Category Archives: The Curriculum

The Farce of SATs

Take a deep breath. Relax. Exhale. It’s over for another year.

 

If you have pupils in Year 6, work in Key Stage 2 or have any sort of dealings with a primary school, I’m sure you haven’t been able to miss the fact that Year 6 pupils up and down the country have completed their SATs this week. The past few days will have been about as far from the norm as you usually will find in the calendar. Schools practically fall over themselves to ensure that their statistics (how cynical of me, of course I mean pupils!) are in school in a frame of mind fit to sit the most important exams of their young lives to date.

 

Except of course… well… they probably aren’t that important to the child and don’t actually have much of an impact on that child’s future. They will be given a score and move on into secondary school where they will be assessed and put into ability groups according to the school’s new set of assessments. Even if the SATs scores are used initially, it won’t be long before they are shaken up and those that over-performed or under-performed find their way back to the groups that match their needs. The kids will go on to have the future in education they would have had if the SATs in Year 6 didn’t exist.

 

Don’t tell this to those in charge of primary schools though! I could swear that life itself might actually stop if pupils were to collectively have a bad run of form. Though, admittedly they are left with little choice. When OfSTED come in as heavy-handed as they do and make sweeping generalisations about the state of education in a school based on scores at KS1 and KS2, they better be damned good. It is of little wonder that Year 6 teachers, SLT and Headteachers have spent the week pulling their hair out. At times it has been like a scene from some kind of ‘Carry On’ movie…

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The local bus and taxi companies line the entrance to the school being given directions to pupils houses as the sun makes its way over the horizon, marking the beginning a new day. A child was once ten minutes late in Year 1 and we mustn’t risk another late arrival. An empty chair is a wasted statistic. When they arrive we will gather them all in the hall where we will let them eat their fill: toast, milk, water, cereal, whatever they want. Somebody on the yard once read on the back of a yogurt pot that exercise helps you to think better so next get them doing laps of the school grounds and jumping on the spot. Hell they’ve never done this before but who knows, maybe a bit of movement will suddenly remind them of how to reduce fractions to their simplest form? Then slowly the mist of apprehension silently falls upon the mass of pupils entering the school for the second time in forty minutes. They walk to their places, looking at the classrooms that have been covered from top to bottom in bin-liners as if 60 minute makeover are going to film an episode over lunchtime. The kids are nearly ready to have the instructions read to them when the door bursts open. As if they have heard the music of their favorite wrestler break the silence, every head in the room spins round to see the line of additional helpers flood into the room. We have the PPA teacher, teaching assistants, SLT, office staff, the cleaners, dinner ladies and a bin man who arrived at the school at just the wrong time sitting next to the pupils poking them in the ribs to keep them on task and read questions. Then the moment it’s all done, just as the kids are about to leave the room, the Year 6 teacher flees through the corridor like a spy through cold-war Russia to give the Headteacher an in-depth analysis of how difficult the paper was and how pupils responded.

 

It would be comical if 90% of that wasn’t true! Sadly however, the truth is that the bus, breakfast, exercise and additional support is not there in the interest of the pupils. It is there to do everything possible to ensure that the data is positive by the time the assessments are marked and sent back to the school. And let’s be honest; who could blame those in charge for doing all this? When they are under such pressure, they will do everything they can to help themselves alleviate the stress. The blame for the farce that is SATs week does not lie with them. It lies squarely at the feet of those in charge, who increasingly demand that assessments be used as an evaluative tool of a schools capabilities and provision of education. Unfortunately, testing is the approach advocated by those who know least about education, oblivious to the fact that you don’t fatten a pig by weighing it. Nursery baseline assessments, Year 1 phonics screening, Year 2 SATs, Year 6 SATs- pupils in our education system are tested far too much.

 

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At the risk of sounding like the vicars wife in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’, won’t somebody please think of the children! The system we have forces us to turn our back on real life skills and thematic approaches to develop through investigative and experiential learning, instead focusing on learning test techniques and narrow approaches to delivering English and Maths. There does of course need to be an approach adopted to ensure that schools are delivering the curriculum to a high standard. The irony is that the process we currently use ensures that pupils are deprived of exactly that, as the last time I checked the curriculum stretched outside of the core subjects.

 

The pupils in my school will spend the next week at the cinema, bowling, ice-skating or playing sports, but one week of rewards will not make up for the months of cramming that has deprived them of a broad and balanced curriculum. Until the system is changed, year group after year group will experience the despair of Year 6 SATs. Until the system is changed, the farce that is SATs week will continue annually.

