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The Road to Utopia

A good friend of mine is the headteacher of a very innovative and successful primary school.  Recently he was asked by some local councillors to demonstrate how his school was attaining.  It got me thinking about how complex this question actually is.


John was eleven in 2004.  He spent his days in class learning maths for an hour, English for an hour, History for an hour, science for an hour and music for half an hour.  This was interspersed with breaks and sometimes the subjects in the afternoon changed, but the pattern was familiar.  He sat a few tests toward the end of the year.  He had to write a story – but it was ok because his teacher had told him how to plan and write a
story.  He wrote a good one and even threw in some interesting words.  He had to take a maths test, but this was alright too because his teacher had shown him lots of questions from past tests and he could add, subtract, multiply and divide.  He had to take a reading
test.  Again, this was not a problem because he had practised lots of ‘fill-in-the-blanks’, multi-choice and short answer questions.  He got a level 4(if he was in Scotland, he would have achieved level D).  Most of his class got the same level and some even got higher levels.  His teacher was pleased and got praised by the headteacher.  The headteacher was asked by the board of governors and local councillors to demonstrate how the school was doing a good job.  She told them the results.  They were pleased.  The local paper published all of the results for schools in the area and arranged them in order; best to worst.  Parents for miles around could see that John attended a good school.  There were some schools in the area that did even better.  The system worked and everybody liked it because it was clear and easy to use.  Well not everybody liked
it.  Teachers didn’t.  This is because teachers could see that learning is a complex thing and any measure of it which is designed to be simplistic is, by definition, flawed.  John and his friends were good at passing tests.  Many had other, more complex skills, but then again so did many who weren’t good at passing tests.  The tests, in actual fact, had very little to do with skills and certainly not higher order skills.


What a lot of importance to put upon such unimportant data, simply because it was easily gathered and easily compared!


Dave, John’s younger cousin, is eleven right now.  He spends his day in class (and in the hall, corridor, playground, forest…) learning, developing, honing, sharing, discussing and enjoying skills.  Each Monday is different from the last.  He learns literacy skills whilst studying chemical changes, numeracy skills studying WWII, empathy skills studying the Stuarts and so on.  He can work both independently and as part of a small team to solve challenges such as ‘create a web-page to warn people what to do in case of a tsunami’ or ‘present a business pitch to a bank manager to raise capital for a small business’.  He can learn from older students and teach younger ones.  He can take skills learned in one context and apply them in another.  He has the confidence and responsibility to talk to adults and children he is introduced to.  He can explain why he is performing any given task during school time, the relevance of the task, the skills it is developing and how he can improve upon his current performance.  He is in charge of his learning.  He doesn’t sit the same type of tests his cousin did eight years ago.  His headteacher asks Dave’s teacher to prove how the class have developed and achieved.  The teacher showed the headteacher a small sample of children’s achievements and, because the headteacher knew the class teacher was a skilled assessor and moderator she trusted the teacher’s judgements.  When the board of governors and local councillors asked the headteacher to demonstrate how the school was doing a good job, she invited them to the school to see some presentations.  The children sent invitations to the governors and councillors so the adults could join their Wikis, view their blogs, contribute to their Google docs.  The councillors were impressed and because they trusted teachers and schools, they knew the children’s achievements were truly indicative of their skills and abilities.  The press had an ongoing and mutually respectful relationship with the school so they were au fait with the process of education and the value of developing skills and capacities.  They
reported schools’ and children’s successes on an ongoing basis and readers could see which schools were achieving at any point in the year.


Teachers, I believe, have always wanted to focus on developing successful, responsible, highly skilled, motivated, autonomous, effective, confident pupils (at least I never met one who didn’t at least pretend to) yet we were hampered; hampered by the ‘live or die by the results’ ethos nurtured by the government, press, wider public and (sorry) members of our own profession.  We had to get results or face rebuke, criticism or worse.  So what did we do – we made sure we taught our kids what we knew they would be assessed and reported on rather than what we thought they should beable to do.


