I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of the hoo-ha about exam results day. When I got my O-level results and one token CSE – for this is how old I am – no one batted an eyelid. The day that everyone opened their envelopes wasn’t on the morning radio bulletins. You wouldn’t get distant relatives suddenly getting in touch to find out how you’d done.
Things now seem to be utterly ridiculous, like so much about British life at the moment. Friends whom I rate are fretting days beforehand. They are taking time off work to be there for their sons and daughters on results day. Everyone seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the government line that these results are the most meaningful thing in a child’s education. I would just like to make the following corrections to this particular bit of often media-assisted state propaganda.
Myth Number 1: the results are a fair assessment of a child’s academic achievements. They absolutely are not. There are far too many random factors that determine how a child does. For example, have they been tutored up to the eyeballs? Are they at a school that is essentially an exam factory rather than still trying to provide a semblance of an interesting education? Does the child have a bedroom or somewhere they can work in – as the columnist Barbara Ellen rightly pointed out the other day, how many of the children who are being housed in one bedroom flats, bed and breakfasts or shipping containers were able to pull in a slew of top grades?
Myth Number 2: they reflect a child’s talents. They do not. As any parent knows, children can have a whole range of capabilities, not just academic. You can be brilliantly empathetic, you can be an amazing orator or salesperson, you can work in a team and bring out the best in everyone, you can create beautiful work for a project you have developed over time, you can build something, you can fix something… and so the list goes on. None of these talents is valued by GCSEs or A-levels now that they are hyper-academic with no course work and minimal speaking and listening. You only have to look at some of our politicians – many of whom have been to Oxbridge – to see how extreme academic prowess is by no means the full toolbox.
Myth Number 3: you need top results to succeed in life. Total rubbish. This year it’s anticipated there will be more university places than students. That trend is likely to increase as foreign students stop applying to British universities. Plus sixth formers are starting to question the argument that university is the be all and end all of educational success. What’s the point forking out £50,000 for average teaching and an uninspiring course? Plus, outside politics, there is not a single bit of evidence that top academic performance ensures success in life – however you define that.
Myth Number 4: you need to put all your results on your CV when you apply for a job. Nonsense. In fact some companies now deliberately don’t ask anything about your schooling, preferring to set you admissions tasks that test the kind of skills and knowledge they are looking for.
Myth Number 5: doing well academically will prepare you for life. This has to be one of the biggest lies out. The kind of skills that our children are going to need are the very ones that are currently sidelined by the high stakes exam system. I mean things like being able to think critically and creatively, to have the deeper skills and resilience that allow you to have more than one career, and to have powerful knowledge to change the world rather than being able to remember and write out chunks of text. Let’s focus on our human skills, not the sort that robots and computers can do a whole lot better than us. If anyone tries to tell me that tests are best because life is a test, I might have to go and finally burn my A- level work (some of which I fear is still languishing in my mum’s loft).
Myth Number 6: results are the best way to measure educational standards. Codswallop. Being good at passing exams doesn’t mean you have had a good education. What about not just the human qualities I have listed above, but a child’s values? Aren’t they just as important? I refer again to some of our best known politicians, who’ve allegedly had a top education. It reminds me of the famous EM Forster quote about those who go into the world with “fairly-developed minds and underdeveloped hearts.”
Some of these chaps in power like to talk about character education. What do they mean by this? I suspect they mean that kids need to toughen up and put up with the mediocrity which defines so much of our current system. But in fact proper character education should surely be about developing courage, compassion, trust, curiosity and the like. It’s a goal really worth striving for, and there are schools that are trying to do this properly (such as XP school in Doncaster and the Relational Schools movement).
Myth Number 7: there is no better system than high stakes exams. Hmmmm. I would suggest taking a look at what’s going on internationally, where there is a good deal of work on how to assess students more broadly. For a start, lots of countries don’t test students at 16 (Finland being the most frequently cited example). Even in America – where again there’s no equivalent of GCSEs – the “Mastery Transcript” concept is being developed by some private schools. When students are ready (so “stage, not age”) they are rigorously assessed in modules which show their mastery of a variety of skills and areas of knowledge. Their competence in these various fields is put together to form a detailed picture of an individual student. Yale and Harvard are supporting the project, which is developing fast.
One thing that is most definitely not a myth is that a third of students are currently being written off by the new GCSEs. The national pass rate for English and maths last year was only 64 %. What future for the 36 % who don’t get these most basic of qualifications – the ones you do actually need for most jobs? Both the National Education Union and the Association of School and College Leaders have spoken out about the forgotten third. ASCL’s own survey had senior leaders reporting that some students were simply refusing to take GCSEs, they were so demoralised.
These are the students who most likely don’t have a private tutor, or they don’t have parents who went to university, or they don’t speak English as a first language, or they have additional needs or challenging home circumstances, or multiple combinations of the above. It seems that kids who are already disadvantaged in various ways are far more likely to fail these spuriously high stakes tests.
What happens to these young people? Some clearly remove themselves from the system, as ASCL has uncovered. Others, one suspects, have already been quietly sidelined through off-rolling. Do they just disappear into casual work or no work at all? Others stay at school and repeatedly retake maths and English GCSE to try to pass. Is this really an effective education system in terms of creating citizens who can contribute to both society and the economy?
