A Parent’s Dilemma: The Fork or the Sunbeam. How do we protect our children’s happiness in the current assessment culture?
‘I didn’t turn up, fam. Didn’t do it…sixth time I haven’t done it.’
I overheard this while queuing in my local JD Sport – a recent habit demanded of my parental status. I’d guess the speaker was nineteen-years-old. Full of bravado about his lack of qualification, full volume declaring his failure to tick the criteria. His friends advised sensibly: “It was an hour and a half! Now you have to do another year!’ I fear this is going to become more and more common under the new assessment regime. Struggling with this performance culture, students become a burden and impact negatively on their school’s Progress 8. Hence the ‘off-rolling’ reported recently in the press. Disaffection will become a place to escape to. Paint yourself the rebel but, underneath, I felt this lad on his entrance to adulthood was screaming ‘I’m a failure! Just leave me alone to fulfil this role!’. A bad end to another academic year.
This academic year started quite badly in my household. The word ‘failure’, if tallied up, was creeping up our ‘Top Ten Most Used Word List’. Initially by me as I headed towards my final days in the classroom, but even more worryingly my eight-year old son walked into the kitchen one November morning crying, near-hyperventilating:
“I haven’t practised my guitar…the teacher will tell me off…and mental maths is getting harder after Christmas…and I only got 17 last week…so I won’t be able to do it …and I don’t want them to think I’m a failure!”
To rewind a little, I moved to a new school last September as Lead Practitioner. I had always been considered an outstanding teacher, so this role excited me. However, by the half-term I was signed off with anxiety and depression. Where had this come from? With time to reflect, I feel the current assessment culture brought me to my knees: the conveyor belt of children I was being asked to process through the system to hit targets – theirs, mine, their Heads of Year, my line manager’s, the school’s.
On the first day of term, I asked my year 7 form group to complete a short questionnaire about their school experience: What had they enjoyed at primary? What excited them about this new adventure? What were their concerns? Their answers to the final question stick with me today: bullying (an expected response from the smallest fish in an unknown pond) and failing. Eleven years old and this is a fear?
Confidence amongst this cohort was low. Pummelled by SATS, the most common response to any classroom activity which offered freedom to play with ideas was shut down with ‘Miss, I don’t get it.’ The word ‘assessment’, which I tried to downplay seeing as they were asked to complete two GCSE style assessments in the first six weeks, inspired only a sea of glazed faces and a louder chorus of ‘I DON’T GET IT!’ I didn’t get it. I wanted to draw them into the text, inspire them to respond, to formulate their own interpretations. But it was witnessing a sensitive, hardworking boy with ‘weak literacy’ have a panic attack that shut me down as a teacher. As far as I was concerned, if I was eliciting that from children, I was failing.
And where does this pressure on students lead them? My son is smart, a high achiever – he’s been told that, knows all his levels, so now feels the pressure to maintain that role and not drop a mark, nor let anyone down. He’ll be a key statistic in Progress 8 so he will be boosted through intervention after intervention. I fear we will have to manage his journey closely to prevent anxiety and depression – I mean, he shares my character traits, he’s a perfectionist. He’ll destroy himself rather than fail a test, rather than fail anyone else’s perception of him. Will he end up exhausted after 28 or so exams, but with straight 9s (still sounds strange) and fearing the next round in two years? Or will he be in JD Sport, strutting about with feigned machismo in light of failing in a system which determines success in one, limited, short-sighted measure: The exam?
A fork in the road has appeared in our children’s education: take one direction and they tick the relevant boxes at the expense of their mental health; choose the other, down which they run and hide, leaving those boxes unchecked. I am not happy with this choice for my children. I want them to one day look back at their school days as a time of learning and exploration, a time when they were able to satiate their curiosities and start determining who they want to be in this world. However, I am already hearing how many marks out of 10 were achieved, who did best in this test, that test and who will get the certificate for getting every single spelling correct last year. I don’t want their vision of their future to be a fork in the road, I want it to resemble a sun beam (my child gave me this image): many directions in which to travel, shifting options which may lead them down a completely unexpected path, and new ideas appearing to challenge, excite and inspire them. At the moment, the fork is winning the battle. It’s time we fight to hold on to that sunbeam.
My husband is so glad I am writing this; that I am here with Rescue Our Schools, blogging about the current concerns many parents are raising since the recent education reforms. His joy comes from the fact he is not always going to be my first point of call for a good rant about education. Don’t get me wrong, he is equally bothered, but as the other half of my parenting team and as a teacher he is not only the converted, he is the afflicted. At least now, he might get a diluted form of my diatribe against those who are, in my opinion, bringing the system to its knees.
So, let me introduce myself. My name is Charlotte Wolf and I am the parent of two young boys, an eight year old and a six year old. I am also a teacher. Well, I was until December 2017, when I had to leave a profession I no longer identified with. I recently completed a Masters in Comparative Education at the Institute of Education. Or as Michael Gove might call it: The Home of the Blob (The Blob: academics who criticise Gove’s reforms so, along with all experts, must be ignored). I focused on the impact of the neoliberal agenda on education reform. Why pursue the marketisation of education? Does removing the state really improve schools and create greater opportunities for those usually left behind?
So, I have three very defined angles from which to watch and comment. Joining the teaching profession was a decision I made in my late twenties. I had taught English as a foreign language in Spain to pay my dance training – yes, I studied flamenco in Madrid. But weirdly, teaching grabbed me. Teenagers are humans in their rawest form; bodies in turmoil as hormones, emotions and physical growth tear them every which way; so unpredictable but so curious, even in the depths of adolescence, they still manage to grunt some signs of aspiration. The memories of laughter certainly outweigh those of frustration. As a diligent NQT, prepping my lesson for a C/D borderline year 11 group, essay plans were on each desk. Abdi arrived, glanced cheekily at my beautifully colour-coded document and said “What’s this crap now?’. ‘Let’s hope I don’t say the same thing when I see your essay next week!’ I responded. The room exploded with those roars only teenagers can make. However, in that same group was a bright young woman, who appeared aloof throughout. As the exam season started, she told me a man was arriving from Afghanistan in May whom she was to marry in July. She had realised she could have more. And she wanted more. That conversation led to her moving into a refuge and glances of her in my local shopping centre suggested she had started to explore the more she wanted.
Teaching was about connection; about knowing, engaging and guiding the individual. But the culture has shifted. Schools are places of rigour and tradition – words Gove and his successors placed at the heart of their reform. With more challenging curricula and tougher assessment, the sadly ironic effect of the free school programme is the cloning of schools, not a choice from which parents can select the most appropriate for their children. Instead, uniforms are becoming more formal, corridors more controlled and lessons more formulaic. As a teacher, I no longer understand my role. As a parent, I struggle with the onus on assessments and weighty blazers whose piping determines the quality of the school. I fear the onslaught of an ideology that values competition and risk. Students aren’t experiencing freedom, just chaos.
There is a lot to discuss and the debate needs to be widened to the parents who are often actively excluded from the decision-making process. I hope that this blog plays a part in challenging this and offers you a platform for comment. I hope that through the platform of Rescue Our Schools I can provide a parental perspective to which you can relate, but also offer an insight into the professional experience of how damaging these reforms have been for education since 2010. I really look forward to the conversation ahead.