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 email@example.com
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?
This may sound uncharacteristically heartless, but I was so pleased, though the context is horrific, to read Brian Walton in the TES expressing the prevalence of fear in his working life these days. It’s horrifying to learn it is the emotion which keeps him ticking. He states, ‘fear will become a strength’, and you know I get incensed by the role of resilience in the survival of students, teachers and school leaders in our education system. But it is so important to hear the truth spoken candidly, and I do think we, as parents, need to start expressing our fear too.
Our children are growing up in frightening times. Let’s face it, the discourse on climate change has ramped up dramatically in recent months, let alone years. I was in California this summer and witnessed apocalyptic scenes. Obviously, access to areas of fire danger were closed, but the suffocating air and the ash landing on us as we walked home was nothing less than disturbing. And then we have Brexit and increasing social division; Britain on the brink of…no one actually knows what. I can safely say I fear for my children and what their future will look like. But it’s hard to find solace in ‘the system’. And that probably comes back to fear once more.
I think it is time for a parental revolution. I fear my children becoming quiet, compliant cogs in this fear-ridden system. I fear they will not know how to raise their voices, to protest and state their rights to a future which is safe, secure and full of possibility. This is why I call for a parental revolution. We have to model this behaviour and we have to demand better for our children before it is too late for their generation. Let’s start with their right to a rounded, valuable education which prepares them all appropriately for adulthood in the 21st century.
The first thing we need to stop doing is accusing the ministers at the Department for Education of having their heads in the sand or for ignorance of the realities, the crisis which is of course well and truly evident to anyone looking at the status quo objectively. Yes, we are run by the elite, who have always lived in their bubble, but they are fully aware that they are stripping schools of resources. They are fully aware that schools are struggling across England. They are fully aware teachers are either leaving or hanging on by one finger to that cliff edge. And that leaders, such as Brain Walton live their careers in a perpetual sweat elicited by fear.
Policy today is about minimising the state and pushing for the privatisation of all public services. Let’s face it, if Conservative MPs have the audacity to be pictured celebrating the good work of food banks, they will happily accept the struggle of anyone and accept that for many, their lives are in a state of absolute crisis. Of course, they will not use these words themselves! They are not fools! They are not going to commit political suicide. They will just wait. School leaders and teachers will battle until the very end, until they have to stumble out of their crumbling reception doors with their white flag of surrender leading the way. The government ministers will be ready, having twiddled their thumbs for months, anticipating this moment, and then they’ll make the call to one of their booming academy beasts and the corporatisation of the defeated institution will begin. Now, the teachers may well have gone on strike, for weeks, months. One secondary school in my borough experienced months of two-day school weeks as the teachers attempted to stave off their school’s imminent take over by one of these beasts. They failed.
Geoff Barton once wrote that it will not be until the ire of parents is felt that the policy makers will listen. I agree. Look at places where parents have fought. Newham for example. It’s when the parents activate and absolutely refuse to accept what they are being ‘sold’; when parents come back and remind the powers-that-be that they also are not fools, that they understand the agenda and stand their ground. It is then that it works. I call for more of this in 2019.
Let’s also consider the diet we are being offered. Remember this whole policy was sold on parental choice, on the empowerment of our voices in the system to create learning opportunities for our children, to be able to create a system which we determine rather than have imposed on us by the ‘evil state’. Today, parents are not involved in the creation of schools. This was always going to fail, but report findings this year tell us we have business leaders opening our schools. Our children are being led through a system which has been corporatized. Our children are becoming homogenised under a brand name, with a tag-line such as ‘Reaching beyond your grasp’. And it is within these homogenised, ‘one size fits all’ contexts that we see the increased application of zero-tolerance behaviour policies, the increased reliance on isolation rooms and increasing exclusion statistics amongst the most vulnerable members of our school communities. I was talking with a fellow ex-school teacher today and we were commenting on the reading of student’s behaviours; how we could see if things were slightly off-kilter as a student entered our classroom, and how we, as teachers, would adapt our behaviour and attitude, even our lessons to ensure those students avoided conflict and instead were offered space in which to settle and find focus. But schools aren’t so much about communities any more, they’re about the growth of corporations.
Our children enter a school and they have to wear the same outfit, carry the same bag and have the same haircut. This is always sold under the ‘equality’ banner. I don’t buy that. Uniform has never ever hidden poverty in my experience. And let’s question why we want to hide poverty, why we want to hide diversity, why we want to hide individuality. Is it to stop the debate on what real social justice looks like? Is it to stop giving voice to those who might realise they are the have nots? And is it to create a generation of ‘Yes Men’ who won’t question the status quo in times of terrifying flux? Are we creating a generation who can successfully manage the very uncertain future of our planet? Are they going to be able to stand up and raise their voice above the crowd to right a wrong? I fear not.
