'This testing regime heaps so much pressure on school leaders – I may be forced to work abroad'

Schools in China concentrate on providing a broad and balanced education – yet schools here, in desperate pursuit of the right 'results', have to narrow their focus, writes one leading primary head

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I recently spent a week and a half visiting schools in China. I visited three schools in Chongqing (a city of over 20 million in the south) and three in Zhuhai (not far from Hong Kong).

The experience left me wondering about how we are approaching education in England and, in particular, our obsession with testing core academic elements at the cost of a broad and balanced curriculum. On more than one occasion my Chinese hosts were utterly confused by our accountability system and testing.

The schools I visited in China seemed to be developing education as we did about 15 years ago. Every school I visited absolutely lived and breathed a broad and balanced curriculum. From morning tug-of-wars, running, tai chi, painting, drumming, art, calligraphy, drama, philosophy, music, dance, tea ceremonies, cultural celebrations and modern foreign languages (English).

They were really interested in how we helped children to experience skills beyond the classroom. Every school had a wealth of extra curricular lessons throughout the day.

What hit me harder was this...

China is investing in its education infrastructure. China is recognising the influence that education – in particular, quality resources – has on the future direction of their country. They clearly have the future in their sights and, from what I saw, it will be very bright.

It will produce driven, ambitious, happy and rounded young people. Based on what I saw, there is no doubt that education in China is stronger than at any other time and just imagine where that will lead.

Then I came home.

The stark reality of school leadership

The clocks went back and I read about Brexit and further cuts to school budgets. I have the hardest performance management review of my career because "results" are not good enough. This was despite me having to steady a massive organisation through times of uncertainty (curriculum and financial) and ensure that the school is offering quality provision across the organisation (which everyone recognised it "really" was).

The test results were not good enough.

Therefore, I did not do a good enough job. It's hard to take but I blame no one but myself and the direction and pressure put upon schools (especially school governors) by the government.

This may be why, this week, I had serious conversations with my wife about leaving this country to work elsewhere. If results do not improve this year then I will have no choice. That is a lot of pressure but it is the stark reality of school leadership in the UK today.

My option is simple: improve Sats results.

Now, I'm not talking disaster results last year; 61 per cent reading, 61 per cent writing, 82 per cent SPaG and 73 per cent mathematics. But pressure on school leaders is now at breaking point.

I know that everything I have achieved in 12 years of headship will very likely come down to what happens this year on a few days in May. Try shaking that out of your dreams.

No wonder some schools talk about unethical practice, bullying senior leaders and a lack of moral purpose in education.

When I look at books and practice in my school, it is the best I have ever seen, especially for Year 6. What they can do leaves me in awe. Therefore, where are we going wrong?

I am in such a bubble as a leader and that bubble is surrounded by many pressures: child protection, staff wellbeing, parent pressures, staff development, behaviour concerns, progress concerns, medical concerns, personal pressure... None are more likely to burst your bubble than a set of Sats results that look weaker than you expected.

Therefore, how do I address it? How do I keep my moral purpose as an educator but ensure that children get through the toughest tests ever and improve on previous results?

If I do it, if results improve, does that make me a better headteacher than last year? I know the answer to that.

When results improve this year (and I know they will), it will not be because I have become a better headteacher; it will be because I increased my leadership focus (time) and the time of my other senior leaders on the narrow elements of reading, writing and mathematics in Year 6. I will do this at the cost of something else.

Teaching to the test

Nothing about a broad and balanced curriculum would really help children through last year's reading test. Test technique and knowledge of what to expect would you through that test. Therefore time, resources and emphasis need to be distributed to this aspect of schooling – at the cost of other elements.

What will happen is standards will improve. Nationally, more children will reach the standard this year and politicians will roll out saying that their policy is working.

Children in Year 6 will leave with the technical ability to include parenthesis in their writing but their experiences of learning (and of school) will not be broad and balanced.

Surely there needs to be a balance in education and I believe that the testing pressures have tipped that balance so far away from giving children broad experiences in school that people like me (who are proud of what they have achieved in education) have no choice but to narrow the focus because there is no other alternative.

Maybe, I have been too simple in my belief that primary education is a life experience full of hope and opportunity.

I believe that the most numerate and literate generation of pupils are already leaving our schools; they just don't know what it is to experience music, drama, art, fun and childhood like their Chinese peers (the ones I saw).

When I did some work looking at why the top universities tended to take from private schools, a very senior executive from the oil and gas multinational Shell said this (and it has stuck with me): "When we interview graduates there is very little between the ability of any candidates regarding academic subjects. Where children from private schools do better is they have broader experiences. They can communicate life experiences beyond those their state school peers can."

I paraphrase but that is what he meant.

By narrowing primary experiences down to core academic elements we do nothing to improve the long-term chances of pupils who come up against children who have varied life experiences. 

By pressurising school leaders into no other success criteria, we do even less.

Soon graduates from England will be competing internationally with peers from a country of well over 1 billion people who now give their children daily, varied and exciting opportunities beyond academic rigour.

They seem to recognise the importance of this. We don't.

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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