A social media storm was created last week when a primary school headteacher wrote a letter to parents telling them why he was resigning from a job that he loved.
Jeremy Gargan, headteacher at Aycliffe Village Primary School in County Durham, could no longer defend a primary curriculum and tests that put “undue pressure, not just on our pupils, but on our hard-working staff too.” Mr Gargan told parents that “teaching to the test is becoming a norm and there is a move away from a broad and balanced curriculum”. In particular, he was concerned that the standards set for Year 2 and Year 6 pupils had been raised to a point where the pupils are “being set up to fail”.
But Mr Gargan is not alone in his concerns about the primary curriculum and its associated testing. Recently, I received a letter from Cambridgeshire primary heads who told me: “Our view is that decades of compromise with and acceptance of the reform programmes of successive governments has led us to a moment of crisis. There is now a feeling of constant uncertainty, a high-stakes culture and a level of stress for teachers and children that is totally unsustainable…’’
'Mummy, I'm rubbish'
And, yesterday, I received a letter from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, which is profoundly concerned about the current key stage 2 maths national curriculum. Anne Haworth, chair of the association, wrote: ‘‘…to be mathematically competent, people need to be able to approach tasks with flexibility, selecting methods that are appropriate and efficient for the task. The curriculum allows many methods to be developed for flexible use. However, contrary to this, the tests are constructed in a way that emphasises particular methods. The nature of the tests will encourage teachers and schools to focus on written methods rather than developing mental and flexible problem-solving. The requirement to learn multiplication facts (times tables) up to 12 is archaic (and is contrary to the advice given to the DfE by professional and learned organisations…and indeed in Shanghai tables are learnt only to nine times or 10 times).’’
And – just to keep you up-to-date with my correspondence – today I received an email from a parent who is obviously deeply concerned about the pressure which is being placed on her six-year-old child. She wrote: ‘‘I just wanted to share with you a conversation I had with my daughter, as I was reading her stories at bedtime. We had gone over her spellings for this week this evening, in preparation for the test tomorrow. The words are 'cried', 'hunted', 'annoy', 'stitch' and 'future'.
‘‘While I was reading, and I thought she was nodding off, she suddenly interrupted me and said: ‘Mummy, I'm worried about the test tomorrow as I don't think I'll get them all right.’ I assured her she had worked hard to learn them and that Daddy and I weren't going to be cross regardless of how many she got right, but she should try her best. (Earlier today, when she kept getting 'future' wrong she'd got frustrated and said she was ‘rubbish’ at spelling. This is simply not true, but the effects of these tests on a six-year-old are evident.)
‘‘Then she said: 'Miss Smith (her teacher) said she doesn't like giving us tests but she has to...’. I said yes, that was true and it was the government that was expecting her to do it. She seemed to accept this as the government and what this is, is currently far removed from her reality or comprehension.’’
Something rotten in the state of education
Taken together, these tales of woe should be of grave concern to education secretary Nicky Morgan and schools minister Nick Gibb. They speak of something rotten in the state of our education system – which is that education ministers have quite inappropriate levels of power and influence when it comes to determining what our children should be taught and how they should be tested.
Nick Gibb has some powerful convictions. He believes that synthetic phonics is the only way to learn how to read; he believes that learning the 12 times tables are a fundamental basis for effective mathematical learning; he believes that the naming of grammatical parts is a prerequisite for learning how to write. Under his watch, pupils as young as 6 are now required to learn grammatical terminology – nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, noun phrases, past and present tense, progressive form, statements, questions and commands.
As I have written before – but it bears repeating – as an experiment, I took questions from the KS2 spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPaG) tests to a university seminar, attended by MA and PhD graduates. I gave them the test questions and allowed them to confer – and they could only answer about half of them correctly. And, just to reassure you, they were highly able writers. Let us remind ourselves, the SPaG tests are to be taken by 11-year-olds.
All over the country, we now have writing lessons where children are given their writing back if it does not include a fronted adverbial, or an exclamation mark in a sentence beginning with how, or what, and other such nonsense. What should be a creative act is becoming a rule-bound chore.
I agree with Mr Gargan when he writes that children are being set up to fail. This is because they are being required to study a curriculum which is entirely inappropriate, tested in a way that denies them a broad and balanced learning experience and which will, for too many, result in stress, disappointment and disaffection from school, and from learning.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL