Measuring what matters

One at a time, they came forward and stood on the big white X on the floor. The big white X which meant ‘THIS IS WHERE YOU STAND’. You could see the concentration on their little faces. They looked out to the audience of parents and carefully delivered the lines they had been practising over the last few weeks. They recited poems and held up their art work. They talked about their favourite moments from this year. They stood proudly and spoke clearly. And then…..well, then they got into position for their Africa-inspired dance. They leapt and twirled and weaved around each other whilst waving brightly coloured bits of fabric. They danced their little hearts out and made mums and dads cry.

At the back of the hall, with parents seated either side of her, their teacher danced with them – full of enthusiasm, she leapt, twirled and waved a ribbon; encouraging her little charges along.

This was Year 2’s Leavers’ Assembly, which marked the end of these children’s three years at infant school. And what a long way they have come.

After this wonderful display, parents went into the dining hall where tables were laid with tablecloths and little vases of flowers. Teas, coffees and biscuits were served. ‘Oooh, we didn’t expect this‘, muttered appreciative mums and dads. This all felt like……..well, like a proper occasion. So we drank tea and ate biscuits as our little ones chatted away excitedly; and there was a real feeling of warmth and loveliness in the air. Many of us parents didn’t know each other three years ago, but a solid community and support network has built up around this school and these children. And now this group of parents mingled happily as they drank their tea, delighting not just in the achievements of their own child, but in the achievements of all of these children who have come so far since their first days in Reception.

As I left the school that morning, I couldn’t help thinking that it’s a shame that the people who measure our schools and put together charts and graphs and league tables don’t see more things like this.

It’s a shame they can’t measure the pride these parents feel, the community that has been built, and the good feeling in the air over those teas and coffees.

It’s a shame they didn’t see that teacher, doing everything she could to encourage her class from the back of the hall. Joining in with their dance, leaping and twirling as she waved a ribbon around.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the child who was so shy during Reception that assemblies for parents used to make him freeze. He would never have looked up, looked out, delivered lines, or twirled around with a pink scarf the way he did in that leavers’ assembly.

It’s a shame they can’t see the confidence these children have developed – confidence when dealing with each other, with their teachers, and with other adults. Confidence to try new things, to step out of their comfort zones.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these youngsters have learnt to organise their play, resolve differences, take turns, and bounce back when things don’t go their way.

It’s a shame they don’t know about the little one who, a year ago, desperately wanted to join in with the football at lunchtime but didn’t think he was good enough. Look at him now as he runs off to join in, a huge grin on his face.

It’s a shame they can’t see how these children have gained in independence, maturity and resilience. How some of them used to struggle when they didn’t get the results they wanted, but have begun to learn how to deal with disappointment.

It’s a shame that, while we’re trying to decide how good schools are and whether we are ticking all the right boxes, so much about who our children actually are gets lost.

It’s a shame that so many of the important things don’t seem to get recognised these days. People, community, values. The determination, thoughtfulness, resilience and confidence that our children will take with them as they move onto the next stage.  Because ultimately, it is these things that will be the difference in the world. Not how quickly they can learn their times tables, or their understanding of a split diagraph.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Balancing boys

On our obsession with putting children into boxes

When you become a parent, you soon realise that people are very keen to put your child into boxes. Or onto a chart. And if your child doesn’t tick the right box, or fit onto the chart exactly where s/he ‘should’, the implication is that you should be concerned.

It starts with the centile lines in the red book; and then it continues with the health visitor development checks. Can your child jump? If not, why not? How many words can s/he put together? How many things can we find to make you worried about? Yes it’s all very well that all your 2 year old son wants to do is line up cars into traffic jams, but why can’t he thread macaroni onto a piece of string? We’ll follow that up with you in a few weeks. Oh dear, your 7 week premature 12 month old twins are using a whole hand to shove raisins into their mouths and not using their pincer grip? That could be a concern.

Unfortunately, it seems that this is all preparation for when your child gets to school. There goes your precious little one, off to start a new chapter. The little one who makes your heart burst with pride and joy and love. The little one who is flying at some things, struggling with others; but doing everything at the pace that is right for him. You could not be prouder.

And then you get to parents’ evening, and you see those all-important boxes – is your little one ‘exceeding‘, ‘meeting‘, or ‘working towards‘ expectations?

This is what it comes down to – which box does your child fit into?

If you ask parents what they want from a school, I think the answers would be pretty straightforward. Parents want their children to be valued. They want them to reach their potential and for their talents not to go unnoticed. They want a broad and balanced curriculum which gives them opportunities to discover their strengths and talents. They want them to be supported, to have friends, to feel confident and happy. They want them to leave with the skills and confidence they need to be able to contribute to the wider world.

