22nd March 2019

Acceptance is a dangerous thing: we owe it to our children and their future to change the system

Acceptance is a dangerous thing. SATs? No problem…the children aren’t particularly worried…we aren’t putting any extra pressure on them. We’re a nurturing school, with a reputation for a holistic approach, taking pride in not teaching to the test and our varied curriculum.

Or are we? No matter that the Year 6 teacher’s hair follicles are visibly retracting overnight, no matter that I can reel out our progress and attainment statistics from the last three years without missing a heartbeat. No matter the subtle changes to the timetable in the term before SATs: extra support for English and maths? You got it! Lunchtime maths masquerading as a cuddly “Come and help yourselves” service (“You are going to be here, aren’t you, Matthew?”).

The tremor in the teacher’s voice as he explains long multiplication yet again, and still Tom in the front row persists in multiplying from the left to the right. Even the cosy group sessions in my office. I might be telling myself that the children enjoy them (yes, to a point) and are benefiting from some expert tuition from yours truly, but:”I’m rubbish at multiplication. I can’t do it!” Lucy’s shoulders heave and her head sinks into her work as her self-esteem seems to drain onto the table and pool onto the practice arithmetic paper.

Like a pack of dominos, the knock-down seems to have come early this year. A teaching assistant informs me that Molly, a delightful Year 6 child with moderate learning difficulties, has resolutely refused to cooperate in her maths lessons for the last fortnight. Another child has been in tears when confronted with a practice test. These are kids who struggle with learning, who shouldn’t have to take another hard knock in the shape of yet another WT judgement from an hour long test that concludes seven whole years of schooling.

During the last twenty odd years, these tests have gripped our education system ever tighter. We can’t enter our children blind so, like many other schools, Year 6 becomes a cycle of half-termly tests and shattered hopes and dreams. With one breath I am telling my Year 6 teacher to throw caution to the wind, and book those days out and visitors, with the other I am mentally counting off how many children we need to get through the Maths test to get an orange bar this year…

Has the use of course work in writing made them better or worse? Because now there is no let-up. Where once we did the week, and then could relax back into projects, transition work, residentials and sports days, now there is a feverish scrabble for the handwriting pens, and the drafting begins for another six weeks. The irony of a ‘reform’ gone bad.

Those poor kids. When we wonder why there is more anxiety in our schools these days, just look to the number of times we put our children under pressure in the name of scrutinising school performance. Reception: ‘Hello, new baseline, lovely to meet you!” Year 1: “Enjoy your alien words, kiddywinks!” Year 2: has anyone else noticed the vague platitude that they will finally disband the KS1 SATs, when the Reception Baseline is ‘fully established’? Year 4: did you feel you were missing out? A tables test just for you! And finally, the piece d’resistance – there is no escape – Year 6.

We’re raging against the machine, but the machine is the Megatron of Educationapolis and it keeps on transforming. Primary education should be a gateway to learning, open doors and opportunities for all pupils, irrespective of ability. Acceptance? We owe it to our children and their future to get this right.

Rebecca Loader, headteacher, Clare Community Primary School


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