A pupil from 28 years ago has written to me. Her stories of our time together made me depressed about the test junkies we now produce

9th March 2016 at 15:55
Primary teaching
She remembered an in-depth project we’d done on Diwali that had transformed her life. In today’s data-obsessed schools, there’s no way we could do anything similar, one celebrated headteacher writes

Teachers often ask themselves: "Why do we do this?"

Most of us are lucky enough to answer by simply saying we love the job. However, I am sure we have all experienced bad days when that is not enough.

This week, I received a letter that answered my question another way. It actually was a letter, too, with a real stamp, sitting on my desk. It was beautifully written and over five pages long. It was from a pupil of mine from 28 years ago. Let's call her Emma.

My first reaction was to exclaim to myself that I can't really be that old; my second was to be intrigued as to why by someone would write so much after all that time.

Emma had seen one of my previous TES articles after it had bounced around her friends on social media and finally appeared in one of her newsfeeds. She recognised the man in the picture as one of her teachers, even though the moustache had now gone.

In my piece, I had explained that we were now delivering our children a painfully reduced curriculum, while the testing regime was truly crippling us.

But now I had received this letter from Emma, and it reached right into the heart of what I was trying to express.

Emma, now 38, talked of her favourite memory of her entire school life. It was a series of Year 6 lessons on Diwali with her teacher Mr Harris. We had studied this topic in depth: we had talked and debated, compared and performed and actually made things. We had Hindu visitors who spent time with us and shared their thoughts and feelings, and then we visited their temples.

It was a time when we could explore such subjects in depth and, as Emma said, “It made me realise that people, religions and culture can be so incredibly different from anything I'd seen before.” In the area that we served, this was especially important.

Of course, this was a time with fewer external pressures and no national curriculum. We had the time to immerse the children in their learning: we could get them to feel it as well as learn it.

And it would appear that it had an impact on this young lady at the time. She continued: “I realised that the world is huge and fascinating and that I wanted to see more of it.”

She went on to explain how that work had influenced her life. She had spent long periods in India and Nepal and had “lots of other adventures”, as she put it. But her highlight was her time spent in India, which she put down to that Diwali project we did when she was 10. How wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong: I know our schools in 2016 try to do many things and that includes trying to let our children explore. However, those of us of a certain age know we just feather-touch these projects, and certainly do not go into the depth we once did.

What we have instead is an educational landscape that turns our children into test junkies, moving on from one test paper to another.

Why? Because we have a system led by data: data which ultimately decides whether a school is good or bad.

As a headteacher, it hurts me to write such things, but I do feel genuinely sorry for our children at present. Emma says it better than I possibly could: “I feel sorry for the children now, whose school experience is so prescribed by the curriculum. But I worry also for all the future 10 year olds who will most likely never experience in the way I did. They'll be too busy with constant training for tests.”

There is no doubt that this year has seen an assessment debacle. However, can we see any government changing the present regime of testing that restricts creativity, nullifies self-belief, narrows our children's learning and stops them from reaching their potential?

As educationalists, we should and can serve our children better. Why? Well, turn to Emma again: 'Thank you Mr Harris for providing us with such a vibrant and expansive Year 6. I can still feel its ripples now.”

Come on, folks. Let's create more ripples.



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