 

Secret Teacher

 

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‘Dear Mr Gove…’ An Open Letter to the UK Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove

Dear Mr Gove,

I read recently how you described the current cohort of teachers in the UK as “…the best generation of teachers ever seen in our classrooms- including the very best generation ever of young teachers.” You described how you believe teachers hold the success to this country and the well being of its citizens in their hands.You rightly claim that teachers are the most important fighters in the battle to make opportunity more equal. Therefore, I hope you will appreciate how difficult it is that I, as a young teacher, have felt the need to explain how I feel, Mr Gove, as I am exhausted, demoralised, disengaged and surfeited.

I attended a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) session today. In this conference we, as a group of professionals, sought to address the imbalance between boys and girls attainment in reading and writing. We examined a multitude of ways to support boys in literacy, to engage them in writing, to deconstruct barriers to learning and to enhance the life opportunities of reluctant readers and writers. Finally, to finish the session, we discussed how ludicrous school league tables were and considered SATs (Statutory Assessment Tests) in a facetious manner. We compared the creative and engaging ways we can make a text come alive for children to interact with, and the monotonous and uninspiring manner in which all SATs are presented. We discussed how difficult and abstract exams really can be. We considered how absurd it is to compare the scores of two different schools which will be so incredibly different in terms of prosperity, cultural diversity and parental support. And then, we looked at funny answers from SATs gone by.

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We laughed, oh how we laughed, Mr Gove, as one by one we were shown unintentionally humorous retorts. Then, slowly, after looking at 5 or 6 ridiculous answers, we sat in silence. Suddenly, it wasn’t very funny any more. The joke had been lost, for we came to realise that we work in a regime that repeatedly and systematically provides opportunities for pupils to fail; for pupils to be labelled failures.

In the UK, pupils enter school at a younger age than almost any other country in the world. By the time they reach the age of 6, the age at which students begin school in Sweden (a country you often like to draw comparison from), our children already are provided with an opportunity to become failures as we assess them on their ability to use one reading strategy to read words which don’t actually exist in the English language, or indeed any other language for that matter.

The following year they complete their Key Stage 1 SATs. Already, by the age of 7, pupils begin to develop an awareness of where they consider themselves to be academically. You will often hear pupils as young as this professing how terrible they are at reading, or how they are unable to do maths, or how they cant write. If they are lucky they will have a teacher who can deconstruct this self image before it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If they aren’t, we have lost them before other nations have even considered their pupils’ attainment.

Then they move into the big world of Key Stage 2 where they can look forward to three years of a generally “broad and balanced curriculum” which of course is continually being eroded by more and more time being spent on being able to identify your subordinate clause from your main clause and the article from the pronoun, before counting to 1000 in Roman numerals. Of course this is before you even enter the graveyard of educational creativity, vibrancy and expression that Year 6 has become in this country. Children will be blitzed with maths, reading and writing until every ounce of their being becomes disengaged. We force SATs upon our children in such a way that stifles creativity, limits vibrancy and diminishes expression…and that’s among more able pupils. Those who were lost somewhere around Year 2 have long since resigned themselves to failure and ridicule. If they try, they may just be able to come out with a personal best which is in no way celebrated privately as it still below the target that the Fischer Family Trust set for that child many years previously, failing to account for the individual needs and circumstances of that child. But hey, Mr Gove, they’re only a statistic. Its not like we are setting that child up to be seriously disadvantaged throughout their entire life, right?

Then we move our children on into secondary school. We (and by we, I mean you) continually move the goalposts so that it is progressively more difficult to achieve meaningful GCSE or A Level results. In fact, the ever changing system of assessment seems to be shifting towards a style that will make it increasingly easy to fail, and increasingly difficult to do anything about it. Finally, if a pupil has managed to achieve in spite of our education system, they will face the dilemma of whether to pay £9,000 annual fees to access further and higher education before entering a system where youth unemployment and underemployment is as high as we’ve ever seen in this country and economic promise looks bleak, at best, Mr Gove.

Now, forgive me if I am presumptuous, Mr Gove, but I rather suspect you wont reply to me so I shall hazard a guess at one of your replies. You often speak of ’rigor’, so I suppose I could assume that you will claim you are making our exams more rigorous. If encouraging pupils to fail is rigorous, perhaps you are right. If responding to 100 educational experts by calling them ’enemies of promise’ when they wholeheartedly (and rightly) disagree with your policies, is rigorous, perhaps you are right. If independently writing an entire section of the National Curriculum despite having no qualifications or experience to do so is rigorous, perhaps you are right.

