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‘We used to blame the students if they underperformed; now we blame ourselves’

This Easter, teachers will be anxiously worrying about what they could have done to improve pupil performance. Meanwhile, exam-focused education is turning children into precious little Easter bunnies, a history teacher writes

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Ah, the Easter holiday! Surely a time for teachers to celebrate the beginnings of spring – a chance to savour the extra daylight and the return of crocuses and cricket, to listen to dawn choruses, to touch base with good old Mother Nature again, maybe even reacquaint ourselves with the mating season?

Well, no. It won’t be quite like that. Never has been, in fairness. Seasoned pros will confirm that the spring break has never been an especially restful one. There has always been a looming stack of GCSE or A-level coursework to mark at some stage during the fortnight, every sacred text pored over in time for that other annual spring festival: Moderation Monday.

Three times as much chocolate

As with Easter, Moderation Monday is a movable feast, though a feast normally requiring about three times as much chocolate. This special day of monastic contemplation and gentle departmental discourse is traditionally held on the eve of the new term. It must never be held before the first new moon of April and – it being a leap year – it is to be celebrated this year on the third Monday after the mysterious planet Morgan has described its elliptical path over the heads of awestruck delegates at the annual NASUWT conference.

One thing that has changed in the holiday, however, is the new level of anxiety whenever we are marking said coursework. We used to blame the students if they underperformed and only wrote about two pages; now we have become accustomed to blaming ourselves. We should have channelled them, chased them, made sure they attended at least one of the 47 lunchtime catch-up sessions. The problem was our lack of commitment, not theirs.

Batch-baking

The other recent change to many teachers' spring holiday is the emergence of the now-customary Easter Revision Programme at their school – currently taking pride of place on most school websites. Teachers agree to go in to offer intensive extra revision sessions, usually for no extra pay. This is quite an extraordinary state of affairs and yet teachers tend to be extraordinary and selfless people. They will spend hours preparing meticulously for these unpaid extra lessons, as well as batch-baking cakes to take in and buying in a few other sweeteners for their often rather resentful holiday-time class.

In fairness, this seemingly limitless extra support, in and out of term-time (including lunch-times, after-school and at weekends), does improve schools’ exam results. And it does mean that more children from more apathetic, homework-free homes are likely to get better grades than equivalent students were 20 years ago. In fact, students in general tend to get better-looking grades; teachers and schools get better ratings.

However, what do such grades now mean? This controlling, exam-focused “education” means that pupils’ academic independence, sense of responsibility, initiative, curiosity and enthusiasm have every reason to diminish as they get older, rather than to grow. The government claims that they are now preparing students for the global market; I fear that we are increasingly preparing precious little Easter bunnies.

Higher qualities

The things left in school that genuinely do still encourage the development of higher qualities in children – namely artistic performance, sports teams, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, charitable activities and the like – are, as we know, considered irrelevant when it comes to school ratings and rankings. Even if such subjects are taken as exams, they are now all considered inferior, compared with the supposedly more rigorous English Baccalaureate.

Yet I have just seen incredible dramatic and musical performances in schools – one at my own school and one at my daughter’s. This is one part of education that still feels so inspiring and developmental for children. But there isn’t a progress grading or an exam in sight, so the achievement here was completely irrelevant as far as assessing student progress and league tables were concerned. 

Meanwhile, the secretary of state is claiming to be taking measures to address the excessive-workload issue. She does not seem to appreciate that the root problem for teachers is the high-stakes context in which we work. We are a profession twisted and contorted by league tables, performance-linked pay and a similarly ill-conceived inspection system. If she could just punch a great big hole this holiday in each of these three grotesque Easter bonnets, we would surely remember this as the most brilliant spring and New Beginning of them all.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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