“They (pupils) are in school for 190 days a year. Every moment they spend learning is precious. If a year goes by and they are not being stretched and excited, that blights their life. We have got to think of what’s in the children’s interests first.” Michael Gove (Jan, 2012)
Not so long ago I was a doughy eyed trainee teacher full of wild ideas of throwing myself into a world where I could take the most difficult of children and turn them into model pupils. I would make my kids fall in love with learning. They would want to stay in to complete extra calculations, write more interesting stories, investigate different countries, discover the past and plant the seed that would result in life long learning. I planned to adapt all my lessons to meet the interests and needs of my kids. I promised myself I would deliver a ’broad and balanced curriculum’. Then I got a job in teaching.
You see, the problem is schools fail to deliver this broad and balanced curriculum I heard so many people speaking of. This is evident most this week as children up and down the country take part in their SATs.
At the best of times, the foundation subjects are mistreated and disvalued. We spend each morning delivering English and Maths. Science is a distant cousin to the other two core subjects, but one that at least demands some form of regular attention. The remaining subjects are the forgotten relatives who show up now and again at family parties to show their face and make sure they aren’t forgotten about, and then they disappear for another year.
Their importance in the curriculum has been made quite clear to me by the attention they receive from leadership. I have been observed teaching many times over the past few years. Every single observation has either been in Maths or English. Our books are scrutinised by the Senior Leadership Team and the Board of Governors on a regular basis. They have never looked at a book outside the core subjects. In our most recent OfSTED inspection, our data was inspected and our books were heavily scrutinised, but again only in Maths and English. One would be forgiven for thinking that the curriculum was Maths, English and whatever else fills the time until 3 o’clock.
My point here is not that English and Maths are not important. Of course they need to be delivered on a daily basis, but I wonder just how many Year 6 pupils in this country have received a broad and balanced curriculum this year. How many pupils have been forced to sit and take mock grammar exams in the afternoons, instead of accessing the real learning they are entitled to? How many Year 6 pupils have been ’stretched and excited’ by their learning in recent weeks and months? How many Year 6 pupils have been forced to attend booster groups after school and over weekends? How wrong is the system we are forced to implement?
The system is wrong. It stems from the top and works its way downwards. The pressure exulted on teachers from the leadership team is a direct result of the pressure put on them from Local Authorities and OfSTED. Pupils aren’t seen as people anymore, they are seen as statistics. How many of us have heard, “That 3B needs to be a 4C before the end of the year.” The pressure is so great that unwillingly, often unnoticed, we pass that pressure onto the children. At 10 years of age pupils are anxious and worried about SATs; about outperforming their peers; trying not to let their parents and their teachers down. Schools do everything in their power to get every last mark possible out of their kids. By the end of this week in my school every teaching assistant, teacher on PPA, headteacher, deputy and even the office staff and cleaners will have read a paper for pupils completing SATs. Whose benefit is this really for? The kids? I doubt it.
And as if the SATs weren’t bad enough, we now have Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation (SPaG). This has to be the biggest waste of time since we began to fail kids on their ability (or inability) to read nonsense words at the age of 6. How many pupils are we turning off writing for life? How many pupils will never again be engaged by reading or the power of language? It’s like teaching someone how to drive by dissecting the engine. You don’t need to know in detail how it works, all that matters at the age of 10 is that you are in the driving seat and that you are engaged.
It isn’t often I say this, but on this occasion Michael Gove was right. Every moment pupils spend learning is precious, too precious to waste time in primary school learning, in detail, the rules of grammar or teaching English and Maths, morning and afternoon, for weeks on end just to sit a test. The current system doesn’t stretch or excite our kids. It turns them off learning and does indeed blight their life. We have to think of what’s in the children’s interests. SATs and SPaG aren’t.