Rescue Our Schools

The Learning Burden: Why the ‘L’ word has become a thorny issue in our household.

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?

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/19/pupils-banned-talking-walking-lessons-headteachers-silence-policy/ (accessed: 21.7.18)

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.

 

Parents…we think this will interest you

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.