Teaching to the letter is going too far

15th March 2013 at 00:00
Our competitive concentration on English and maths narrows learning, Jo Brighouse says

I've got a new addiction - online Scrabble - and I've taken to it like an Ofsted inspector to a clipboard. Technology's a strange thing. Scrabble in the real world is a dusty box on top of the wardrobe, reserved for power cuts and wet holidays in caravans. Stick a Scrabble board on my bedside table with the words "Your move" written on it and I'd use it to stand my book on. But put it on a shiny touchscreen hooked up to play your friends online and I'm reaching for the iPad to formulate my next word the second the alarm goes off.

I'm currently mesmerised by words with Q and J in them. When listening to a child sound out a long word in guided reading, I'm silently calculating its score, and I've been absent-mindedly rearranging the foam letters in my toddler's bath to form winning combinations. The best thing about the game is seeing your scores computed in the bottom right-hand corner. My desperate need for my score to edge higher than my opponent's (especially if I'm playing my husband) is overwhelming.

The competitive gene is a strong one. Faster, higher, stronger, thinner, blonder, richer: the urge to outdo those around you is extremely powerful, at work, in the playground and most definitely on television, where life is a constant bake-offdance-offsing-offdive-off.

Even teaching is becoming ultra-competitive. Where once teachers were trusted and left alone, and staff helped each other, nowadays we're all locked in one great teach-off, where colleagues are pitted against each other in the race to show maximum progress in an Ofsted-approved manner. Now that the scrapping of the national pay scale is effectively turning every headteacher into Simon Cowell, surely it's only a matter of time before our performance-management sessions will require all staff to teach for eight hours solid, bake the perfect meringue, knock their colleagues off a slippery pole with a pile of moderated books and defeat a dragon before they can gain access to the headteacher's office, where a solitary pay rise sits in a locked vault guarded by goblins.

Although a bit of competition can be healthy, the categories of success in education have become so narrow it's like holding the Olympics and only bothering to give medals for the 100m and the relay. If you don't excel in English and maths, chances are you're unlikely to shine.

Our headteacher (whose desperate urge to outrank the local schools in the league tables makes Alex Ferguson's Champions League campaign look lacklustre and half-hearted) is putting all his efforts into this year's Sats cohort. He's given the Year 6 teacher a "revision timetable" that includes just three subjects: English and maths, with a sliver of science sandwiched into every afternoon.

For nearly a term and a half there will be no PE, no ICT, no art, DT, RE, music, history or geography. Every day for three months the 10- and 11-year-olds will work through old Sats papers, practise grammar and mental maths skills, and write and rewrite until their pens run out. This isn't education, it's the worst kind of battery-style cramming. Yes, it might temporarily nudge some children into the level 4 zone, but the overall result will be bored, fidgety kids dependent on spoon-fed learning and, come September, a host of disbelieving Year 7 teachers.

If Ofsted hadn't made the fear of slipping down the league tables so great, schools might be prepared to take more risks with their Year 6 curriculum. Improving literacy and numeracy skills needn't be at odds with teaching a range of subjects but, under some leadership teams, even the most creative of teachers will struggle to deliver the kind of broad and inspiring curriculum that students need, especially as many of these children come from homes where talents in art, music and PE may not be spotted.

We owe it to these children to give them as many experiences and opportunities as possible while they're at primary school. It's hugely important that they become literate and numerate but judging them purely on this is selling them short. If our competitive urge means we spend the whole of Year 6 obsessing over improper fractions and subordinate clauses, who's going to spot Beethoven in the corner?

Jo Brighouse teaches at a primary school in the Midlands.

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