Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Heart of Darkness

This week is a journey into the Heart of Darkness. Testing, that rancid, malignant, cancerous tumour that spews forth its toxins into the bloodstream; that evil Tower of Babel that casts its dark shadow over us all; that insidious pollutant that seeps into every pore. Testing, SATs and their evil spawn the league tables have been the enemy of creativity, distorted learning, choked initiative, and drained our energy. We all feel their presence lurking behind us like malevolent phantoms.

Whither Year 6? What used to be the best year in primary schools has become a drudge. Children on the cusp of adolescence just before Kevinitus sets in and they become as communicative as Beagle 2; it used to be a pleasure to teach them. Now Year 6 is the poisoned chalice, all volunteers take a step backwards.

Year 6 is a year of revision, tests, tests and more tests. Children live that year in the shadow of the exams in May. Parents worry about the levels of stress - manifested by their children’s behaviour. For teachers it’s the Labour of Sisyphus, dragging the boulder up to the top of the hill only to watch it slide down the slope when the school year begins again in September. The league tables are a public auto-da-fe as schools are pressured from all quarters. Crude comparisons are made between different schools - like organising a race between a Formula One racing car and a battered Ford Escort, then berating the losing driver for their failure to compete.

In school Year 6 seem to go into some kind of purdah, reduced to invisibility, it’s as though they’ve been stolen by the Gobblers and temporarily inhabit a parallel universe. In many schools extra curricula activities are suspended and a cultural Dark Age descends on pupils. Most pupils hate and detest the exam week, a time of stress, fear and loathing - welcome to the new millennium.

At the end of the tests teachers, ‘hit the wall’. It’s that long haul until July, that feeling of running on empty. And then they say, be creative, innovate – like telling someone to be a celebrity cook in a famine zone.

We really need a renaissance for Year 6. In the true meaning of the Chinese proverb, ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’. I’m not saying it’s going to be a spontaneous uprising like that moment when the pupils tear up the turgid text books in that schmaltzy Robin Williams film ‘Dead Poets’ Society’, but the fact is we need an end to the testing and league tables regime.

We need to give parents an alternative vision of what Year 6 could be like. Children should get the chance to-

· Learn a foreign language
· Improve the link with secondary schools for Year 7
· Write a short story
· Learn to play a musical instrument
· Go on an adventure holiday
· Put on a play
· Undertake a community project

Teachers, heads, advisors and ministerial careers are made or broken by fulfilling the targets. But if ever there was a time to shout, “The Emperor has no clothes,” this is it. In primary schools it is well documented how testing has led to teachers teaching to test; Year 6 becoming an unremitting grind of endless revision; the narrowing of the curriculum and the orchestration and manipulation of exams where every ruse and strategy is used to make the target.

There’s the hierarchy of pressure – bigger fleas on smaller fleas. It starts with Government who put pressure on the LEAs, in turn they squeeze the headteachers, then the thumbscrews come out for the teachers who in turn cajole, chivvy and browbeat the children.

Testing has entered the school’s lexicon, as SATs time approaches children become a secure Level 4, or he’s a borderline 3 / 4, or she’ll only make a 3. Schools place impossible burdens on children as revision begins earlier and earlier, art, music, history is jettisoned and that final misnomer “booster classes” after school and at weekends.

To reach the target you teach to test months before, force-feeding them gruel and more gruel. Remembering that the key group to work on is the borderline group, special needs – forget them they’ll never get there, the brighter ones, they’re already there, let them get on with it. No spend the teaching time coaching that fraction of the class that will be the difference between success and abject failure. If you fall short there’s always that guaranteed sure-fire alternative – CHEATING. A few figures changed, those stray decimal points, that empty answer box. There are many cases where teachers or headteachers have succumbed to the temptation and altered the odd answer or even systematically cheated.

The government constantly claim that standards have improved and quote the “remarkable” rise in the national teat scores for 11-year olds during the late 1990s (between 1995 and 2000 the percentage of pupils awarded Level 4 or above rose from 48% to 75% in English and from 44% to 72% in maths). A study by the independent Statistics Commission cited other factors including the incentive for teachers to “teach to test”, which could be expected to lead to an initial rise in test results “even if it does nothing to raise standards”.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority backed the findings of the largest study into national test standards, carried out by Alf Massey of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations syndicate. It found that the pass mark for English was set five marks too low both in 1999 and 2000 because the standard of the reading test fell. The QCA concluded, “The Massey report confirmed that standards have risen, but not necessarily to the extent suggested by the test scores”.

We’re no longer pedagogues, the curriculum is out of our control, teachers’ autonomy has been destroyed, we’re now mere instructors, slaves to the machine. Worse than that tests, targets and league tables have made us into the equivalent of the cynical doping cheats in sport, our only justification that, “Everyone else does it”. In sport a victory is accompanied by a knowing smile, it’s become the same in education. Cheating is so prevalent that even the honest are tarnished.

We encourage children to be open and honest, not to fear failure, we praise success and where necessary make constructive criticism. Worst of all is false praise. That’s why I can’t celebrate or cheer falsity, results that have no semblance to reality or to children’s real ability. But still, rejoice! Get out the banners, summon the press the target has been achieved! The parents are delighted, the heads relieved and the LEA advisors are ecstatic – their career ladder intact.

Last year one of our teachers attended a training course, during the dinner break the test results were coming out in the schools. Heads furtively reached for mobile phones and then calculators, fevered groups developed working out percentages, and it was a scene resembling Wall Street at its worst. Is this what education has been reduced to?

There is another way… In 2003 the Times Educational Supplement carried a report on Caol Primary in Fort William, it had been the local ‘dump school’ that took the children no one else wanted. How did they turn it round? Did they grind the children down with endless tests in order to boost phoney league table placings? Did they overload teachers with tons of useless planning? No, they used art.

In 1992 Rob Fairley, a local artist started working at the school, he created Room 13. The concept behind Room 13 was to give pupils a level of freedom - artistic, practical and intellectual. Pupils have taken responsibility for their own learning and for the running of their arts studio, to the extent of writing out cheques, making funding applications and attending meetings with potential sponsors.

Older pupils can go at any time during the day to work or to discuss things with Rob Fairley. The only condition is that they are up to date with their classwork. Part of the Room 13 approach is giving pupils the intellectual skills they need to fulfil their potential in years to come. So as well as creating their own artwork, they carry out research projects based on a list of eminent scientists, artists and writers.

The TES report noted, “Discussions on everything from philosophy to share prices take the place of still lifes and life drawing. Within the space of five minutes, conversation might veer from contraception to Renaissance gilding, to the trigonometry of a goal in Rangers' last game.” In Room 13 the ideas come first, the means of expressing them follow. To illustrate a lesson on how our eyes work and the way our brain can sometimes tell lies, Rob Fairley once blacked out the windows, transformed Room 13 into a giant pinhole camera and turned the familiar landscape into a huge inverted image on the wall opposite.

Some teachers have become institutionalised, they can no longer think of schools without testing. They have become the prison warders of the system. How the hell did we get here? Over ten years of SATs testing, the torture of the phoney league tables. After years of inactivity the NUT did conduct a ballot for a SATs boycott but the turnout was only 20%, so under ‘union rules’ action was deemed to be ‘unconstitutional’.

Here’s my idea – the first Monday of SATs primary teachers (everyone not just Year 6 teachers) refuse to come into work. Remember every revolt in history begins with people saying that simple word, ‘No’. Let’s do it for the sake of our children. Any one care to join me?


Periwinkles, is all I can say.

Mr Read
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