I urge all parents in 2019 to start campaigning, to start asking why things are happening in their children’s schools; to demand inclusion in the improvement of their local schools; to refuse to allow corporate voices to overrule those of the community; and most importantly, to not allow the government the excuse of ignorance. Let’s stop our schools being places within which our children are uninspired data columns, lost in a crowd of neat back and sides and tartan skirts, but, instead, places where they find their individual voices and learn how to be the change tomorrow will so desperately need. It’s over to us if we really want to get this ball rolling. If we all make the same resolution, could there be a revolution of ‘the system’ in 2019?
How devastating it was to read the comments written by followers of Rescue Our Schools on an article about age being no barrier to good teaching. Teachers in their fifties vulnerable to redundancy, teachers in their fifties working on zero hours contracts for agencies, their teaching input now limited to covering for others. What a complete and utter waste of talent and experience! From whom do new teachers learn these days? Whose wealth of experience can they tap into? The Head with ten years teaching experience? Well, not really ten years as their teaching hours would have been cut down as they stepped into management in year two! This blog is dedicated to all those teachers over the age of fifty whom I was lucky enough to meet on my journey and have inspired and nourished my ability in the classroom and my love of teaching.
On a recent tour of my local secondary school which only opened three years ago, my friend who accompanied me commented, ‘The teachers are very young!’ Our year nine tour guides informed us that only three teachers remained from the first year of the school’s inauguration. So young teachers and a high staff turnover. Nothing wrong with young, enthusiastic teachers, of course, but oh for the teacher who can walk into a classroom, with no PowerPoint primed or lesson plan clutched in hand, but the ability to teach off the cuff; to walk in and bring knowledge and skill to the learning space!
When I was an NQT, the department I joined was a source of great wonder and entertainment. I received very little practical support but what a whirlwind of teaching characters I was thrown into! Meetings were fabulous. Tension always high and arguments allowed to run. There was an ex-couple in the department who used these moments to spit venom at each other. Mr Bennett (or Mr B to me) would always leave the meeting on the dot of 5.30pm in line with union rules, no matter what discussion was full flow.
I remember an Assistant Head Teacher coming to one meeting to do some training on the Accelerated Learning Cycle, which was to become the template for all our lesson plans that year. I had already had this training in my NQT induction and in the initial staff inset of my first year, but once again I had to hold one fist aloft and wrap my hand around it to initiate my kinaesthetic appreciation of the brain’s structure.
Now, Clive had no time for this. ‘I’m not doing it,’ he stated boldly, leaving the AHT dumbfounded. This was a school initiative which we were all to apply immediately in our planning. But Clive was Clive. He was a maverick. He had taught PE and was now a fabulous English teacher. I remember walking past his classroom once to find he had moved all the desks out of the classroom, because he had gone off plan suddenly and his students were building an escape route for the characters in their current text. He came in on my request to team teach my challenging year 10s for a lesson, as I wanted to tap into his behaviour management. A group of boys who were testing me to the end of any tether I could find, sat like obedient puppies in awe of his presence. When he was funny, they laughed, when he was unimpressed, they retreated. He reminded me of Mr Montgomery, my year 4 teacher when I was a child. I barely took my eyes off him and waited to hear his voice, as whatever he said was going to be worth my full commitment. The energy they both brought to their learning space was absolutely electric. Every word was heard and lapped up.
Then there was Mr B. He was in his early sixties and the school was getting twitchy about his inability to manage certain classes. He was struggling with challenging year 7 groups, but let’s face it, why should he have had to? He’d given the school years of his energy, commitment and incredible subject knowledge…why not use him in a way which would benefit him and the school? The sixth form had opened recently, and he was the most perfect recruit for teaching English Literature A’ level. He was the man to intervene and support the most able at GCSE to assure those top grades were hit. I shared a year 12 form group with him for a year and listening to him advise on UCAS applications and career choices was formidable. With examples and references, he would subtly support students to make sensible choices, not, for example, to apply for Medicine when their grades weren’t letting them near such a course but to consider who they really wanted to be. By the sixth form they listened. They wanted to hear more from Mr B. But the school appeared to want rid. They gave him more challenging year 7 classes. He struggled. And he retired before he could really afford to. I remember writing in my card to him; ‘You are a man who thinks so far outside the box, you cannot even see the box.’