I’m tired, Mr Gove. I’m tired of being told I am a valued educational professional when I see unqualified teachers being employed in other schools. I am tired of being told I have a vital role to play in addressing educational imbalance when we are forced to fail children at the age of 6. I am tired of pupils being disengaged in reading and writing when we present them with such ridiculous and unsupportive means of assessment. I am tired of being made to feel like I am lazy or incompetent when I spend every ounce of energy I have trying to provide opportunities for every child I encounter on a daily basis to succeed. I am tired of such destructive and invalidating means of judging schools capabilities. I am tired of daily attacks on my pension, my work ethic, my commitment to raising standards, my commitment to improving the quality of pupils lives and my reputation as a professional. I am tired of a pretentious egomaniac, who has no experience of education other than having gone to school as a child, holding the education system in this country to ransom.

I ask you, Mr Gove, who is the real enemy of promise?  Who is causing incomparable destruction to our education system? Who is condemning a generation of young people to mediocrity and demise?

Surely not you?

Secret Teacher

Update: Open Letter to Mr Gove Revisited

 

A broad and balanced curriculum? Don’t make me laugh!

“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?

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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.

Secret Teacher

Why I’m Going On Strike

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“You’re going on strike again? Weren’t you lot out last year too? It’s about time you stopped feeling sorry for yourselves and got on with it like the rest of us!”

 

This was the reaction of a good friend of mine from the private sector when informed of the escalated action teachers plan to take in a number of weeks. He bore no sympathy to my plight as a teacher. He saw no valid grounds on which I could stand. And who could blame him? He reads the news. He is up to date with the media. He has no basis on which to understand why teachers are going on strike.

 

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is not a man whom I have fondness for. He is smug, sneaky, arrogant, narrow-minded and patronising. But it cannot be said that he is an unintelligent man. He understands that the dispute with teaching unions will be won in the public domain, and therefore the perception of the dispute in the media is vital. Worryingly, Michael Gove is doing very well.

 

On a weekly basis there are negative reports about teaching and teachers, on the news and in papers, around the UK. The reputation teachers once had as respectable, hardworking professionals is slowly being chipped away. It is being replaced by a perception that teachers are lazy and undedicated; that we care little for children and provide them with inadequate opportunities to flourish. Indeed, the teaching profession has been continually berated and ridiculed since Mr Gove took office.

 

However, if my experience in primary schools is anything to go by, the picture Mr Gove paints could not be further from the truth. I have seldom met more dedicated, hardworking respectable people in my life. Unfortunately their story is seldom heard. It is precisely for that reason that I believe it is imperative that people understand why teachers are going on strike. I have outlined my reasons below.

 

1) Firstly, going on a strike is not something I do lightly. I have considered it in great detail. Pupils are entitled to an education and forcing a school to close deprives them of this for one day. It also greatly inconveniences their parents and guardians who have to organise other arrangements for their children.

 

So why is there not another way that we, as teachers, can protest? There was. Teachers have been on industrial action short of strike for months in an effort to show opposition to the Education Minister without disrupting our pupils’ education. This has gone largely unnoticed and many people are unaware of this. Unfortunately Mr Gove has ignored the calls to enter into genuine dialogue with teaching unions and forced teachers to take more drastic actions.

 

2) Teachers pensions and work conditions are being attacked. The government want teachers to pay more into their pensions and work for longer. Indeed recently Mr Gove suggested that teachers work longer hours and have shorter breaks. Has he ever seen a class just before half term? Both teachers and pupils need that break. Also with the pay freeze already imposed on teachers and rising pension contributions, this actually amounts to a pay cut. More worryingly though is that teachers will be expected to work until they are 68. Teaching can be a challenging and exhausting profession. Do you want your kids to be taught by somebody who is spent, simply counting the days until their retirement?

 

3) The current pay scheme in England and Wales is being abolished. At present, teachers work their way through a pay scale which guarantees stability. It is something that serves to attract the best graduates. This is due to be scrapped and replaced with performance related pay. I can understand why some may agree with this. On the surface it seems logical to most, particularly those in the private sector who work within such a system. However, I simply can never support such an arrangement within education.

 

Despite Mr Goves best efforts, education is not a business. There is no research anywhere in the world that suggests linking pay to performance improves education. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Teachers pay will be dictated by the budget a head teacher has to play with. Therefore the richer schools will attract the best teachers leaving poor teachers in deprived areas, where good teachers are needed most. Social elitism will flourish once again. Teachers unmotivated by greed may find that moving to a new school may mean taking a significant pay cut. Their pay may also be dictated by the ability level of a certain cohort, or the support they have within a school. I also believe that under severe pressure, teachers will ’teach to the test’ and thus narrow the curriculum and educational opportunities for pupils. All creativity and diversity will be lost. Teachers will be encouraged to work in a very single minded way and opportunities to share best practice will be lost. Teachers will suffer; pupils will suffer.

