It’s hard to know where to start with what a convoluted mess our accountability system is in, but this tweet seems like a good place to begin. The idea that a child who clearly knows where to put the commas should not gain a mark for knowing this, simply because the commas do not slope in the approved direction, is almost impossible to comprehend. What have things come to when the DfE thinks it is okay to penalise a child in this way? What are we saying to our children about the level of control that adults want to exercise over the way that they write? No longer is it enough to tell our children what kind of sentences can have an exclamation mark, or that ‘good writing’ must include ‘fronted adverbials’, now we discover that our government wants to do the equivalent of holding our children’s hands while they are writing, to force them to form their punctuation marks in a particular way. Do the DfE really care about how children’s grasp of spelling, punctuation and grammar informs the quality of their writing, or have they turned into a faceless ‘Big Brother’ controlling every aspect of a child’s learning to the nth degree?
As if this weren’t bad enough, almost every day I read stories online of schools where entire terms of Year 6 (and earlier years as well) are taken up with doing practice SATs papers. Where the curriculum is narrowed to such an extent that children’s primary schooling becomes English/Maths, English/Maths, with a tiny bit of PE for variety. I see stories of schools holding ‘Easter revision classes’ and ‘SATs booster sessions’, for a series of tests that are supposed to be only about the school and that were supposedly never about the children passing or failing. I see schools reminding parents to ‘get their children ready’ for a phonics screening check that was supposed to be purely diagnostic. I see stories of schools where gaming and even cheating goes on, in order to try and ensure ‘good results’. And while I completely understand the pressure that schools are under to get those ‘good results’, it seems that we have become so wrapped up in getting them, that some people are willing to do almost anything, no matter what the cost.
After much soul searching and discussion, we let our daughter take her SATs earlier this year. Her school has been completely brilliant about the whole process – their curriculum has remained genuinely broad and balanced, right up to the week of the tests. Her class barely did a single practice paper. (In fact I was so surprised at how relaxed they were about the tests that occasionally I would quiz her about whether she’d done one yet. “No mummy,” she would assure me, “although one time we did discuss what our answers would have been to last year’s paper in groups.”) It’s a very small cohort, and our daughter is a high attainer, so if we had taken her out of school to avoid the tests, this would have punished the very people who have done so much to take the right approach in the most difficult of circumstances. As a child who finds tests easy, and whose mother has always told her that these tests don’t measure what really counts, she has been able to stay relaxed about the process. But more and more it feels like I am incredibly lucky and that this is an unusual case.
And so we have reached the week when the SATs results are published. Understandably, teachers have been stressed about how well their classes will do. Some even waited up until midnight, to see what their data was like. The pain of getting the children through these tests is perhaps ameliorated a little (for some) by the joy of being able to say that their children did well. We are trapped, it seems, between understanding how our captors at the DfE are twisting our entire education system out of shape, and wanting to celebrate the achievements of our children. We look at the charts that show how accountability has supposedly ‘improved results’, and we would have to be super human not to believe that it must be our own efforts that have caused the rise. Like a twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome, we are in hock to the DfE, who dole out praise and punishment, while keeping us trapped within a system that causes stress for those children in our care.
Should teachers respond to the latest diktat by using lesson time to train their children to never ever write a comma that is anything less than perfectly slanted, even those who write with their left hand? Should primary schools double down on their SATs preparation, including boosters during holiday time, in an attempt to ensure that every child ‘passes’ a test that was never supposed to be about pass or fail? Should teachers spend time teaching their young children to write government approved exclamatory sentences, starting with ‘what’ or ‘how’? Or maybe, just maybe, should every single school in England follow the example of Jill Wood, and refuse to participate in what has become a joyless mockery of an accountability system? Surely the time has arrived for us to rise up together, to shake off our shackles, and say ‘enough is enough’? Because if we don’t, we are complicit in an accountability regime that makes a mockery of what an education should be. We have sold our ethics down the line for the prize of SATs success. And in the end it is not the teachers or schools who end up being damaged by what is going on. It is the most vulnerable of our children who will actually pay the price.
“Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ ’bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper”