seems that the year 3 teachers, clearly a compliant bunch themselves, had devised this ‘policy’ as other members of my son’s year were also calling themselves ‘watchers’. I am awaiting comment from the head teacher.
A deputy head at one of my local silent secondary schools enlightened me regarding their premise for implementing silent corridors. I questioned its social impact, with what I thought a neat analogy. When I first met my childminder, I produced my list of Ofsted-inspired questions and with horror in my eyes, highlighted her lack of stair gate. She informed me she teaches them to climb the stairs. My horror, diluted by the maverick suggestion that enabling the child to master the task helps them accomplish the task time and time again, turned to wonder. Isn’t this the same with schooling, guiding students to interact positively within their community? My smart analogy was met with the statement, ‘We teach the students that it’s institution over individual.’ Do you? His wording is sinister. It’s Orwellian. What are these children being prepared for with such a precept at the heart of their schooling?
The World Economic Forum, stated that the top ten skills needed for the workforce of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ include complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, people management, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, judgment and decision making, service orientation, negotiation, cognitive flexibility (Gray, A, 2016). Behavioural policies which hinder the application of these skills, undermine current students’ ability to manage this future and, at this rate, they will be indistinguishable from the AI surrounding them. Should they not be required to develop their emotional intelligence? If they notice others are working in that room right there, shouldn’t they be able to decide autonomously to keep the noise down? If they understand that for some students, such as those with SEN, a calm environment is required, they should be able to create it. A raucous post-breaktime arrival from a haggle of year 9s – I’ve experienced them – surely requires a dialogue about judgement. They can solve the problem, maybe with some guidance, but they can and should do it. Sadly, it seems we don’t want our children to become creative problem solvers; instead we are shaping compliant ‘yes men’ to keep the system ticking over. Be knowledgeable but be unquestioning.
But maybe the crux of the matter is that my state sector children are not meant to be the leaders and innovators. Our system is built on such a strong hierarchy, maintained by the belief that private school is what we all aspire to. This allows the students from the British private sector to maintain their lead and become the politicians, the journalists, the commentators; to be the innovators and creators who will determine the future of our nation in the global knowledge economy. My children will be their administrators. They will be compliant and unquestioning. And will call out those who do raise their heads above the parapet and remind them it’s not their place to do so.
Anyway, I have advised my children not to be ‘watchers’. It’s not nice to create distrust in a community. I have told them to question. Put your head above the parapet if you believe it’s the right thing to do. You’ll get flak no doubt, but at least you’ve refused to be silenced by the institution of which you, along with each and every one of your peers, are a vital member. After all, individuals make the institution, not the other way around…surely?
And, by the way, my children have never, to date, fallen down a set of stairs. I reckon they can walk along a corridor appropriately without being silenced. How about yours?
Adams, R. (2016) available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/30/no-excuses-inside-britains-strictest-school (accessed 12.7.18)
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.
My husband is so glad I am writing this; that I am here with Rescue Our Schools, blogging about the current concerns many parents are raising since the recent education reforms. His joy comes from the fact he is not always going to be my first point of call for a good rant about education. Don’t get me wrong, he is equally bothered, but as the other half of my parenting team and as a teacher he is not only the converted, he is the afflicted. At least now, he might get a diluted form of my diatribe against those who are, in my opinion, bringing the system to its knees.
So, let me introduce myself. My name is Charlotte Wolf and I am the parent of two young boys, an eight year old and a six year old. I am also a teacher. Well, I was until December 2017, when I had to leave a profession I no longer identified with. I recently completed a Masters in Comparative Education at the Institute of Education. Or as Michael Gove might call it: The Home of the Blob (The Blob: academics who criticise Gove’s reforms so, along with all experts, must be ignored). I focused on the impact of the neoliberal agenda on education reform. Why pursue the marketisation of education? Does removing the state really improve schools and create greater opportunities for those usually left behind?
So, I have three very defined angles from which to watch and comment. Joining the teaching profession was a decision I made in my late twenties. I had taught English as a foreign language in Spain to pay my dance training – yes, I studied flamenco in Madrid. But weirdly, teaching grabbed me. Teenagers are humans in their rawest form; bodies in turmoil as hormones, emotions and physical growth tear them every which way; so unpredictable but so curious, even in the depths of adolescence, they still manage to grunt some signs of aspiration. The memories of laughter certainly outweigh those of frustration. As a diligent NQT, prepping my lesson for a C/D borderline year 11 group, essay plans were on each desk. Abdi arrived, glanced cheekily at my beautifully colour-coded document and said “What’s this crap now?’. ‘Let’s hope I don’t say the same thing when I see your essay next week!’ I responded. The room exploded with those roars only teenagers can make. However, in that same group was a bright young woman, who appeared aloof throughout. As the exam season started, she told me a man was arriving from Afghanistan in May whom she was to marry in July. She had realised she could have more. And she wanted more. That conversation led to her moving into a refuge and glances of her in my local shopping centre suggested she had started to explore the more she wanted.
Teaching was about connection; about knowing, engaging and guiding the individual. But the culture has shifted. Schools are places of rigour and tradition – words Gove and his successors placed at the heart of their reform. With more challenging curricula and tougher assessment, the sadly ironic effect of the free school programme is the cloning of schools, not a choice from which parents can select the most appropriate for their children. Instead, uniforms are becoming more formal, corridors more controlled and lessons more formulaic. As a teacher, I no longer understand my role. As a parent, I struggle with the onus on assessments and weighty blazers whose piping determines the quality of the school. I fear the onslaught of an ideology that values competition and risk. Students aren’t experiencing freedom, just chaos.
There is a lot to discuss and the debate needs to be widened to the parents who are often actively excluded from the decision-making process. I hope that this blog plays a part in challenging this and offers you a platform for comment. I hope that through the platform of Rescue Our Schools I can provide a parental perspective to which you can relate, but also offer an insight into the professional experience of how damaging these reforms have been for education since 2010. I really look forward to the conversation ahead.