Wednesday 19 October 2016

Putting Children First

I am sick to the back teeth of the reductionist, box-ticking, curriculum-narrowing, enthusiasm-crushing, soul-destroying, high-stakes Exam Factory culture that hangs, like a dark oppressive cloud of broken dreams, over our schools and our children’s education.

OK. That may seem a little strong but, if like me, you are a primary school teacher, or have a child in primary school, I suspect you know where I am coming from.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to assessment. How could I be? It is at the very heart of what I do as a teacher. I assess children’s learning from the moment they enter my classroom at 8.40am until I finish my marking at 11pm. I assess through targeted questioning during whole class teaching, through in depth discussion during independent and group work. I assess through marking written work, and taking notes of oral work and contributions to discussion. I probe children’s understanding, looking for misconceptions through which to take learning forward. And yes, I assess through setting and marking tests when that is the most effective way of gathering the information I need.

There are currently 29 children in my class and I could tell you how each of them is getting on in maths, English, P.E., geography, what they’re struggling with and the most useful next steps to develop their learning. If I couldn’t, frankly I wouldn’t consider myself very good at my job. So no, I don’t have a problem with assessment.

Neither do I have an issue with being held accountable. I am accountable to my colleagues, to school management, to governors and most crucially to parents and the children themselves, for the learning of my class. I am accountable for their engagement, for the development of their conceptual understanding of all the different curriculum areas we cover. I am accountable through observation and monitoring, through the conversations I have with other professionals and with parents about children’s progress, and through the school’s in-house assessment system. And rightly so. Teaching is an important business and, like most teachers, I am constantly striving to improve my practice.

What I do have a problem with is high-stakes testing and the reduction of children to numbers on a spreadsheet. I have a problem with the way in which data has risen from being a tool - an aid to assessment - to being a goal in itself. Most of all, I have a problem with the effect this has on our schools.

When we no longer have time to read to children, to discuss their work in detail, to explore their opinions and support their development as critical thinkers, because it detracts from the drill and kill routine of improving test scores, something is profoundly wrong in education.

A relentless focus on ‘raising standards’ makes for good sound bites. But if those standards are narrowly defined as test performance, the reality is a relentless focus on exam technique, writing by numbers and surface learning which lacks understanding.

When we teach children that it is more important to identify a fronted adverbial than to express themselves through a finely crafted piece of writing, we are offering the opposite of education. We are closing down minds and placing a limit on aspiration.

We can no longer pretend that good schools with a creative ethos can remain immune to the virus spreading throughout the system, that as individual teachers we can shut the classroom door and protect our children. It is simply not possible, and there is a wealth of evidence about what happens in practice. Even OFSTED reports that “too much teaching concentrates on the acquisition of disparate skills that enable pupils to pass tests and examinations but do not equip them for the next stage of education, work and life”. The only solution is for teachers and parents to work together to take back control over the education process.

So, this week I have been taking part in ‘You Can’t Test This’ week. I have spent each day teaching things which can’t be, or aren’t, tested in our flawed model of primary assessment. Throughout this week, teachers across the country will be doing the same. They will be breaking free of an assessment system that is not fit for purpose and instead teaching the broad and balanced curriculum our children deserve. It’s just a shame we need a special week to do that. Surely every week should be about putting children and education first.

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