‘Fail’ doesn’t mean failure

10th June 2016 at 00:00

I haven’t been in college as much as I should have of late because I’ve spent a fair chunk of time in our local church primary school. It was Sats week and the school needed an independent observer to make sure procedures were followed properly during the course of the tests.

Ours is a little school – we have only a dozen pupils in Year 6. We are not very diverse either and all of the pupils are expected to do well. To add pressure to an already tricky week, Ofsted decided to pay us a visit. We’ve been expecting them for about 18 months, but it did seem desperately unfair of them to pick this week of all weeks. The school is not used to failing and I know exactly where they are coming from.

I know how this might sound, but I’ve never really failed at anything in my life, partly because I usually try things that I know I can do (which is a complete cop out). When it looked as though I might fail to get a C grade in my maths GCSE, I sacrificed revising all the other subjects to focus instead on that.

I’m also one of those bizarre creatures who prefers tests and exams to constant assessment and coursework. The pressure brings out the best in me. So when I came in for the Sats this week, I didn’t expect to find them so difficult. You know what it’s like when you’re invigilating an exam: once the candidates are off and running, you have a quick flick through the paper. It was hard. Like, really hard. Some of the brightest graduates in the country have found the Year 6 Sats tricky. I concur.

Testing is not a new thing, of course. My mum and dad still remember their 11+ exams as if they were yesterday and talk in hushed tones about how almost everyone they knew “failed”.

Not long ago, there was talk of putting the college’s service staff on courses to improve their maths and English. There was nearly a mass walkout. Management struggled to grasp what all the fuss was about and why someone wouldn’t want to “improve their skills”.

Jean, who has cleared the tables in the canteen for eight years, confessed to me: “I’ve failed every exam I’ve ever done. I’m thick, love. Why do I need better maths to wipe tables?”

Of course, Jean isn’t thick. As the saying goes: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its life thinking it is stupid.”

Exams and testing are no different from anything else: moderation and balance are the key. We need tests, yes, but we also need other forms of assessment. FE is full of people who failed tests and believe themselves to be failures. If all I’d ever done was this year’s Sats maths paper, I’d think I was a failure, too.

Rev Kate Bottley is chaplain of North Nottinghamshire College @revkatebottley

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