Older children are currently fretting about exams, which is to be expected, but there are three other worrying things floating about in the zeitgeist that they should be spared.
The first is hunger. One of our chaps (Timi Jibogu) is a member of the Greenwich Youth Parliament and campaigning for the council to provide free school meals for examinees.
Many students come to school hungry and are unable to concentrate on their studies and this has a direct impact on their academic performance. As a community, we have a responsibility to ensure that every student has access to basic necessities, especially during exams. Providing free school meals for students taking exams would ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed, regardless of their background.
The second is the furore about this week’s year 6 SAT reading paper. Exams are hard to set, so I don’t have a view about the hardness of the questions, but this comment from a father on the BBC made me bang my head on the desk.
Of the 15 or 20 that he's done over the last couple of months, the only one he hasn't completed or been able to complete is the one that he did last week, which makes it feel like something went wrong with that paper.
Third, a YouTube experience that’s an absolute joy. It’s the magnificent Phil Beadle talking to someone I don’t know, about SLANT. SLANT’s a zombie classroom management technique dressed up as good teaching, invented and abandoned in the US, that won’t die here. I’ve written about it before, but to recap, it stands for something like sit up straight, lean forward, ask and answer, nod for understanding and track the speaker. It’s in the news because an academy chain is making a big thing of it and some of their teachers and parents are revolting. Beadle destroyed it in his magnificent 2020 book The Fascist Painting but you can’t help some folks.
At the end of the film, having been laughed at more than once, Beadle departs himself abruptly, advising his interlocutor that he needs to up his intellectual game. He’s a genius and an English teacher so why would you want to film yourself arguing with him? Yet the enthusiasm for this kind of short cuts persist in English schools. Why have we got into such a state?
Allow me to posit some views. First, the government doesn’t really believe that people are actually hungry, and besides, it’s the economy, Tina. There is no alternative so everyone has to wait for things to pick up. This is fine if you’ve just unpacked your Waitrose order but its not so good if you have to live on expensive terrible non-food from the only shop you can get to, or the food bank.
Second, as a result of target-setting and an obsession with cheap measurement we like to test our children. This is sort-of OK, but test-driven teaching only measures how well children have imbibed the test-related materials they’ve been taught. Its not real education, and it doesn’t last. Set a tricky paper, but all means – but don’t give child-level results. Use it to test teaching levels and keep the results at school- or national level to inform detailed, longitudinal school improvement work. Let the children learn widely and excitingly in primary school.
Third, building on the above, put some effort into behaviour management by making relationships with the children. Don’t interfere with their bodies by telling them how to sit and don’t interfere with their thinking processes by telling them what to look at. Did the school leaders who love this stuff have to learn like this?
Last week we said good luck to year 11 as the GCSEs started. A highlight of the day was a youth who’s photocopied seemingly hundreds of A4 portraits of himself which he handed out to anyone who’d take one. It was a kind-of art installation in itself, a performance. He was encapsulating our mutual loss and his own happy confidence in the future, as all children should.
This stuff is hard to get right and we all make mistakes. We really need to find a new way of living that doesn’t pit flawed crass certainties against each other at the expense of our young. We dislike serious thought in this country but we need some new paradigms. I hope that, despite the way we conduct schooling, our young people will still be able to change the world for the better.