Last week I wrote a blog post with the same title as this, however I removed it from my site before it had the chance to be there for even 24 hours. I did this reluctantly, as an interesting debate had started in the comments section, however I felt that the post did not accurately convey my opinions. This re-drafted post is nearly the exact same, however I have altered the section at the end. One thing I’ve learned from this experience: I’ll not write blog posts at 1am when I’m angry about something, then proof-read and post at 7.30am before my brain has woken up!
If you are a teacher/educator/facilitator/lead learner/whatever you see your job title as (I prefer the traditional ‘teacher’ label myself), why did you enter the profession?
Was it because you wanted to give children a good grounding in life and a well-rounded education?
Was it because you wanted to make a difference in children’s and young people’s lives, perhaps offering them or opening their eyes to opportunities and possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them due to unstable or uninspiring home lives?
Was it to share your passion for a particular subject or for learning in general, in the hope that the knowledge you impart could maybe benefit others in their lives?
Or was it so that you could celebrate the fact that, according to a standardised testing system, children have made x number of sublevels of progress over the last few years and had met or exceeded the unpersonalised target that a computer had set for them when they were 7 years old, thanks to teaching to the test and putting the development of transferable skills on a back burner?
I’m guessing you didn’t choose that final reason. Yet how many of our schools have turned into exam factories, where children’s names have become candidate numbers and where teachers teach what they think a test might ask, rather than developing an all-round knowledge? It wasn’t until I had a discussion with colleagues last week, which in turn led me to think about the role of testing in schools, that I realised how much I am against teaching to the test, in particular at KS2.
In my class last year I had a child called Holly*. Holly has struggled all the way through school and last year was no exception. She has little to no support at home and can be a particularly angry child. Getting herself into bother has never been a problem for Holly and fighting with her peers has always been a regular occurrence. It fits the expected stereotype that at the end of Year 5, Holly is working well-below the National Curriculum level expectations for her age.
I am telling you about Holly because of the amazing journey she has made. When she was much younger, Holly’s anger got the better of her on most days. It was common for her to lash out and she had a very colourful vocabulary at her disposal, which did not always necessarily match the Queen’s English. However, over the past number of years, Holly has learned to control her anger and to consider her actions before getting out of hand. This is due to the amazing support she has had over the years to deal with this, as society does not particularly appreciate citizens who lash out on innocent bystanders.
Holly struggles hugely with her writing, however she has had 2 particularly intense years, where she has had a lot of one-on-one teacher-support with her writing. This led to her being awarded a writing prize at the end of the year. The beaming smile on her face showed how proud of herself she was and I can’t tell you how proud I was of her, too. Don’t forget, though, that Holly is working at a level which is several years behind her age-related expectation.
Maths is Holly’s biggest struggle. She has not fully grasped the four operations and simple tasks such as finding change from £1 remain a mystery to her. Yet, according to the National Numeracy Strategy (now supposedly defunct!), Holly should be learning to reflect shapes across lines into all 4 quadrants of a grid.
How many teachers up and down the country will be drilling their Hollys to reflect shapes because there will undoubtedly be a question on the SATs paper about it, in spite of the fact that she hasn’t yet fully understood addition and subtraction? What use will Holly have for reflecting a hexagon across a diagonal line if she can’t tell whether or not she has been short-changed at the till in Asda?
The Education System helped Holly to have a good start in life by showing her that her behaviour isn’t acceptable, however teaching to the test is giving her no relevant, creative, skills-based start to life.
Teaching to the test is failing Holly. Life skills are more important for her than being able to complete hypothetical academic tasks. This is why teachers should have the freedom to be individual, to be creative and to give the children in their charge the best personalised education that they can, without having to worry about standardised tests, standardised teaching procedures and policies and standardised outcomes.
Having redrafted and reflected on this blog post, I realise that I am not alone with these thoughts. For me to claim that previously was extremely naive and misguided. However, how many people think all of these things, yet continue to base their teaching on what spreadsheets say, rather than using their own intuition? How many would potentially buck the trend, showing that a creative, caring and personalised education is what these children need, not the standard, one-size-fits-all education that teachers have been expected to provide of late? I count myself as being extremely lucky to work in a school where I am given a huge deal of freedom to teach creatively. I still have to meet the National Curriculum objectives, and this I do, as it is a requirement of my job. Yet, I make sure that each child in my class is working at their ability and I push them to the best of their ability. I don’t expect Holly to be a level 4 child just yet. My expectations of her are high, yet realistic.
However, in these times where outstanding teaching and learning across a whole school cannot be officially recognised unless an above-average number of children are Level 5 exam-passing machines, regardless of their lives outside of school and the learning difficulties they may have, the pressure is on those in the classroom to teach what the test will ask. Today the education system has once again come under fire from the media, who claim that the 33% of children who didn’t reach L4 in reading, writing and maths are “illiterate.” League tables, local comparisons, pressure from a disconnected government and a press who will only recognise negativity in education have made our education system like this.
I have started my career in a system that labels children like Holly as failures. No child is a failure and I hope that as my career continues, children like Holly will be championed by those at the top (and I mean in government here) and will be able to prove that education is personal, not an off-the-shelf product.
* Of course, this is not Holly’s real name.
Photo credit: Paul Excoff