Monday 25 July 2016

In pursuit of joy: what should we value in primary schools?

Guest blog by Emma Bishton, first published on her blog and by the Local Schools Network LINK

It's been a busy couple of weeks. No I don't mean trying to keep up with the headlines or the fallout from the headlines, though I can't say that isn't also a challenge. I mean domestically. It's the end of term, so there has been a procession of concerts and (intentionally) dramatic events to attend, a street fair, a fete, end of term assemblies and so on. This year is different because it's my daughter's last at primary school. Which means, of course, that she leaves not only with a set of wonderful memories and burgeoning opportunities, but with a set of SATS results.

A week or so ago we had our school summer concert (which I help with, as I'm involved with music at school). This was the 8th of these annual events, and quite possibly the best yet. They always follow the same format: choirs, ukulele group and recorder group have a standing slot, and most of the rest of the programme is given over to pupil performances - anything from solo songs to dance routines. Pupils audition for a slot in the programme, for which they devise and rehearse their own pieces. Variety is more important than perfection - over the years we've had all sorts from Mozart on the horn to solo renditions of Take That songs. This year, one of the highlights for me was the 'Kingfisher boys' -  a group of year 3 boys (complete with baseball caps), one singer in the middle of five dancers - including some rather skilful breakdancing. It wasn't note-perfect or movement-perfect. But it was exuberant, entertaining, and above all joyful. Like a lot else in the summer concert, it was impossible to watch without smiling.

The other thing that happened that day was that their school reports came out. These, for those lucky children in year 6, included their SATS results.  In an attempt to explain the reporting of SATS results, the headteacher usefully included a flyer  written for parents by the government Standards and Testing Agency. It goes on about the government's desire to raise standards, and includes statements which of course presage an intentionally higher number of 'failures' than previously:  "As the new standard is higher than the old one, fewer children have met the new expected standard than the previous standard", and then goes on to suggest that parents go online to find out how their child's results compare with the national average (which smacks rather of trying to generate fear of failure in parents as well as pupils, rather than drawing on the more positive effects of competition). The leaflet also suggests that tests and teacher assessments help teachers in secondary school to target extra help. Well my daughter's test results didn't tell us anything we didn't already know about her or anything she didn't already know about herself. Nor, more importantly, did they tell her teacher anything she didn't already know and couldn't already communicate to the secondary school in a teacher assessment.  So what, you might wonder, was the point of all that anguish back in May?

The leaflet appears to suggest that more children failing the tests will result in them having a better "mastery of the basics" (I'm really not sure that 'fronted adverbials' are basic, but that's another matter).  But whilst it's made clear that the SATS system has been specifically engineered to create more  'failures' than 'successes', for this year at least, the leaflet doesn't explain how 'failing' might actually help a child learn.  (I can of course see how such engineering will help the government claim to have  improved standards in a couple of years time, but that's another matter also.)  It doesn't explain it because it can't explain it. Back in May, my daughter feared the tests, though in the event she did fine. That fear wasn't productive, it was just a waste of emotional energy.  And generating fear of failure in parents by frequent use of words like 'mastery' and 'expected standard' is simply unacceptable, as well as being unlikely to result in pupils actually doing better.

In our summer concerts, on the other hand, there are no failures. In eight years of summer concerts, I have never seen a child crumble on stage. True, some enjoy performing more than others, some are more engaging than others, some have practised more or display more talent than others -  but they all get up on the stage and take pleasure in having done so. Those Kingfisher Boys applied themselves to the task, thought creatively and worked collaboratively, listened to advice and put it into practice (and rose to the challenge of performing in front of at least 200 people). All rather useful skills for life, let alone for learning.  But SATS tests don't value any of those attributes at all. Instead they have tested whether my daughter and her peers can produce a piece of writing in time and remember various facts and processes. I'm not seeking to denigrate the value of learning these things in themselves (except much of the content of the SPaG test, of course). But I question their value for our children's overall emotional and cognitive development. Children find joy in things that they value and that they get satisfaction from learning - whether that's on stage, on the cricket pitch or indeed, with a skilled teacher, in a classroom. And that joy spurs them on. Testing for the sake of testing, on the other hand, eviscerates joy.  I am heartily relieved, as my daughter prepares for secondary school, that she has been at a school which values the creative antics of boys in year 3 as highly as a few test results.

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