Teachers across the country are welcoming thousands of children and teenagers back for another year of learning. But there will be more empty chairs in some classrooms this September. The controversy at St Olave’s Grammar School in Orpington, south-east London – with its decision to exclude students who had, in its opinion, done poorly in their AS levels – is symptomatic of an education system which is leaving vast numbers of our students behind.
As a secondary school teacher for nearly 20 years, I've witnessed first-hand all the targets imposed on our schools. I cannot help but feel a slight pang of sympathy with the decision made by St Olave’s. It’s not that we should defend its actions or that I would ever want my own school to go down a similar route. Rather, it’s that we have to see what it did in the context of the entire education system.
To be a student or a teacher today is to feel a weight of pressure: to know that you’re being judged constantly and often by people who know little about your school, your community or even education. The entire worth of an individual student has been ground down to the statistical marks they get in the multitude of tests undergone from the age of 7. Sats, GCSEs, and A levels – teachers and pupils are reduced to figures on a spreadsheet. We are all being constantly judged and, in that context, it is unsurprising that schools will take every step they can to attain the highest grades and lose the lowest.
But it’s not just teachers and students who have been debased – it’s learning as well. I didn't go into teaching just to impart numbers, dates, and facts at people – it was to see my students grow, gain confidence, question, find their inspiration and generate enthusiasm for learning. It’s become impossible for children or their teachers to see the sky as being our limit when we are shackled to earth by exams, league tables and inspections.
The impact that’s having on young people is disgraceful, and it cannot go on. In a 2016 survey for Parent Zone, 93 per cent of teachers reported seeing increased rates of mental illness among children and teenagers, and research by the mental health charity Young Minds has found that exams are a significant trigger for mental illness in young people.
So this is a rallying cry for teachers across the country, for education professionals, for anyone who cares about the welfare of young people and the quality of their future. We must change education for good.
Children should start school at 7
And that starts by asking a simple yet crucial question: what is education for? I believe it’s to nurture, to encourage values of compassion and cooperation, and to prepare people for their future life. As a party, we would have children start formal schooling at age 7, as is the case in Scandinavia – not age 5. This reflects the enormous amount of research out there that shows that until that age children still need to be spending time doing the kind of activities that set them up not only for school but for life: learning to socialise, to explore and play. As the campaign group Too Much, Too Soon has shown, early education brings no long-term benefits to children but can harm them and their later attainment.
Secondly, we need to significantly reduce the exam pressure placed on children. The kind of culture that early years education is supposed to provide – one of creativity and exploration – should not just be limited to those years. But obviously, there is no space for these kinds of values in a lesson plan centred around cramming kids’ brains full of facts that they will no doubt forget the minute they leave their exams. That is why the Green Party would scrap Sats – a pointless pressure placed on students far too early in school life.
And lastly, we need to take the pressure off teachers who, under the current system, are not just teachers but also administrators, managers and fillers-in of copious forms. Often we are made to feel like criminals, constantly looking over our shoulder for the next Ofsted inspection or the next publication of school league tables which – rather like the exams the students themselves receive – can determine your reputation amongst your peers. The Green Party would scrap Ofsted and replace it with a National Council of Educational Excellence, tasked with working with local authorities to help improve and develop the education system in their area.
I know that my fellow teachers are sick of reforms and sudden changes to their teaching practices, but I also know that many feel that the current system is broken. They could get behind change if they felt it was going in the right direction. And that is what I believe the Green Party vision would help achieve.
Vix Lowthion is the Green Party's education spokeswoman and teacher