Stuck in the middle

Mike Kent

In a recent television debate, Michael Gove was criticised for ignoring advice from educational experts. The education secretary replied that he listened to a wide range of views, but that ultimately his role was to make a decision. Then he stated that his aim was simple: to increase the life chances of every child by making sure they had access to the best possible education. Well, most politicians say that, and I shouldn't think there is a teacher in the land who would disagree with that aim. It's the way politicians and their civil servants go about it that gives teachers so much cause for concern.

When I started out in headship, an experienced local headteacher gave me the benefit of his wisdom. "When you want to make a major change in your school," he said, "decide what you're going to do and have a staff meeting to listen to everybody's views. Then ignore them and just do what you were going to do in the first place." That seems to be the mantra of our political masters now, and if we look back at the most essential areas of the primary curriculum, the amount of inept government meddling is astonishing. Take literacy, for example, because nothing could be more important for young children than that.

Forty years ago, primary children were encouraged to write in a stream-of-consciousness style. Teachers were told it would ensure that they gained writing confidence. Everything a child put down on paper needed to be "celebrated", and although a teacher might discuss with the child what had been written, it was not acceptable to criticise spelling, grammar or punctuation, if indeed there was any, and even less acceptable to put any marks or alterations on the work with a correcting pen.

This meant that many children, particularly those in challenging inner-city areas, could reach leaving age at primary school and barely be able to write. Most primary teachers were very concerned about this, but schools were under enormous pressure not to deviate from the accepted philosophies, so they didn't. Secondary teachers were even unhappier, because they had to pick up the pieces and train children to pass exams. If they couldn't write, there wasn't much chance of that.

Parents complained, the politicians began to worry, and the national curriculum and then the literacy hour were introduced. The pendulum swung fully in the opposite direction. Every primary school had to make sure it undertook literacy work for a minimum of an hour a day, the hour had to be organised in a prescribed manner and a large box of specific teaching materials was sent to every primary school at enormous expense. Every child had to undertake timed writing exercises and they were given chunks of text to analyse and punctuate. Creative writing, such a feature of the past, was no longer acceptable. Even today, young children aren't given appropriate opportunities to use their imaginations when writing. Where writing should be a joy, it has evolved into a diet of comprehension questions and practice tests, and many children just find it boring.

We lurch from pillar to post and the poor primary teacher is always caught in the middle. The politician knows best, common sense is never a feature and everything is sacrificed for the sake of short-term and questionable test-passing.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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Mike Kent

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