In the past couple of weeks, I have been dealing with a student who is struggling with life. I teach adults now, but vulnerabilities are still alive and potentially lethal. He was withdrawn from his Maths class due to his recent haphazard attendance, but I argued against this action in English. He needs this GCSE. And to be honest, before this episode he’d been a wonderful asset to the group. Bright, interested and full of contributions. This could be the turning point for him in a chaotic life; a life he wants to understand and control. I had a meeting with him and one of the senior team to defend his continuation in my class. In the meeting, he declared that his commitment to my lesson was 100%. He likes my energy. For him his English lesson was a light in a dark place. And my energy mattered. For me, if I can get this student to the end of the year, despite possible hurdles he has to battle over and around on the way, that is proof I have done my job. He may send my attendance statistics into freefall but if he falls, I want to be there when he scrambles to his feet, with a nineteenth century text to annotate, ready to keep him moving towards that exam date. That’s what teaching is about, surely? And this is what I liked about Clive’s teaching. He brought himself into that space, commanded it, and welcomed the students to join him in this experience. Maybe I’m a bit Clive too.
John Hattie, a leading Australian academic who has been researching the impact of key factors on learning outcomes for many years, found that Collective Teacher Efficacy is at the top of the list. As Jenni Donohoo comments in her blog post on the topic, ‘Educators with high efficacy show greater effort and persistence, a willingness to try new teaching approaches, set more challenging goals, and attend more closely to the needs of students who require extra assistance’ (The Learning Exchange, 2017). If a school’s teaching community shares this approach, behaviour improves and students’ own expectations of their performance rise. This is why you need an age diverse workforce. The new teachers are fresh, enthusiastic and put the hours in, and those with twenty or thirty years of classroom experience still bring enthusiasm but also a wealth of tried and tested practice; they have stories to tell; case studies to share. I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today, one who stands my ground and questions the benefit of a tick box culture, the culture Mr B couldn’t navigate, if I hadn’t worked alongside Clive and Mr B in my early years of teaching. They may be more expensive, but they are worth their weight in gold.
You know the closing scene of the 1970 film, Scrooge, where the people of London are kicking their legs out in front, behind and to the side, as they follow the reformed Ebenezar? Their thumbs looped around their waistcoat lapels or apron straps, elbows lifted jauntily? Well, I’m imagining that’s what was happening around the streets of Westminster this week, following Philip Hammond’s budget. Mr Hammond obviously leaping and skipping out front with delighted, grateful teachers at his heel in awe of his generosity. They can now afford those ‘little extras’ they’ve been whingeing on about forever! ‘Thank you very much, thank you very much, that’s the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me…’
Whiteboards and computers apparently are now going to adorn every classroom of every school nationally. ‘Technology, sir, we can ‘ave some technology?’ My concern, however, is that over the past years I have been reading about schools sending letters asking for contributions to enable them to buy toilet paper, schools where children are unable to play in the playground as it the surface is deemed too lethal to do so, and of course teachers increasing use of their own money to provide resources and even food for their students, struggling in this era of austerity. Before the Building Schools for the Future policy was scrapped by the Coalition, my school had been due to receive funding to revamp their dilapidated main building. It was later awarded enough money to clad the school and hide its crumbling interior. As a colleague commented on this announcement, “Nothing like rolling a turd in glitter!’
And once again, we see our current government give a cynical nod to the grievances shared by our dwindling teacher workforce. ‘Go buy yourselves something nice, and wipe those grumpy faces away with a little retail therapy, princesses!’ might well have been how he presented this on Monday. Let’s be very clear here, when you’re trying to wash your hands of something, you don’t go out of your way to rescue it. And we have to be very careful that we don’t fall into their trap; the one which furtively transfers financial responsibility for education into our little individual hands, leading to the further social division encountered by our students across the nation, and providing only something very rudimentary for the poor at the bottom of that trickle I’ve mentioned before.
An example. My children attend a very middle class primary school, with lots of parents investing fully in their children’s education and development. No problem with that obviously. But what has happened in this era of cuts is that we, as a parent community, are willingly making up the financial shortfall experienced by the school. Over the summer, a learning pod was built, added on to the music and art block…yes, the arts and sports are flourishing at our school. The money for this building came solely from fundraising by the PTFA. I believe one fundraising event last year, a comedy night, garnered wealth into the thousands. Tickets cost £15 each, raffle tickets were bought by the page, and drinks flowed. And this was only one event! Now parents will, quite rightly argue, ‘But we care!’ And they absolutely do.
But I felt so guilty sitting there that night. I know for a fact that primary schools in parts of the borough where I’ve taught would have no means of achieving this. They do not have PTFAs; they couldn’t throw money at such events; they don’t have parents with the connections, the social capital, to actually put on a comedy night. They can’t rescue their school from the Conservative’s distaste for state education. The school therefore cannot build a learning pod! But they do also care. They are trying daily to maintain the basics for their students, students who really could do with accessing such glorious resources as a learning pod, rather than watching their teacher gather pens and pencils with the demeanour of someone discovering gold.
Philip Hammond and his colleagues in the cabinet are sending a very clear message: if you want better, you pay for it. If we do start throwing money at only our children’s education, then Mr Hammond, Mr Hinds and Mr Gibb can sit back, put their neoliberal feet up and watch the social groups divide even more into the haves and have-nots. What we see now is individuals being encouraged to pay their way to success whilst whole communities are allowed to flail.
The Labour Party introduces its manifesto for a National Education Service with the statement, ‘When it fails, it isn’t just the individual that is held back but all of us.’ Absolutely. We must see ourselves as a national parent body, not only as the parent responsible for those children in our households, or for those in our kids’ school communities benefitting from our raffle ticket purchases, but for every single child who walks through a school gate five days (hopefully not soon to be four) a week.
Scrooge is asked if ‘it is more desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute’. His answer? “Are there no prisons?….And the union workhouses – are they still in operation?’ Will it be long before these words are echoing within the walls of the House of Commons?
Parents, our children are in the hands of careless money-makers and political agendas. Isn’t it time we demand change?
This week you’ll find my blog takes quite a personally political journey. My politics are very left leaning but I am also very angry with this current government as I witness the impact of their policies furthering the hardship suffered by those already battling on the invisible periphery of our society. These are my opinions based on my observations and I invite all to comment, to engage, to discuss where we find ourselves today, how we feel about it and most importantly, what we want done about it.
I have a new job in adult education. On my way to work I pass the Grenfell Tower. Today a tall white tarpaulin structure supports the weakened skeleton beneath and hides the devastation of that night. The green heart, chosen by school children local to the area, symbolising their love for those they lost, adorns the top section of this otherwise clinical memorial. It is hard not to be moved every time I trundle past on the daily commute. It’s hard not to be ashamed that this actually happened in London, in 2017, in a borough which hosts some of the world’s wealthiest people. But what is particularly unforgivable is how the residents had complained over and over again, fearing it would only be when a tragedy occurred that the powers-that-be would listen to their voices. Unforgivable but unsurprising.
Why am I writing about this, you may wonder? Because it is a physical representation of how broken the ‘system’ has become as the neoliberal project powers full steam ahead here in the UK. Money rules. If you can save a pound here or there, apparently it is okay to view human life as collateral. We have a government that endeavours to turn all aspects of social care and provision over to private providers. Whether it be the cladding of social housing or access to good education, ‘bidding’ and ‘tendering’ have become the language of our human rights. How about ‘Everybody’s right to life shall be protected by law’ (European Convention on Human Rights, Article 2)? Anyone? Who’ll start the bidding? Or how about: ‘Education must develop every child’s personality, talents and abilities to the full’ (UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 29)? Of course, the neoliberal line is all about freedom, but freedom for whom in this trickle-down economy? Certainly not those living in Grenfell Tower. Their freedom of voice was ignored at every turn in their battle for the legal right to life. Must they really wait for that trickle to enter their neighbourhood before they earn that freedom? Meanwhile, no money, no power.
The Grenfell fire came out of the same neoliberal agenda as our current education system. The shutting down of parents’ voices in education by the loud and affluent men at the heart of our children’s education, Lord Nash, Lord Agnew, Lord Fink (anyone spot a pattern?) and their millionaire buddies, is leading to the catastrophic failing of schools to provide the right to education for every single child. Not every child is guaranteed safety in their home, nor a chance to thrive under this government. But do our leaders care?
Not really. People really are an encumbrance to our government. Remember Theresa May’s apology for her poor response to the Grenfell community on the anniversary of the disaster? Stating she regretted not meeting them, she has gone on to not meet them. Her apology took place in the safety of an interview with Sky News. The carelessness and cynicism with which our government treats those it is supposed to serve is unconscionable. That apology is meaningless. It’s offensive. But maybe it’s meant to be. These people demanding action and support from the State really are trying their luck when they know they must wait their turn…you know, for that trickle to reach them.
If we needed more evidence of the cynical treatment of our children under this government, we can look to Damian Hinds every time. He views everyone he has responsibility for, students, parents and teachers, as liabilities. I’d like to draw your attention to a quotation from last week’s TES regarding the recent reports on the impact of the new GCSE assessment on students’ well-being. Findings from research carried out by NEU, ASCL and Rescue Our Schools have suggested categorically that this is an urgent matter of concern to be dealt with at the highest level. Mr Hinds responded:
“Having, for most subjects, the exams at the end of the period also enables you to think, to consider all the different aspects of the subject together and, in turn, then helps you if you are going on to A levels for those that are, to go on for that, and then for those going on to university, but of course GCSEs are there to help you prepare for whatever your next step is.”
It’s rather like when you pick dropped food up from the floor and you okay its consumption with ‘a bit of dirt never hurt.’ There is no substance to this answer. Some bits of dirt actually probably do hurt, as does the introduction of retrograde policies. The uproar and controversy this return to 100% examination has caused is widespread. The stress amongst students is leading to increased levels of anxiety and both parents and teachers are shouting out their concerns. But Mr Hinds brushes this off with the glibbest statement ever: bit of thinking, great for A levels and university, oh yeah and for those others.
Those others. Again, we see those who don’t fit the government’s agenda being brushed under the carpet. They’re not important. They don’t need thinking about. I am not happy as a member of the London community to see any child in my city be swept under the carpet. I will get my children through, one way or another, but I cannot stand the thought that it’s not the responsibility of the State to ensure every child actually lives to adulthood and is allowed to prosper. I have seen children arrive in year 7 full of aspiration and dreams and watched them realise by year 10 that they aren’t the ones that matter, and they start to slip from your hands.
I remember, with great frustration and sadness, one of my year 11 boys becoming homeless in the run up to his exams. He was so clever, undoubtedly a Russell Group university candidate, but his controlled assessment folder was incomplete, his attendance was poor and his behaviour volatile. Prison was also another possible destination. Living in a hostel with his two sisters and hardworking mum, his school work was not his priority. He became passive and withdrawn, both physically and psychologically. If challenged, he exploded. As his English teacher and one of his heads of year, I made it my aim to make him feel safe in my space. He finished his controlled assessments – and believe me, his creative writing was stunning in its craft but also its visceral emotion. I did cry. Unfortunately, he was placed on a fixed-term exclusion for swearing at another teacher. At his ‘return from exclusion’ interview, he apparently sat silently until he was asked to offer his opinion regarding his attitude going forwards. He simply responded with a number of the most hardcore expletives. He was permanently excluded so spent the exam period locked in a room in a hostel, revising. This broke my heart. For me, that was a shout out from a young person, to see if anyone was going to care, if anyone was going to grab his hand and get him through. The system instead just confirmed for him that he actually doesn’t belong within it. Where he is today, I don’t know, but I’m going to guess he’s not about to enter the doors of the university he is so academically suited to.
Let’s be very clear, this government seeks to wash its hands of education. It seeks to strengthen the market to create competition between ‘providers’ (in the old days these were known as ‘schools’) and ultimately privatise education. The responsibility for failure is no longer theirs. Any offer it therefore makes is not to nurture the system but make it vulnerable to those with pound signs in their eyes. Panorama’s report this week on the Bright Tribe Academy Trust could not have exposed more clearly how schooling has become vulnerable to profiteering at the risk of our children’s learning, but also their lives. Fire doors not fitted, ceilings not secured nor fire safe, despite grants worth thousands of pounds handed over unquestioningly by the Department for Education. Where is our money? Whose bank accounts is it now in? Why are our children allowed to enter these lethal buildings? If the CEO of a trust needs a lawyer present to talk about their provision, it’s time, surely, to put a stop to this policy and bring education, our human right, back into the hands of the democratically elected local government; accountable to the government, accountable to us.
Now, you may be lucky. Your child may be in a school with an ethos of care where children are placed at the heart of all they do. And this is of course happening across the nation. Despite the funding cuts, limited curriculum and increased stress, they are doing their utmost to protect your child’s education. But we know others are not having that experience. They are lost in a world of money-makers and agendas. Their education is suffering and their safety is not guaranteed. Parents are cut out and disempowered. If we believe in a good education for our child, we simply must ensure the same for other people’s children too.
Let’s start fighting for the prevention of horrific outcomes. Grenfell shocked our nation and the response was overwhelming with donations and sympathy. But we need to act sooner. We need to demand people are not unwittingly placed in danger; that everyone is heard. If you live in social housing, if you attend a state school, you should be safe in the knowledge that government, both local and national, has got your needs and your rights covered. At the moment, this is not the case. Local government is being steadily brought to its knees; the Prime Minister doesn’t want to see you and Damian Hinds will brush you off like dandruff from his shoulder. It is time to make it clear that we are not liabilities in the path of their agenda; their agenda is the liability in the path of our children’s progress. We want it cleared.
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.