Let’s not forget where these ideas originate. The reforms were introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary. And who was his special adviser? None other than Dominic Cummings. Anyone who has tried to read his ideas on education will know that he sees intelligence in a highly academic sense. Thus we have a system that aims to motivate and single out the extremely intelligent students (in his terms) – “the diamonds in the rough “ as someone once put it. Hence the new, granular grading system that piles pressure on academic students to get a 9.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gove and Cummings to find these students in all social backgrounds, because I think their belief in social mobility (as opposed to social justice) is genuine. But the trouble is that it is a deficit model that writes off the majority as having only limited abilities or none whatsoever. Then there’s Cummings’ alleged interest in eugenics. While there is evidence that genes can play a part in intelligence, only the purblind could ignore the effect of personal circumstance on doing well at school. Diane Reay’s book, Miseducation, explores this brilliantly. But of course none of this is taken into account in exam halls.
So we need to start really questioning the aims of our education system. We need a much more forensic approach. Let’s hear the human stories of the students who disengage from education – and the ones who have “succeeded” but can see how little that’s really worth. And let’s hear a whole lot more about different systems which resist summing up an education with a handful of scores. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, puts it, “in the longer term we simply must review the exam system to find a more humane way in which we can assess the abilities of young people and prepare them for the lives.” I am not sure how long many of our students can wait.
After 22 years of teaching in the independent sector I have decided to follow my heart, and return to a state school. I start in September, at a wonderful village primary.
Becoming a parent governor at my children’s large non-academy state secondary was hugely influential in making the choice to go; to witness, around that conference table, the passion of the leadership team and teachers who will do everything in their power to support the achievement of every child, no matter what that child will ‘do’ for the ratings, has stopped me in my tracks.
We understand as teachers, that all children are valued. All are important. It is not the child’s ‘fault’ to be the recipient of any set of circumstances, good or bad. I have taught some wonderful children, enjoyed the privilege of amazing times in amazing settings – some scenes worthy of Hogwarts. I have listened to celebrities speaking at prize giving ceremonies, I have had rent and bill free staff accommodation, superb lunches and suppers, extraordinarily long holidays and splendid grounds. But a bell was tolling in my head for years, a bell which, with state governorship, became too loud to ignore.
My own children are in state schools. There is no choice about that. As a single parent on a teacher’s salary (and no, before you wonder, there is no staff discount at some of Britain’s most elite schools) it would be too hard even to cover the cost of the uniforms, sports kits and ‘extras’. Some of the time I feel that they are at a great disadvantage here – the attention to performance in the independent schools I have worked in is massive. The pupils are driven by the staff; they are tested, measured, pushed, mentored and given opportunities beyond my wildest comprehensive school memories. No one really seems to fail. It’s not an option. Something will be done. League tables are very important. They drive the business forward.
And in the school that my children attend? It looks like Grange Hill. It has an electronic barrier rather than deer leaping in the grounds. But the thing that I love, that makes me feel like waving a lighter in governor’s meetings is the difference in ethos. The head refuses to ‘offroll’ any child. If they can support a child with complex issues, to get just one GCSE, they will do that. If it means that the school’s overall score for that year is negatively affected, they will still keep that child within the community. They will send a minibus out to pick kids up who might struggle getting in. They provide breakfast items to some, not because they’re boarders, but because they really might not have any food in the cupboard at home.
High standards are also expected, and they are a national award winning school with many excellent results to celebrate, but the difference that I feel, which made me know I had to go back to state, is that the excellent education is available to you simply because you exist. Not because you can afford it or because you’re so brilliant at one discipline that you will bump up the school’s results.
So, it’s back into the state system for me. The kids I have left behind at the independent school will be completely fine. They already have every chance of success. I start my new job in September, but what of the wonderful village school I am heading to? A school that seemed good to be true? The county has just announced that it is in consultation to close in August 2020. Budget trimming.
It’s a good job I have allowed the deep passion for state education back into my life – time to roll up these sleeves and join the good fight.
Our recent parent blog in support of comprehensive education garnered a huge amount of engagement from our followers.
So we thought we would take the debate one step further, and report on growing calls for private schools to be phased out and how to do it. Only this week the Guardian reported that there’s a proposal to get its conference in September to discuss a motion to “nationalise” private schools.
This comes after a similar initiative launched just a couple of weeks ago. Westminster hosted the first public meeting in decades to consider how best to phase out private schools. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Education Association (SEA) and drew – appropriately enough – a comprehensive crowd made up of experts, politicians and parents.
At the meeting the SEA launched a drive to encourage the Labour Party to embrace a much more radical agenda to sideline private education. This would mean doing more than the party’s current pledge to remove business rate tax relief on independent schools, and use the money to fund free school meals in all primaries.
The most forthright speaker on the panel was Robert Verkaik, the author of the excellent book Posh Boys. He argued that politicians needed to do far more – to abolish private schools’ charitable status, to encourage Oxbridge to make far more contextual offers to state school students (meaning they would be offered lower grades at A level to take account of an education less geared to getting into elite universities) and – most strikingly – positive discrimination towards state school students in key professions.
Fellow panellist Melissa Benn recounted a story about the Conservatives making similar noises a few years ago about people not being allowed to name their school on job applications, only for the former minister and current Provost of Eton, Sir William Waldegrave, to march into Downing Street and demand that the policy was retracted. The anecdote triggered groans from the audience. It tells you everything you need to know about the often privately-educated establishment, and how it maintains its supremacy.
A contrasting policy approach was put forward by Francis Green, author with David Kynaston of Engines of Privilege. They argue that the way to break the ‘pipeline of privilege’ is to ensure that a third of all private school students are from less advantaged backgrounds. It’s not clear how these students would be chosen – but it would not be on the basis of academic ability – nor whether they would enjoy being in a school dominated by students from radically different families. The school fees for this minority group would be paid for by the state. Isn’t there every chance these schools would break down into class war, given entrenched attitudes on both sides? It would make a riveting documentary, but it’s not at all clear how it would solve the private school problem.
