The world of education has become a curiously competitive place to be for both staff and pupils.
We’re currently preparing our Year 6 children to be able to take the national Key Stage 2 SATs tests in May. I say ‘preparing them for a test’ because that’s exactly what we’re doing; we’re not teaching them any new knowledge or understanding in mathematics or English, but we’re training them how to approach the different styles of questions and how to gain the most marks. We do this because, as teachers, we’re under huge amounts of pressure to compete not just with other schools but almost with ourselves. A glance at my friend’s Facebook status updates shows me that we’re certainly not the only school to be doing this either.
Our school’s results will be compared to both local and national results. I teach in a school where 70% have English as an Additional Language and 34% are eligible for Free School Meals (both well above national averages) and we have a large proportion of children on the Special Educational Needs register identified as having Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). When we start at a disadvantage compared to other schools, how on earth can we be expected to get our children to the same levels by the end of Year 6? If we don’t hit our ‘floor targets’ then the black cloud of Ofsted is likely to descend, judging us according to one of their categories; outstanding, good, requires improvement or special measures. If we haven’t met our floor targets then the first two aren’t really an option. The current inspection regime focusses on what the schools can’t do, rather than what they are managing to do well, often in very difficult circumstances.
Later in the summer term I will then have to sit in a ‘Pupil Progress Meeting’ with my Head Teacher and justify why the children of my class have or haven’t made the progress we expected. My progress on the pay scale is subject to my ability to ‘add value’ for these children. Let’s just look at that phrase, ‘add value’. What kind of value am I actually adding for these children? Am I adding anything to their knowledge and understanding in mathematics and English. Well, yes, sometimes, but only to plug the gaps so that they can use the knowledge to pass a test. That’s not true understanding; they might hold it in their brains and use it in May, but I can pretty much guarantee that come September when they move on to their new secondary schools, those pieces of knowledge without the proper foundations will have fallen out of their heads into the ether. Am I adding to their enjoyment of learning? Are they learning for the love of it and the thirst for knowledge rather than learning it because they have to for a test? Am I adding to their confidence and self-esteem? Whilst it’s true that some of our children respond to the challenge of improving their academic levels, for many of our children it seems an insurmountable challenge; achieving a level 4 for them seems as unrealistic as travelling to the moon for their summer holiday.
This frustrates me. I don’t feel that I am teaching this term. I came into this job to teach, to inspire and to open children’s minds to a love of learning. None of what I’m doing every day in the classroom feels remotely like any of those things, it’s depressing. I feel like I’ve turned off my ‘teaching’ setting and am now experiencing a ‘succeed in a test at all costs’ setting. If I’ve turned off my teaching my children will have definitely turned off their learning.
I often feel this way at this stage in Year 6 when were submerged in test preparation. This year seems different for some reason. Maybe it’s because I’m fed up of the constant teacher bashing that seems to have become a national sport between the media, the government and Ofsted. Maybe it’s because I’m fed up of managing behaviour that seems to have its roots in fear and apprehension over the imminent tests. Maybe it’s because I’ve taught in Year 6 for too long now and I need a change (something that I’m thinking seriously about asking for after covering a Year 3 class today). Maybe it’s because I just can’t reconcile this testing preparation with what I know is the right thing to be doing at this stage of Year 6 which is to prepare these children for the massive change in their lives that comes with their transfer to secondary school. Maybe it’s because I feel an annoyance at myself and every other teacher playing this game each year just because everyone else is; who’s going to be the one brave enough to stop it. Maybe it’s because I just don’t think we’re trusted as teachers to be able to assess them according to the work they do every day in class. I know what my children are capable of doing independently and I’ve been teaching long enough and in a large enough variety of schools that I know what an average Year 6 is able to do. Why aren’t I trusted to make a judgement rather than subjecting them to a testing procedure that tests their ability to do a test first and assesses their knowledge and understanding second (or not at all if they can’t get over the hurdle of actually understanding how to do the test in the first place). Maybe it’s because I know what hurdles many of my children have overcome just to get themselves through the door to school each morning. How on earth can a child who hasn’t had a decent meal since their school lunch yesterday, who’s still wearing the same clothes they went home in last night, who is worried that their mum won’t collect them at the end of the day, who listened to their parents argue late into the night, who, well the list goes on, how can they be expected to learn, let alone perform for a test.
Maybe it’s because I don’t actually feel that any of this is preparing our children for their futures. A set of SATs results doesn’t really achieve anything; a happy, healthy and confident child will.