‘I am dealing with people and not with things.’

My daughter’s teacher had a quiet word after school about how she gets upset and declares, ‘I can’t do’ Maths. As we walked away, my daughter covered her ears, shut her eyes and half shouted, ‘I know what you were talking about!’ Her teacher only wants to help. It is especially important just now as they head for the SATS at the end of Year Two. That’s when the Government start putting children into categories. Parents won’t necessarily know these SATS results, but we will know if our children are above or below the ‘expected standard’. And the results are used again at the end of Year Six: “to measure the school’s progress score.” (gov.uk.)

Children notice. They notice their own level and each other’s. Though results are not directly given, children start putting themselves into categories. Hence they might believe they are deficient in some way. If they feel deficient, they are likely to be passive and bored, burdened by the compulsion to memorise. For those children, school will become (at best) a drag.

Paulo Freire was “known for his adult literacy programs in impoverished communities and for his classic early text: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” (Oxford Research Encyclopedias.)  Freire noticed that the opinion of teachers becomes internalised by students. He worked in South America in the 1960’s alongside radical Christians, believers in liberation theology, teaching peasants to read in order to “raise consciousness, understand their own oppression and recognise that you don’t have to be passive and oppressed.” (Noam Chomsky, 2013.) Freire explains the effect of a teacher’s opinion on a person: “They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has the knowledge and to whom they should listen.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 37.)

British schoolchildren may not be oppressed to the same degree as peasants in 1960’s Brazil. But our test-based system does not inspire many with curiosity; we do not teach children to be critical, to think for themselves. “Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and enquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.” (Chomsky, 2012.)

Each six or seven year-old achieves a certain amount at the end of Year Two depending on their ability or interest, but also depending on their level of disadvantage and how they feel that day. The situation is particularly bad for poor children (who are often hungry at school nowadays) and tired children. It could be bad for a girl who expects to fail in Maths. They are given a level, which will then colour their experience for the following four years: ‘everyone at my table is bad at Maths’; ‘the ones who could do it went out into the hall.’ The results of the SATS taken at the end of Year Six stay with children right up until GCSEs.

This week Ofsted, in their great beneficence, decided to stop using test results as one of the four main areas of inspection. They have noticed the problem: “the new quality section would focus on the curriculum taught within a school, rewarding those that offer pupils a broad range of subjects.” (Guardian, 2018) How visionary! But our education system is still entirely based on testing: SATS at the end of years Two and Six; GCSE preparation begins at 14; most schools I have worked in also test throughout Key Stage Three.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector has never been a teacher! “She previously spent more than 15 years in strategy consulting, finance and investment at KPMG, Kleinwort Benson, Mercer Management Consulting and Nomura International.” (gov.uk.) My guess is, she doesn’t really understand how continual testing manacles teachers. Teachers cannot waste much school time on the curiosity of an individual student, the class or themselves.

In independent schools (I briefly worked in one) it is possible to offer a varied curriculum that allows children to work beyond the test, to study subjects that have no connection with the test, to take part in enriching extra-curricular activities: to learn for the sake of it. Sussex House, a top prep-school for Eton (londonpreprep.com) lists “Architectural Modelling”, “Mandarin” and “Jazz Ensemble” among their activities (Sussex House). In independent schools there are smaller classes; teachers with a higher level of education tend to be employed because the pay is much better; teachers have a decent amount of preparation time. It’s not fair!

If ‘quality of education’ is going to be offered in state schools, teachers must be freed from the constraints of constant testing. I want to stress that the teachers I know do their best to protect children from the worst effects of tests, but they still have to prepare them for the racecourse.

I am not proposing we abolish all tests. We just need to recognise their limitations: they are a measure of what a person has committed to memory and how well they can prove it. They are probably most useful in factual subjects; I have found GCSE and A-level English examinations unreliable measures of a student’s understanding or ability to think for themselves. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In primary school, at least, children could be encouraged to discover for themselves within a framework set by their teacher or school. Bruce Alberts (Editor-in-Chief of ‘Science’) is involved in improving the teaching of Maths and Science in American schools. He argues that encouraging children to discover and to think is far superior to making them learn lists of information. I will quote him at length:

“Inquiry-based science curricula for children ages 5 to 13 have been undergoing
development and refinement… These curricula require that students engage in active investigations, while a teacher serves as a coach to guide them to an understanding of one of many topics. This approach takes advantage of the natural curiosity of young people…can be highly effective in increasing a student’s reasoning and problem-solving skills. In addition, because communication is emphasized, inquiry-based science teaching has been shown to increase reading and writing abilities.”  (Science, 2008.)

I can imagine an equivalent English class in which seven-year-olds were allowed to read (with help if needed) from a selection of books and discuss them with one another in a seminar. There would be no worksheet and no judgement.

There is so much tests don’t measure: thought, curiosity, joy, hunger. Most teachers know that.

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