All the speakers agreed that there was now a grotesque gap in resources between private and state sectors. Two factors were at play: in the last 20 years independent schools have hiked up their fees – aided by tax cuts for top earners – to fund five star resources. State schools meanwhile have seen a big increase in costs since 2010 with insufficient government funding to match.
One member of the audience questioned whether Theresa May had deliberately starved state schools of funds to build the case for the abolition of private schools. This was a joke question, but the fact remains that lots of politicians of all parties are beginning to see the educational apartheid we reside under in England as a major obstacle to social equity.
So what will Labour actually do? The new MP for Crewe, Laura Smith, pledged “Labour will not shy away from this problem”. Let’s see. Given that they have shied away from a commitment to wind up grammar schools under a National Education Service, one can only hope.
Perhaps the most effective way of emasculating private schools is to make non-selective education irresistible. That means funding comprehensives properly, and celebrating their diversity through a creative curriculum that gives every child the chance to develop their capabiliites. Above all, it encourages empathetic learning – listening to the view points of those different from ourselves.
It was none other than Andreas Schleicher, the inventor of the PISA international tests, who told the Education Select Committee a few months ago that the most important skill for the future would be “understanding other people’s point of view”. He also suggested that we in England are far too preoccupied by the ”top” students, and that the quickest way to improve our education system would be to focus on those who achieve the least. If that is not the death knell for private education, what is?
Having worked as a teacher in London schools for over two decades, the majority of that time in the comprehensive public school system and significant portion of time in the private sector, I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.
There are three very good reasons why I would not send them but none of them are about money. Admittedly, I do not have a spare £18,000 or so a year to invest in private education (although I wouldn’t need to pay the full cost because, in most cases, as an employee you are entitled to often very substantial staff discounts). However, this would still not entice me. This is not to say that ‘everything is coming up roses’ in state education, far from it. But even if I could afford it, I just wouldn’t want my children to be educated through the private school system.
Firstly, I strongly believe that as a parent, I would be doing my children a huge disservice by sending them to a private school. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in private schools by their very nature. Some are non-selective (in that pupils may not have to pass an entrance exam to gain admission) but, by and large, a child in a private school will be surrounded by lots of wealthy, privileged, white children.
There may be one or two pupils on a bursary in a private school, which may give a tokenistic nod to ethnic or social diversity but still independent schools just do not reflect the rich tapestry of cultures in our cosmopolitan capital. More and more overseas students are attending private schools in the U.K. (as middle class families feel the austerity pinch and their numbers in private schools are falling) but although these overseas pupils may have a different nationality, their values and attitudes are very similar if not identical to their British peers.
This is not to say that privileged children are unsuitable peers, but a whole school of very similar pupils provides a rather limited scope of experience. Private school pupils are on the whole extraordinarily well-travelled and have been exposed to a wide variety of cultural events but they still, on the whole, have a limited life experience.
Children who have everything handed to them on a plate and have all adversity removed from their childhood will often lack resilience and emotional robustness. Generally speaking, private school pupils have had very little to overcome in their lives and have experienced little hardship. Consequently, many often have a huge sense of entitlement and fragile personalities.
As a teacher for over 20 years it is not in my nature to speak ill of any child. And that is not what I’m doing here. I’m generalising. In the same way we could also say that children from challenging socio-economic backgrounds often present with challenging behaviours. It’s not rocket science but it isn’t a rule for all children. My children have friends with names, religions, cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds which are sadly absent from private schools. These friends will go on to be my children’s neighbours, colleagues and partners, and learning about each other and how to get on with each other as children is a crucial foundation for what goes on in adult life.
Secondly, I feel the attitudes to learning/ learners and teaching/teachers in the different education sectors is vastly different. In the independent sector, the curriculum is pumped with subject knowledge and specialist teaching. Children from as early as reception receive specialist teachers for French, Mandarin, music or Latin for example.
In the main, the curriculum is ridiculously compartmentalised and disjointed and this makes for disparate learning. On the whole, in public sector schools the ethos is different; topic learning is still prevalent. For example, pupils will learn about the Tudors in history, write imaginative diaries of Elizabeth I in Literacy lessons, whilst learning to play Greensleeves in music and about the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome on religion in Britain, whilst painting a Holbein portrait. The learning is within a firm context, is meaningful and cross-curricula. The thinking is joined up, holistic and fun.
Additionally, I do not want to speak negatively or disparagingly of private school teachers (many of whom are my very good friends) but I will say that in the private sector there is a much greater emphasis on the teachers’ subject knowledge and not their skills as practitioners. Sadly, as I know from experience on open mornings, when prospective parents go around, quite often one of the questions being asked is “so where did you get your degree?”. (Although parents need not ask, as this information is often made available on school literature.)
This prevalent attitude is based on an out of date and largely debunked philosophy. I’d like to believe that ‘gone are the days’ when we think of teaching as little more than seeing children as empty vessels to be filled with facts and knowledge. In the private sector, I’ve encountered many teachers with first class degrees from Russell Group universities who are ‘old Downe House girls’ or ‘old Paulinas’ (educated at St Paul’s Girls School) who are very knowledgeable in their specialist subject but haven’t got a clue about pedagogy, let alone children. These teachers are often completely confounded by pupils who may have special educational needs, have English as an additional language or have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even in deliciously small class sizes, private school teachers struggle with pupils with difficulties as they themselves have probably encountered few pupils with learning difficulties in their own education.
Just as well private school teachers rarely encounter such children in their teaching career, and if they do, the school will often simply request the parents pay additional fees for the child to have one-to-one tuition with SEN or EAL specialists. Excluding pupils with challenging needs is rarely an issue because a quiet informal meeting with the head teacher usually leads to the pupil leaving to go to a more ‘suitable’ setting with little fuss.