And yet what have we got? A system which is so focused on attainment that it begins testing children at 5/6 – ages at which, in many other countries, children would only just be starting formal school. A system which believes 5 and 6 year old children are ready to move away from the age-appropriate, play-centred atmosphere of a Reception classroom and spend most of their day sitting at desks.  A system which keeps raising the bar, because apparently what children really need at 6 years old is a good, solid grasp of time-openers and subordinate clauses; and because if you just keep making things harder then the children will obviously follow ……won’t they?? A system which teaches children to pass tests rather than to love reading and writing and exploring and creating. A system which makes meeting age-related expectations so difficult that schools feel they simply can’t devote any proper time to subjects which don’t ‘count’ or they will be seen as failing their pupils in the key areas of Maths and Literacy. A system which so many teachers feel they are having to fight against, because it all just feels so wrong.

A system which makes a significant number of children feel like they’re failing.

I overheard a conversation the other day between a teacher and a non-teacher. The teacher had taught in at least three other countries, and said that teaching in this country was by far the most difficult. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could do it. None of what she said surprised me.

Teachers’ talents are in the classroom – they motivate, inspire and encourage. They also plan, mark and give feedback. We expect all of this from them – this is what teachers do. But now, we expect all of that and more. We expect them to set targets, track students, prepare for the next inspection, and explain why it is that Pupil A is still in this box instead of the higher up box. And the good teachers, the compassionate teachers, the ones with that passion and the ability to inspire; the ones who want to find out what makes their pupils tick ……..well, data isn’t really their thing. They didn’t go into this just to get children into the right box. They didn’t go into it just to teach children to pass tests. So those teachers, they’re leaving. They don’t want to leave, some of them are devastated. But they can’t do it any more. The raised bars, the expectations, the targets – they can’t do what they actually went into teaching to do. The government is doing its best to fudge over the issue by telling us that teaching remains an attractive career option and PGCE courses continue to recruit well. But it’s not easy to pretend when we all know that teaching is in the middle of a recruitment crisis. It’s all very well recruiting to PGCE courses, but that’s not good enough if teachers are realising soon after qualifying that teaching isn’t quite how it looks on the PGCE recruitment posters.

If you are interested in schools, you probably know that Finland is the shining light when it comes to education. Have a read of this if you’d like to be enlightened:

Why are Finland’s schools so successful?

The Finnish system feels like the polar opposite to ours: children start school later, play is valued; and teachers are highly trained and well respected. There are many interesting things in the article above – I particularly like the Helsinki principal who says “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” In Finland there are no rankings and no comparisons between schools, students, or regions. Imagine – a world without school league tables.

I would put league tables up there as one of the worst things to have happened to schools in this country. ‘But parents use them’, you might argue. Yes they do, but I am convinced that we’d be better off without them. Because for many schools now, success depends on an ability to manipulate data. You hear about it all the time – students at some schools being asked to leave before exam season because they’re not being predicted high enough grades. School sixth forms turning away their own students in favour of high achieving students from other schools. Because doing well in league tables means getting more of the children that everyone wants to teach, and more of those children means you’ll continue to do well in the league tables. So the schools down at the bottom…..well they have no chance.

So yes, parents do use them – because they’re there. But our obsession with league tables has been at the expense of our children. We’re so obsessed with getting children into the boxes that we think they ‘should’ be in, that we seem to have completely forgotten that they progress and develop at completely different speeds. Or that children can have a bad few months, or a bad year. Perhaps this child had glandular fever and that child’s parents separated….. and that one over there, well her best friend went off to another school and she just isn’t feeling settled at the moment.

We lose the many young people whose skills and talents don’t fit into the box we are so desperate to get them into. Frequently, we hear very talented and often creative people say that they always hated school: their talents just weren’t noticed until they got to college. Think of all the future artists, designers, craftspeople, builders, and sportspeople in schools at the moment who are labelled as not meeting their age-related expectations because of their Year 2 SATs results. Think of all the young people who don’t fit neatly into boxes, because SO MANY PEOPLE JUST DON’T.

It seems we spend all our time telling our young people to ‘think outside the box’ when all we want them to do is fit into one.

I spend a lot of time on this blog rambling on about schools. I didn’t start my blog to write about education; but I have three small boys all at the start of their school lives and so right now, school is everything to us. My 4 year old twins currently love going to school because at the moment school is about role-play and building and discovering and creating; but I already feel concerned about how will they cope later this year when they discover that play is no longer seen as being valuable to their learning.

What is really unclear to me is what we’re actually hoping to achieve from all this – parents are anxious, children are struggling to keep up and teachers are leaving. And where is the evidence to show us that what we’re doing is of any benefit? Because it seems very clear to me that we are getting it ALL COMPLETELY WRONG. And really, Ms Greening, we need to do something about it now, before there are no teachers left to teach our children.

Or before everyone who cares moves to Finland.

boy-writing