For two years, my daughter and I have been painfully climbing the Oxford Reading Tree (reading books used in 80% of UK primary schools). I agree that readers designed to improve literacy step by step are needed; but I wonder why the pace has to be so unbearably slow.
Before the summer holidays we were on level 9: not as mind-numbing as levels 1-5 but, still, not riveting. Then, through boredom over the summer, she was forced into reading whatever was around. I’m not suggesting I have an unusual child, but, when no one would read to her on a long afternoon in our TV-less living room, she started reading real books to herself. Of course it was hard at first, and she guessed a lot, but – as children do – she got better fast. I’m sure many would. Now the world is open to her in small print – illustrated encyclopedias; novels with proper characters who think; even at one point in a cafe, an article in the Guardian about boa constrictors escaping into London streets and eating pigeons. More intriguing than “Wilma’s mum came round. She wanted to take everyone swimming.” (Super Dog, Level 9)
Steady, measurable, progress looks better on a school’s graphs. If one student’s stagnation due to computer game addiction makes the data look bad, so could a giant leap made by another out of boredom. I was a secondary school English teacher for eight years. (‘Can you explain to me please, Miss Glickstein, how you have added value to this learner?’) ‘Value Added’ measures the progress of each student from one test to another. It is a way of organising and of reading data, which feeds Ofsted and national figures, so schools can be compared: “Someone who is clever to start with is compared with other clever children – so the result does not depend on how well they do in outright terms, but how much they have improved, whatever their ability.” (BBC, 2004) The idea is that all students should progress gradually upwards on a trajectory that fits how clever they are deemed to be. And what is the point of the comparison? All UK governments are desperate to show they are dealing with failing schools and teachers: that education is working.
What I have never understood is why teachers and parents passively accept the standards by which we test schoolchildren from the age of six. As if the standards were handed down to Kenneth Baker on a stone tablet by God himself and every child’s ability has been accurately judged by the system!
We dumbly study our graphs, believing they are fact. When SATS began, we had obviously forgotten Dickens’ vitriolic caricature of Gradgrind, industrialist turned MP, whose mania for facts is based on a belief that England requires children raised only on fact and measured at every point – “…a rule and a pair of scales…ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” (Hard Times, 1854).
If the pace of study is too slow, many become excruciatingly bored. I have seen it happen a lot. A boy in Year Seven, for instance, who was reading ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ was recorded as having read nothing. (The system recorded numbers of words read using an app on the kids’ phones that tracked their progress through books on the system.) The books and science magazines this boy liked weren’t on the system and so he registered as disengaged. He had none of the glory and prizes awarded to those who clocked up the most words. His mum felt sorry for him: she typed a list of what he had read and brought it to me at parents’ evening hoping I could change his record. But the system only recognised books that were on it. I was forced to look into the boy’s face and explain, ‘you can’t necessarily measure yourself by what school reports say.’ By the end of Year Seven he had thrown a chair at another boy and been temporarily excluded from class.
The intense daily frustration of children stuck learning too little too slowly is only one of the problems our system does not recognise. We must question whether we want a uniform national curriculum at all. Look up John Taylor Gatto. (New York City Teacher of the Year on three occasions. He quit teaching on the OP ED page of the Wall Street Journal in 1991 while still New York State Teacher of the Year, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children.) Gatto convincingly argues that American education is deliberately designed and used to “dumb people down, to demoralise them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009) In my experience, the motives of those in charge are not so clear cut, but it is strange that we are willing to accept what our children have to study unquestioningly.
It has ever been the case that education is defined by those in charge, who may or may not believe that children should be taught to think for themselves. Orwell, two years after he worked as a teacher, imagined a teacher who manages to do just this in A Clergyman’s Daughter: “Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves”. Only – poor Dorothy! – she soon understands the depressing reality: “No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it. Nor did Dorothy know, as yet, that that ‘if’ is one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in the world.” (A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935) We can never assume that a steadily climbing graph illustrates the nation’s children moving towards an end that we, personally, agree is valid.
Teachers have limited freedom. They are not encouraged to design their own curricula, nor to vary the work each child does. Differentiation usually means varying the same task for different students, not choosing tasks to suit individuals, because everyone is prepared for the same tests. (Though some poor souls are condemned to the Foundation tier.)
Teachers imprison children with tests and judgements from an extremely early age. Many teachers hate doing it: they become cynical, unhappy; children learn to adapt to the system or live a life of frustration. Teachers ought to be free to respond to individuals; boys and girls should be encouraged to think from the outset about what the purpose of their education is. My daughter has asked if they will let her choose reading books from home in future; I’m not sure it’s up to her teacher.