Regularly, I tell my pupils and my own children: ‘Mistakes are golden!’. It is when we make mistakes that we really have an opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as you learn from it. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that, if you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not learning. The real tragedy is when we make the same mistake over and over again without learning, or, as is so often the case with particularly pupils in private schools, we hide or run from a mistake and see it as a source of embarrassment, or worse, shame.
If so much of your life in a private school is building up towards passing an 11+ exam and getting into a seemingly elite independent secondary school, the cost of making mistakes is high. Children focus on finding the right answer. Therefore understanding the process of learning, metacognition and creativity is stifled if not crushed. It may sound alarmist but many private schools are breeding judgmental, jaded and narrowly-focused pupils who are terrified of making mistakes.
Finally, children’s mental health across-the-board, (regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural backgrounds), is an overwhelming concern for any educationalist, regardless of where or who they teach. In many private schools (and increasingly more public sector schools) the culture of competition is at best problematic but in many cases, disturbingly rampant. Consequently children are frightened of making mistakes.
When your parents have met substantial financial costs for your education, mistakes take on even greater implications. Children become automatons fearing mistakes and seeking only to score the top marks. Their awareness of themselves as learners or as creative thinkers is repressed as their prime focus becomes getting 130+ in standardised scores and looking like a candidate for a ‘top’ independent secondary school.
I have known many children who, after a very heavy day at a private school (learning six different subjects and having clubs for sports or science before and after school) then go home and have another hour or two of tuition. It is worryingly commonplace the number of children who regularly look exhausted, fraught and on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew of one girl preparing for 15 separate entrance exams, which probably cost her parents over £1,500 to just sit them and nearly cost the girl her sanity.
As a teacher and parent, my fundamental principle is this; what I want for my own children, I want for all children. I want children to grow into happy, successful, creative, well-rounded and caring adults. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe the best chance of my own children, and arguably any child, becoming such an individual is by going through the comprehensive school system.
My daughter is a school refuser. She was diagnosed with Autism in March 2018 having suffered a mental breakdown at the end of 2017. She attended an Academy which operated a “Positive Discipline” system and before she was diagnosed she was in a cycle of negative comments written in her planner and detentions.
She was isolated 4 times in 2 years. Now, although granted an EHCP and a place at an independent school with a specialist resource, she has lost trust in the education system due to the injustice she suffered at her previous school. She feels that she kept her side of the bargain by attending mainstream despite finding it extremely difficult, until she eventually reached breaking point.
My daughter is highly academic but was punished for her autistic traits which I believe were deemed disruptive or not compliant with their discipline system.
Please sign and share this petition if you agree with banning isolation booths becasue they do not work and can be damaging for the mental health of children on the Autistic Spectrum.
Rescue Our Schools recently received an anonymous message from a parent whose son was about to sit SATS. His grandparent had sadly passed away during SATs week. The family told the school. What did the school say in response? Please delay telling your child about their grandparent’s death until SATs are over with, in case it affects their score. The parent was rightly disgusted at such a suggestion.
Over the last few weeks we have received other stories like this. Another parent told us that her child had become ill with chicken pox, but the school offered to send someone round to administer the test at their home.
The heads in these cases are giving very dodgy advice: the guidance on SATs, limited as it is, makes clear that heads in are in loco parentis. If children are upset or unwell, heads have a duty of care towards their students – in other words they shouldn’t put them in for SATs. This is a safeguarding issue. Above and beyond this, parents have the legal right to withdraw their children from school – whether that’s to avoid SATs or any other reason. They may face a fine, but we know of no case yet where that has happened.
Why do some heads do this? We all know the reasons. We have an utterly punitive accountability system, in which schools are judged by their SATs results. A couple of children withdrawing from SATs can affect their data, bump them down the league table, trigger an Ofsted inspection, and in the worst case lead to the head being forced to leave, and forced academisation or a new sponsor taking over.
No other country in the world puts these pressures on headteachers. Those pressures are passed on to staff – who can be paid according to the results they get from their class – who in turn can very easily pass it on to the children in their care. It’s only human to do this. Once you understand the high stakes environment in which heads are operating, you understand why some of them behave the way they do.
But we know from survey after survey that the vast majority of heads think SATs are damaging to both children’s education and their wellbeing. They don’t like doing them. Nor do teachers. So in this sense they are collaborating with a system they fundamentally oppose – and they have that on their conscience until SATs are got rid of.
For children this means that too many of them are suffering in so many ways. Most of the parents who got in touch with us wanting advice on withdrawing their children were doing this because they wanted to protect their children.
Protect them from the unhappiness they thought the tests would unleash. Isn’t that what any caring parent would do? Some parents had assured their children they wouldn’t be sitting the tests, only to be told at the last minute that boycotting would harm their school. With a heavy heart they sent their children to school. We know that some of those students were upset and even crying at doing tests they thought they would avoid. What kind of system is this? It’s a hostile environment not just for learning but for happiness.
We can’t carry on like this. So how do we change the system? One strategy is to encourage more and more parents to boycott SATs next year if they think this is the best thing for their child. That’s assuming this government is still in power, which is a big if. It’s worth remembering that they are now the sole defenders of SATs – the Lib Dems, Greens and now Labour all oppose them.
But a much better way forward would be for heads to come together and vote to boycott SATs en masse next year. That requires the unions to come together on this – in particular the NAHT, which has the greatest number of primary heads.
The NEU, meanwhile, has just opened its ballot on a boycott. We would urge as many members as possible to vote. Under the government’s tough new rules unions need to get more than 50 per cent of members participating in a ballot for it to have any validity. Of those, 80 per cent (yes, it’s that high) need to vote for a boycott.