Very few of us are lucky enough to teach in Dave’s Utopia and many of us still operate in John’s 2004.  Lots of us however are moving in the right direction.  For us to get to a situation where we are allowing pupils to develop the skills necessary to succeed in an uncertain future (according to individual ability, interest and need) certain things need to happen.


1)      Abolish SATs and all equivalent one size fits all measurements of unimportant, lower order skills.  If we want to teach real skills, let us measure them.  Sure it will be harder to quantify achievement in terms which can be gathered easily and compared between schools, but we will be placing importance on what is important.  Whilst SAT style tests may be comparable (in that each child gets the same regardless of establishment), they are not reliable (because when there is such an emphasis placed on narrow testing, teachers will be tempted to teach to the test at the expense of other learning opportunities, or even cheat).  Neither are they valid because they assess only lower order cognitive skill sets, i.e. recall and comprehension, with no indication placed upon higher order skills such as analysis, evaluation, creativity etc.

2)      Abolish league tables for exactly the same reasons as outlined above.  An effective partnership between schools and skilled, knowledgeable and experienced link council officers would negate the improvement element of league tables and if really done well will also negate the need for OFSTED or HMIe (sorry, the inspection arm of Education Scotland).

3)      The press, government, wider public, parents and governors need to trust teachers’ abilities to teach, assess and accurately report against a set of rigorous and nationally agreed standard for skills development which include literacy and numeracy skills amongst many other transferable and subject specific skill sets.

4)      Educational professionals working for central government (in the DfES, or Education Scotland) and informed by research carried out by practitioners and academics, need to provide the aforementioned standard.

5)      Teachers need to have access to genuinely productive CPD to allow them to become skilled assessors and moderators of skills – there are no two ways about it, this will be expensive or will require a radical rethink on how we ‘do’ CPD.

6)      Teachers need to swallow some brave pills and realise that teaching children to be successful, responsible, highly skilled, motivated, autonomous, effective, confident learners will make them more, not less, likely to pass tests and exams.  Focus on the former and achieve
the latter.

7)      The public perception of ‘teacher’ needs to be updated to reflect the levels of professionalism and skill which are required to do this very complex job.


I think we will find number seven
will be a result and not a pre-condition or the first six points.

Anne - February 8, 2012 - 6:31 pm

Brilliant post Jay – I agree totally with all of the points you suggest – and I really enjoyed the comparison of John’s and Dave’s experiences! What really resonates with me though is the need for the ‘set of rigorous and nationally agreed standard for skills development which include literacy and numeracy skills amongst many other transferable and subject specific skill sets’. There is still so much mis-information out there with regards to what we are trying to do under CfE in Scotland. Only this week someone told me that spelling didn’t matter under CfE, that it was about producing well-rounded, confident pupils. Ahem… ‘highly skilled’ is what we’re after along with all the rest. P.S. Give us a shout if there are any vacancies at Dave’s school. :D

Caroline - March 15, 2012 - 8:59 pm

As a newbie to this blog, I am interested in what you have to say both as teacher and a parent.
This is a very exciting time to be in the profession- we have more freedom and flexibility than ever, but as ever freedom comes with responsibilty.
I agree with Anne that the skills we teach children must be useful to them and transferable. We have a huge and sometimes daunting responsibility in ensuring that our children are as ready as they can be for an ever changing and uncertain world.
However we mustn’t let go of what we know to be important foundations in literacy and numeracy. Yes spelling is important!-try using predictive text without a rudimentary knowledge of spelling rules. There are a few natural linguists out there who absorb spelling knowledge through their natural affinity and interest in books and reading. However the rest need a systematic method of learning and teaching-this doesn’t mean copying out long lists of spelling words. We can be creative and inventive in engaging our children.
We musn’t scorn the lower order skills as they are a rung on the ladder taking us to the higher order skills-otherwise our houses of learning are built on sand!
It’s called Curriculum for Excellence for a reason.

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