The whole story

Mike Kent

The Sats tests for children in Year 6 are changing - the new ones are going to be much tougher. There's even a suggestion that failing children might have to spend part of their summer holiday in a local secondary school as teachers try to get them up to speed. I bet teachers and students will be over the moon about that.

A glance at the new tests makes you question the minds compiling them. Take English, for example. We're told that pupils will be asked to identify subordinate clauses, recognise adverbials and use the subjunctive. Then the children will be asked whether a given sentence contains a simile, onomatopoeia or alliteration. Are the compilers trying to put children off literature for life?

At the age of 11, I wouldn't have known onomatopoeia if it had jumped up and bitten me, but I was already fired by literature. Why? Because I was fortunate in having a mother who had read widely, cared deeply about books and whose greatest wish was to instil a similar love in her children. We explored many classics together: The Coral Island, Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, Peter Pan. She would often stop and savour a paragraph, asking me to listen to the way the sentences had been assembled, or to the rhythm of a sequence of words.

Then, at primary school, there were teachers who loved reading aloud to the class. I particularly remember Miss Webb's skill at dividing a story into segments that enabled her to stop at a cliffhanger. How well I remember fearing for the little girl in Old Peter's Russian Tales being chased across the hills by Baba Yaga, the evil, iron-toothed witch. And, oh, the anxiety I felt for Pinocchio as he hammered on the door of the fairy's house to escape the murderous fox and cat. Would the fairy come down in time? I had to wait on tenterhooks for a whole day to find out.

As a headteacher, I felt the rot had really started to set in when I watched student teachers handing out extracts of a well-known story with a set of questions underneath, asking the children to identify verbs, adverbs, subordinate clauses and metaphors. Wouldn't it be better, I often asked, if they simply read the story in its entirety, enthused over the use of language and pointed out how certain words and phrases made the sentences come alive?

Usually the student teacher would say that, yes, they would prefer to do that, but their lecturers had suggested that this way would help the children with their tests.

There's no doubt that it would, but is that really what the aim should be? Young children are wonderfully alive to the world around them, and if they are sufficiently excited about the language they are exposed to, they will be inspired to create their own stories, poems and plays. And they will want to share their joy with others.

It won't happen though. The politicians have spoken, the world's a stage and we teachers are merely obedient players. There's a metaphor in there somewhere. Not that it matters, of course.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. His new book, A Life At The Chalkface, is available now, published by Bretwalda Books. Email:

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