Is our obsession with tests depriving children who work just below national standards of a broad and balanced curriculum?
For three years I was a writing moderator for Key Stage 2, and application time is here again. It’s fascinating work; visiting a multitude schools and meeting teachers is always an education. It makes you realise, from the smallest, two-class rural setting to the biggest, inner-city one, what a diverse profession we are, and how different our contexts.
That said, there is an awful lot that’s the same. You can spot a school a mile off. You can hear it, for a start. If you arrive at breaktime, the squeals of young, massed humanity sound much the same wherever you are. The hush that accompanies lessons is universally familiar too. When you enter, there is the distinctive smell of washing powder and rubber plimsolls, mixed with the unmistakable whiff of wee, and you are instantly transported back to your own school days.
Then, when you get to the work and examples of children’s writing, the similarities are striking, and I don’t just mean the mind-boggling number of guides to keeping miptors!
When learning to be writers it’s surprising – or would be if we hadn’t seen it many times before – how often children follow the same pattern of development. And it’s reassuring to see them starting to take control of the written word in its various aspects – from handwriting to spelling, punctuation to grammar – right there, on the page.
Sometimes, in my more ranty of educational moments, I can be heard declaring that the evidence of learning resides in the child. But in the absence of the child (they’re currently in their lessons), their books are illuminating.
When you get the time to leaf through them, to read their words from the beginning of September compared to the end of June, their learning journey is laid out as clear as day. And, when you look in the books – not just the literacy ones, but all of them – what’s not written there is just as revealing as what is.
I know that during the run-up to the end-of key-stage tests all of Year 6 experience a narrowing of the curriculum. In the January term it’s a case of heads down and noses to the grindstone. When people’s jobs and progression up the pay scale depend on the test results of 10 and 11 year olds, who can blame them for making it this way?
So when I look back on my son’s Year 6, I’m glad that, thanks to his Statement (now EHCP), he didn’t have to take them. In my school we’ve already discussed the children who won’t be taking the tests, and planned some of the life-skills learning that will go in place of revision.
But it’s not the students working well below the standard of the national curriculum I worry about. When you’re a teacher-parent your concern widens to include the children working at just below the expected level. And if you track their school experience working just below the bar, you start to wonder how much of a broad and balanced curriculum they get. Is it all just dry and dull, restricted and narrow? And if so, it’s not a case of putting up with it for a term and a bit; for them, it’s been going on for years.
Because the thing about writing, and I say this as a writer rather than as a teacher, is that you have to have something to write about, a story to tell or an idea to share, that simply has to make it to the page.
When we talk about a knowledge curriculum, we don’t just mean in English and maths. We might know the nuts and bolts of what makes a sentence, we might know where to put our fronted adverbials, when to use the semi-colon or the exclamation, but without the knowledge that underpins it – the lessons in science, geography, music, history and art – their writing is in danger of being empty. And as well as missing out, these children, thanks to the demands of the system, are being let down.
Nancy Gedge is a primary teacher in Gloucestershire. She blogs at notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com.