The stakes are high. – just like the system we must unravel. Winning a vote for a boycott will be extremely tough. But this is a critical moment. NEU members, when you receive your ballot paper, please think of the thousands of children who are being damaged by SATs. Then cast your vote accordingly.
Too much change and high levels of pressure can be so detrimental to our children’s mental health. So I decided to look into things and see if we had any options.
For weeks now I have seen a lot of my son’s peers feel the overwhelming pressure of performing for the SATs tests, completing plenty of practice papers and getting upset that they may not be achieving the results expected or desired. I’ve seen kids turn up to school during half term for holiday clubs aimed at SATs practice, missing out on making memories with family or friends, and losing out on the chance of a well-needed break from schoolwork. All for the sake of assessing their schools’ performance. Is this really what they need, right before the transition to secondary school, and saying goodbye to a handful of their childhood friends?
By chance (or divine intervention, or fate, if you believe in either) I saw a social media post made by the group More Than a Score. They provided a bulk of information that outlined the options we had and some practical help for parents wanting to seriously consider withdrawing their child from the tests.
I started by sending a letter to my son’s school, stating that I would like to withdraw him from the tests, and welcomed any discussion. This was followed up by a brief ‘meeting’ during my son’s parents’ evening appointment, in which the deputy head just happened to pop in and tried in earnest to convince me into reconsidering. Multiple iterations of “His results are brilliant, he really is doing well!” and “He really doesn’t appear stressed with any aspect of the tests” were offered to me, but of course he wouldn’t feel stressed, because by this point we had already decided he wouldn’t be sitting them, so he was more than happy to complete any class work or home work. I firmly believe his marks on any preparation work were because he had a distinct lack of pressure. And besides, his capabilities were never a concern, he’s generally a smart kid. I explained that my disagreement with the tests were simply that there are better ways of assessing the school and their staff, and alternative ways to monitor the performance. Then I was hit with this…
“Basically, we as a school need his good marks to reflect well on us. It makes us look good”
Coming from the deputy head I was a little shocked, but I replied, “Well he isn’t a pawn and he won’t be stressed out for the sake of a league table”. I was quietly satisfied with this, and left this eye-opening parent evening.
Skip forward to the Friday before the start of ‘SATs Week’ and I receive a letter from the head, to ‘clarify the situation’. Full of references to the STA (Standards and Testing Agency) and their regulations/guidelines in respect to attendance marks, it was made clear that even if he wasn’t to sit the tests that week, he could be made to sit the tests up to 5 days after the last test was sat. He would also have to be kept away from all of his peers, and so they would make arrangements to segregate him during the time frame of the tests (both at school and home). There was also a nice mention of the fact he wouldn’t be able to attend the celebratory class meal to a local eatery with his friends, just for good measure. As if the bribery would have won him over?
At this point I reached out for some advice, as I was honestly a little overwhelmed and wanted to be clear of where to go from here. I contacted Rescue Our Schools who along with a colleague gave me some solid guidance. I wrote a reply outlining the fact he would stay home for the days which they have tests, and would be back after the last test had been sat. I also made it clear that he would have access to his friends and the internet, and so had every opportunity to gain knowledge on the test contents, and therefore would not be eligible to sit any the following week. I got no formal reply from the school, so I went on with the plan I had outlined, enjoying 3 and a half days in the sunshine and getting in some well-earned fun. He attended the first afternoon session after the last test was sat and congratulated his friends on their hard work, happy and ready to tackle the last few weeks of his primary education with his friends.
It can be really difficult to navigate your way through the decision to withdraw your child from SATs. It isn’t made easy for us, and I believe that is for a reason. Here are the main things I would advise after our experience.
1.Try to give yourself plenty of time to communicate with the school. Some headteachers may not have the information readily available, so give them and yourself time to seek out any information needed. Opening the conversation well in advance can really help you to avoid feeling rushed into making decisions.
2.Make it clear you would be happy to discuss things with the school, and remind them that you not only worry about the stress put on the children, but also the pressures for the teaching staff.
3.Clarify in a letter to the head, that you will be keeping your child off school for the days of the tests. Also include that they will have access to the internet and their friends, and so will not be eligible to be entered for the tests in the following week. This is crucial, and will prevent them from going against your wishes.
Not for the long term, but for the short term it’s something that should be tolerated and even encouraged for young people still finding their way, after, (or even before), school finishes at 18.
Just over a month ago a good friend of mine said that she had received a letter from the local council stating that if her 17-year-old daughter does not return to sixth form or start another course she may lose her child benefit. When I got home that day, I had the same letter. The letter suggested that our children would be put on the NEET register if something was not done about rectifying the situation, and we could lose our child benefit. But what if you have a child that has had a very negative experience at school for the last 11-12 years and has had enough?
NEET is a term given to young people between the ages of 16 and 24 that are not in full time education, employment or training. It is a term used by the government to analyse the amount of young people that are not contributing to the British economy and is not to be confused with young people taking ‘a gap year’. The term NEET tends to be applied to the lower classes or to young people who do not continue school at 16 or 17 for various (probably personal) reasons and is seen to be a detrimental state which leads to prolonged unemployment. The Gov.uk website states ‘Studies have shown that time spent NEET can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health, and increase the likelihood of unemployment, low wages, or low quality of work later on in life.’ But what about the young people who have not fitted the academic model of schooling in recent years and just need time to recover from the bruises of a system that never suited them, what about the ones who need to find the time to recover and discover what it is they are good at, re-build their shattered self- esteem and set off from there? These are the ones the educational system unconsciously rejects, the ones they don’t know what to do with and the ones that don’t tick their boxes. They deserve a future too, don’t they?
NEET is a term we need to get rid of, because ‘a gap year’ or ‘a gap six months’ sounds much better. It has a middle-class ring to it that the lower class or lower ability kids who are not university bound do not qualify for, in the same way that they did not qualify for so many things whilst at school. Why are we labelling them again so soon? And making sure that they start their adult lives with a big question mark over them.
Many of our ‘average ability’ kids these days don’t get into their school’s sixth form because they have not acquired the necessary grades to do so, so they scrabble around at 16 looking for what they think is the next best thing. This is the first big rejection for them and it cuts deeply. It comes at a time when they have summoned everything they have in their academic basket to achieve a range of 3 to 5s for their GCSEs. They want to do A Levels because they know that this is what the ‘smart kids’ do, but with their grades it is going to be a very long and high ladder to climb, so they are left with a choice of L2 and 3 Btec courses at FE college which is the poor relation to A Levels and they feel like they’ve failed again. So, they try for a little while, and maybe it suits some and they are successful, but not all of them and many drop out. They say ‘it was rubbish and I never wanted to do it anyway’ and retreat to their rooms to mourn. If you’re 17 and never felt as though you were good enough, why are you going to put all your energy into something you think is second rate from the outset? Now, I’ve taught on these courses and know how much the lecturers put in, but trying to heal the scars of 11 years is a big ask and in many cases it’s not possible. The damage is done.
The time that it takes for a young person to heal after their perceived failures differs from person to person, so the time they need to sit and reflect on their lives and work out a coherent plan for the future is also going to differ. Is this time NEET or is it the natural amount of time that almost everyone needs to decide what they want to do? I used to tell my students on a daily basis that I was 52 and still had not made up my mind what I wanted to do with my life, at which they laughed at and replied ‘but miss, you’re a teacher!’ The thing was, most of the time I really meant it. I can’t remember why I wanted to be a teacher and at that stage in my career I used to wonder on a daily basis why I was still a teacher. I was 52. Why are we expecting everyone to know exactly what they want to do by the age of 17?
Even those that are academically successful and pushed into choosing 6 universities and filling in their UCAS form at 17 are not completely sure. I spent years ‘helping’ young people choose courses to apply for and write their personal statements so that they would be accepted into their first-choice university. I did it because I believed that they deserved to get the same opportunities as their private school counterparts out of a drive for social justice so that they would be able to compete for the best jobs when they’d finished. I even went so far as to encourage one of my best academic students to strive to become prime minister one day. I now wonder how many of them made it through the first year and whether they have £60000 worth of debt instead of a great career. We don’t encourage young people to take the time to reflect before they go off to university and really get their money’s worth, doing what they enjoy and what will lead them on to a career in the area they are passionate about. No, of course we don’t – they might end up NEET mightn’t they? It is the more affluent young people that take a year out to do an internship or go travelling and ‘find themselves’, the local kids from the council estates or the lower ability will be NEET and we can’t allow that. The Independent ran an article in 2016 which stated ‘Almost a third of first-year students have either already dropped out of university or are thinking of leaving in the summer’ which suggests that we are pushing them into something they are not prepared for and landing them with a £15000 debt into the bargain. This is money they have paid and got nothing out of, and will be added to the new course they start when they do eventually find the degree that they want to do.
I’m not suggesting that any young person should be NEET for long, but give them the chance to take a breath or time to heal from the battering and bruising experience they’ve had at school, and take away the label – being NEET is not something anyone should have to put on their CV.
So, recently I became a tutor. I am probably one of very few who are doing this for free. I’ve never wanted to be a tutor, but I have been put in a position where I feel I can’t refuse. Let me explain.
I would like to introduce you to my student, Oliver (not his real name). He is fourteen years old and has moved schools three times in his secondary career. But he is now off-roll.
Oliver has a temper. He has answered back; he has been in fights. He accepts that. His mother accepts that. Oliver has asked for extra support to deal with the anger which only explodes inside the school gates; mum has asked for extra support to help her son deal with this volatile behaviour. He talks to her about his feelings towards school, towards his dad, towards his future. But they both acknowledge external, professional support is needed here. This, however, is no longer on offer. The focus has been on punishing his behaviour following a strict, zero-tolerance policy rather than enabling him through counselling or mentoring, for example, to understand and manage his behaviour in order to tackle those issues arising in the school context. Vital services such as CAMHS have been reduced to a bare minimum and support teams, such as learning mentors are becoming a thing of the past where once they were so essential during the school day for many students, and therefore so valued by teachers and parents.
Now, I have known Oliver for two years. His younger brother is one of my youngest son’s best mates. There is no doubt he had his guard up on first meetings. He didn’t make eye contact, he reluctantly answered questions directed his way and he quickly removed himself from the space to avoid more following. But I think this can be explained and understood. I think all his behaviour can be explained and understood. And I will say at this point that during our three tutoring sessions so far, I have seen Oliver start to trust me, to smile and to feel comfortable offering interpretations and asking numerous questions. He will say when he doesn’t know, he will have a stab in the dark and happily seek support. The ingredients surely for a model student.
Anyway, mum refused to send him to school when he was told he would be in isolation, questioning its benefit when both she and her son had repeatedly articulated their need for support, not just the same ineffectual punishment. Fixed-term exclusion was then threatened. At this point, she’d had enough. This was the last straw in what she felt was a losing battle. His mother, holding herself together, asked if I would tutor him a few weeks ago, but the tears in her eyes gave her desperation away. She is a single mum with an ex-partner who occasionally makes an appearance, offering little support and no regular, reliable parental input. She is studying full-time to achieve her dream of working in the health sector whilst also working as a care-worker to pay the bills, including the rent for their small flat above the shops on the local high street, and, of course, she is bringing up her two sons.