 

There are other reasons to oppose the current Education Secretary. The implementation of a new, narrow curriculum that encourages acquiring facts through rote learning, removing the requirement for pupils to be taught by qualified teachers and the GCSE English fiasco serve as reminders that Mr Gove is taking very high risk gambles with the education system in this country. There is no shortage of reasons why this government is bad for young people in this country. A whole generation are under threat.

 

 

On 27th June 2013 thousands of teachers across the North West of England, angry with government reforms, will go on strike. I will be one of these teachers. I hope you will support me.

 

Secret Teacher

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In a break with the usual weekly routine, I spent the best part of 75 hours last week in North Wales with 50 children. We had left school behind in the glorious sunshine on Tuesday morning, departing on the schools annual residential trip with a group of eager 9-10 year olds. I must admit I was apprehensive. Not knowing the year group I was leaving with, I had observed them around the school in the weeks leading up to our exodus. What I observed was less than encouraging.

Arriving in Wales, my opinion varied little. As we congregated for our first meeting I looked around the room. Some of the kids were eating plastic bottles; some appeared to be licking imaginary objects floating by their heads; some were unable to remember a number and recall it in order; some were unable to simply pay attention for longer than a minute or two. When I enquired with teachers who had previously imparted knowledge on this year group I learnt that some of the pupils in the group had terrible grammar; some weren’t able to string a sentence together; some were incapable of completing simple calculations; some had a very low reading age and some had communication skills that would barely surpass a mute. In short, there was a sizable proportion of this group who will struggle when they enter Year 6 and complete their SATs.

 

Throughout the week spent on our residential there was a carousel of activities that challenged pupils in a range of different ways. There were physical and mental challenges, individual and group activities and a plethora of opportunities for pupils to display their skills and talents. What I observed only strengthened a view I have had for the past 18 months.

 

I watched as pupils terrified of heights took on a climbing wall, determined to reach the top despite obvious anxiety. I saw pupils, unable to punctuate a sentence, pick up a bow and send an arrow straight into the bull’s-eye. I observed as pupils who don’t know basic number facts work within a team to achieve a common goal. I saw pupils who sit at the back of PE and suffer their way through lessons solve problems I struggled with myself. I watched pupils go out of their way to ensure nobody was left out and help others around them in whatever way they could to complete tasks. I saw pupils who struggle with the laws of basic spoken English pick up plates and spin them on the top of sticks effortlessly. I saw pupils who sit quietly and insecurely in the classroom flourish and become pupils bursting with confidence and joy. In short, I had an opportunity to see that, in a variety of different ways, every single child on that trip was skilled and talented.

 

And so it pains me to know what lies ahead for these fantastic kids. Some will return to the school system and flourish. They will work their way through different exams testing their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. If they have these desired skills they will be deemed academically able. Those are the lucky few.

 

Unfortunately, more will return to school where they will be repeatedly told they are failures. The only skills that will be assessed will be the 3Rs. The diverse, creative and flexible curriculum they need in which to flourish diminishes by the day. It will soon be narrowed further by grammar exams and a linear curriculum which will require the acquirement of knowledge through rote learning. These pupils will largely have their talents overlooked. They will not be praised for their fantastic artwork; nor for their ability to run the fastest or jump the highest. They won’t be rewarded for their determination or their bravery. Instead they will be told that if they aren’t able to identify the main clause in a sentence, underline the adverb and circle the preposition they are not performing satisfactorily in school. Their confidence will burst. They will believe they are stupid and worthless and, most disgustingly, come to accept that there is no alternative to this.

 

The education system we have in this country is wrong. Change is needed. Unfortunately, Michael Gove is making all the wrong changes. He is dragging the system in a completely wrong direction. Another generation of pupils are going to be lost thinking they are unintelligent. They will fail to realise that intelligence can be measured in an infinite number of ways. In school, we look only at one.

 

Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Ooprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckenburg, Steven Spielberg, Henry Ford. Not one of these people graduated from an institute of Further or Higher Education. Even Albert Einstein failed to acquire the required grades needed to get into his school of choice. I fear that we in this country test our pupils on the narrowest of criteria. We ignore the gifts that so many of our pupils encompass.

 

I’m only a class teacher. I’m a small cog in a massive machine. Realistically, I can’t change the system. However, I have one year to make an impact on a group of kids. From this day forth I will look for those hidden skills. I will praise and recognise different achievements in my classroom. I will do my utmost to avoid giving the impression that the only thing that matters is test scores (In the current educational system that wont be easy, but amid everything else we must go back to the start and remember why we all became teachers- the kids). The year group will probably remember this week for long to come as their first trip without their parents, their first taste of independence. I will forever recall it as the week I remembered that every child is a genius, if only you look hard enough.

 

Secret Teacher

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