As the mercury hits 30 degrees, and schools finally breath a collective sigh of relief at the end of term, the government makes its latest summer announcement. And it was hot. Proposed baseline testing for 5 year olds and secondary ready testing at age 11. Wow! Each child, including children with special needs, will be ranked against each other. Clear, straightforward and necessary to ensure pupil progress. Or is it?
I am loath to react to this latest “good” idea and instead would like to respond based on my experience as a teacher and latterly principal. Integral to the learning of a child is engagement with that learning. The best model of education is one where children learn effortlessly because they are immersed in their learning. Teachers are placed on their mettle because this model is without a doubt a pedagogical challenge. There needs to be real inspirational teaching as well as a focus on the needs of individuals.
Our junior school pushed the boundaries of its curriculum at the end of the summer term in a way which was challenging for staff. A collapsed timetable, a visit to the Harry Potter studios, and an entirely new learning environment was created. At one point, after a chemistry lesson on potions, a year 4 girl was overheard to say that she did not realise she was learning. A raptor demonstration was both about the owls at Hogwarts and the life of the owl in real life. And the Howlers produced on the iPads captured the digital skills of the children and their love of “telling off” Harry Potter style. The children were both actively engaged with and enjoying their learning.
Within the fabric of the junior school we believe that we need to create inspirational spaces. Our aim to inspire our pupils to embrace the power of the story is manifest in the reconfiguration of our junior school library. Adjacent to a room which is designed to encourage children to relax and read is a story courtyard with cultural references to classics in children’s literature. We seek to pique the interest of our pupils – incite curiosity. The signature “Lion, the witch and the wardrobe” lamp post acts as a focal point of the courtyard.
And inspiration is crucial. The focus on assessment fails to acknowledge the importance of inspiring children to believe in themselves and to believe they can dream. The proposed benchmark testing leaves little space for encouraging self belief. The child is pigeon holed and marked as a percentile of his/her cohort which I find profoundly depressing.
The debate about standards in education rages around us. Of course, we care that our children achieve their true potential. But the blunt instrument of testing is akin to using a stick without carrot. Assessment is an essential element in education. Yet to use this tool on its own without acknowledging the importance of inspiration in learning in the class room is for the government to fall into its own Gradgrindian trap.
League tables are all well and good but if they don’t measure what we value – the individual – then we need to take a long, hard look at their function. The individual trumps every time for me.