I have only heard her side of the story, but I fear that I have heard the other side of the story via reports exploring the off-rolling of vulnerable students in the media. If you watched Dispatches a few weeks ago on the subject, you will have seen children with ADHD and autism amongst other special educational needs, sitting at home with parents who, as one said, had felt ‘like a burden to the school’. Oliver’s mum said to me, ‘I can’t keep fighting.’ She talks a lot about the system, about feeling pushed around by ‘It’ and how ‘It’ doesn’t listen to her. So, now her son is sitting alone on his laptop in a small flat and she is paying a weekly fee to an online tutoring company to prepare him for his GCSEs. His visit to my house once a week is his one excursion in education and during my time with him, it is evident that this boy needs school.
He is becoming socially isolated. One of the triggers for his behaviour many years ago was becoming the victim of ongoing bullying. Initially, he fought back as instructed by dad. He got in trouble. He was then told not to fight, so he stopped. But the bullying didn’t stop. Now, he is able to hide away. He feels safer, but he is becoming a recluse. On leaving my house when we first discussed our plan for English tutoring, he was concerned because it was 3pm and he might bump into his friends on the bus. This was alarming to hear from a fourteen-year-old boy. He should be on that bus, travelling home from school, sharing grievances and speaking irritatingly loudly, as all good teenagers do.
His cultural capital is low. When discussing the Power and Conflict poetry cluster for GCSE English poetry, he couldn’t distinguish between the two World Wars. When I told him I had visited Auschwitz in Poland, he asked if the people were mean to me. I suggested that his mum took him to the Imperial War Museum over the half-term break and visited the exhibition on the First World War to support his understanding of the poetry we had read so far. They did. Mum was absolutely fascinated by what she saw and when I asked him about the experience, he responded with a suitably fourteen-year-old, ‘Yeah, it was okay.’ It was great to see her acting on advice, but I am so frustrated and angry as I witness this. Home-schooling is usually a choice made to offer something different from the mainstream; a desire to deliver a learning experience which is free from the limiting criteria of government-led measures. In this case, mum wants him to continue receiving mainstream provision but without the resources or the know-how. This boy needs to be surrounded by educators who exude passion and excitement for their subject and the act of learning, and of course know how to get their students to the finishing line. There is not a child in this world who does not want to feel excited about the world. But if you are made to feel like a burden or you have to fight a battle to earn your place within the school walls, I guess learning loses its magic and its appeal. Mum hasn’t chosen home-schooling. No, in this situation, it’s a choice based on a need to escape.
Amanda Spielman expressed her concerns last year about the astounding number of students who between year 10 and year 11 disappear from school data. For example, 13,000 year 10 students in 2016 had disappeared from any state funded school league table results by the end of their year 11 in 2017. Spielman commented on the need to bring this conversation into the framework so Ofsted inspectors can discuss the role of ‘pressures that unquestionably act on schools’ and result in the poor management of our more vulnerable students.
Now, Oliver appears to be a statistic in need of urgent discussion. He is in a London school and this increased pattern of off-rolling has been felt most noticeably in the capital. He also attends a school which was taken over by a Multi-Academy Trust, and the data suggests that students are being removed from more academies within these trusts than in Local Authority Schools. In fact, it is the latter which often opens their doors to those removed from these academies. But in more and more cases, we are seeing students being home-schooled as parents can no longer take the stress of defending their child’s needs and don’t want to feel like a ‘burden’. In some cases, there have been reports of coercing parents into removing their child by suggesting home-schooling may be a more appropriate option, but in Oliver’s case, the school has remained passive and simply allowed the parent to remove their child from the school roll. What has become the last resort by the parent to rescue their child from feared mental health breakdown and themselves from the inevitable feeling of being the parent who failed, has, for the school, become an easy means of shifting students with more challenging behaviour away from their league table results.
Who are the winners and the losers then? The school for one is a winner, as their Progress 8 data will be all the better for losing a student who might not succeed within their walls. The tutoring company is making a nice little profit from a woman who cannot really afford to pay this weekly bill. I suppose I get a little insight into the boy Oliver really is, which is a pleasure for me but, ultimately, I would rather a team of school teachers were experiencing this. I am encouraging mum to write to her MP and demand her support. I have made it very clear that I will tutor him for now, but this is not the long-term solution. An alternative must be found which will see him thrive academically and socially.
The losers? Well, this is obvious. Mum is stressed. She now has the teacher role and I worry about conflict building between the two of them as they sit and study together within the confines of their small living room. Will this impact negatively on the one relationship he has always had absolutely faith in? And of course, Oliver. By the age of 14 years, he believes he is a problem. He has been told by teachers that he is intimidating because he is a ‘big, black man.’ He’s a boy. A boy who has now been told, ‘Your race is going to be your issue, watch yourself’. Mum is scared to let him out now as this concern is at the forefront of her mind. So, he studies online and spends the rest of his day gaming. His world is a small flat and the virtual world he escapes to. But, ironically, he is not alone in his seclusion. There are many children across the country isolated within their homes, growing up feeling to blame for their behaviour, their special educational needs, their anxieties, their inability to fit in to an ever-decreasing set of criteria.
Every educator knows that every child who enters your space brings their mood, their concerns, their baggage so to speak. But we are told when trained that within those walls we have a duty of care, we are in loco parentis for those few hours. Policy makers must think carefully about the wider social impact of educational practice resulting from reforms; they must question priorities and consider the long-term social implications of their decisions. And let’s consider what we must prioritise here: performance measurements and league tables or our obligation under international law to guarantee a good quality education for all?
A mainstream current affairs programme is keen to hear stories of how a reduction in arts in schools has damaged children’s educational experience.
If you have experienced this, please email us your story and we will pass it on to the programme makers. This in no way obliges you to take part in any future programme: they are at the research stage at the moment. Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
Halfon calls for the scrapping of GCSEs. Parents, is it time we push for bold yet beneficial reform?
For many years now I have been telling my long-suffering partner that if I was the Head of Education for the world – or at least England – I would scrap GCSEs. My reasoning has always been the stark difference in attitude towards their studies between a 15 or 16-year-old and an 18-year-old. For those secondary school teachers amongst us, I have three questions: firstly, how many phone calls have you made home regarding under-performing year 11 students since September? And how many times have you had to rampage across the playground during lunchtimes and after school to find year 11 students who need to catch up on missed work? And how many nights sleep have you lost worrying about year 11 students not being ready for those all-important dates in May and June when they must demonstrate everything they have ever learnt in your subject?
I remember watching a year 13 boy, Rami, presenting at a non-compulsory after-school media workshop in his tie and v-neck sweater. I remember watching him and thinking, “You used to run teachers ragged! The hours you have clocked up during your school career sitting outside offices for all the wrong reasons…and now look at you!’ You see, throughout Key Stage 4, teenagers, especially boys, start to shoot up in height: gangly limbs are knotted under desks, backs slumped as they can’t quite work out how to comfortably house this new lofty physique in a classroom for an hour-long lesson. Their adolescent brain is still battling with huge physical and chemical changes, but more importantly, they have got to remember, amongst numerous other content details, how Ted Hughes and Wilfred Owen use language, form and structure to present a soldier’s life in war.
But two years later, that spindly, awkward figure that stumbled over what felt like its own clown-like feet into your classroom, has now broadened and matured. They move with greater ease and confidence, and they are taking themselves seriously. They talk about their futures; they are keen to discuss UCAS applications and want your opinion on whether that choice most suits the person they think they probably want to become. Decision-making is more fascinating, relevant and more vital. So, this why I have always proposed (quietly) the culling of GCSEs.
It was therefore no surprise that I was happy to be a guest on Victoria Derbyshire’s show this week discussing Robert Halfon’s call for the scrapping of GCSEs. Of course, my above argument was not on his bullet point list justifying his stand for a holistic baccalaureate at the age of eighteen in place of cliff-edge assessments at sixteen, but I have to say I am very much on board with the bullet points he did present.
We have to recognise that a knowledge-rich curriculum is not really serving the needs of this generation as they look towards their futures. I attended a debate a few years ago on this new curriculum, and I remember a key and controversial figure in education saying in support of it, ‘Even if they fail, at least they can be in the job centre and say “I know these things”.’ How alarming. To even in your mind, be content with our children’s future unemployment. And to think listing the kings and queens of England and the ability to perform Macbeth’s speech from Act 1 scene 7 for the employees of your local job centre will wow them into fixing you up with that supervisor role at the local depot is deluded. They might, however – though possibly moved by your performance – be more interested in your ability to communicate effectively, or maybe in your problem-solving skills and ability to act on your initiative in the scenario of ‘systems down’ and the like.
But wouldn’t it also be exciting for our children to be able to explore a greater range of subjects for longer? To not be tied to a pathway at the age of thirteen, but to spend more time in a curriculum which allows access to the academic and the vocational, to experience the creativity in every subject. I remember hearing Alex Bellos decrying our current focus on the ‘academic’ subjects and the ‘creative’ subjects. For him, a mathematician, his subject is infinitely creative. When you study Maths at university, the right and the wrong, the ticks and the crosses are nowhere to be seen, as this subject is inherently one of exploration. If only I had been told this at five years of age, I might not have spent my Maths career trying to avoid lessons and ticking off days until that GCSE was done, and Maths was no longer part of my life. But, of course, it is. I was just never taught in a way which encouraged me to understand how I might apply my Maths skills daily. Instead, I spent my lessons trying to be invisible for fear of being wrong!
And I see my children experiencing the same fear and so I ask myself, ‘Shouldn’t we have moved forwards in our view of education and its purpose?’ The EBacc is out of date. Where are we going to stand in the world, in the era of the fourth industrial revolution with a generation who are ‘knowledge-rich’ yet stressed and lacking in the essential skills? How will our future surgeons cope when, as I was recently told, our medical students can’t sew? A leading surgeon at Imperial is bringing in seamstresses and magicians to teach sewing and the skill of reading body language. What is going on when Kenneth Baker, the man responsible for the introduction of GSCEs is openly saying scrap them? He calls for a ’knowledge-engaged’ curriculum. Knowledge is wonderful to have but it’s not enough on its own. The application of knowledge through a range of well-developed skills is surely much more ‘rigorous’ than simply being able to spout facts. And let’s face it, if you have Alexa or Google Home sitting on your sideboard, they will do that for you. But they definitely can’t read your body language.
I welcome this new debate. If we are going to have anything to offer the world, future generations need to be able to problem solve and negotiate and be more than a piece of AI. And surely we want to make education feel valuable as an experience. I fear, in this country, we see education as something we ‘get through’ before we start to live – I certainly did. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students were excited to enter school because the language of success and failure had become obsolete in the pursuit of a journey towards the person you want to be. A holistic approach, removing the weight of assessment at the age of sixteen years, could actually refocus the purpose of learning: students will be asking ‘who do I want to be?’ and ‘how do I get myself there?’ rather than ‘how do I remember everything for June?’ and ‘What’s the point of this?’ Sounds better, doesn’t it?