Think of a world without any examinations.
What would you teach? How would you ensure that the children in your care were developing the skills they needed – for themselves and for others, for enjoyment, for life?
Who would make the decision on what is taught? Who “quality assures” it? What does a free-for-all look like?
I’m 46 years of age and am probably part of the last tranche of teachers who were “taught to teach” without the aid of the National Curriculum. Every single teacher who’s gone through Teacher Training since I was awarded my teaching certificate has had a curriculum that they needed to follow.
Whilst the lucky few have been given some autonomy in schools to bring a little of their own personality into how they taught, there are very few who have had complete autonomy on what was taught. Since 1989 this was no longer possible.
The majority of teachers teaching at the moment (assuming that the majority are under 45) have never had to consider what they might want to teach. The content has always been spoon-fed to them. With the emergence of the Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in the late 90s, they were also told how to teach, right down to the minutes in each lesson that they should concentrate of phonemes or mental arithmetic.
No longer could you drop everything if a major story broke in the news – unless it covered the learning intention of understanding opinion. If that great story broke on Autumn Term One, Week Four and you weren’t doing “opinion” until Spring Term, Week Three, then tough!
If it was gloriously sunny and warm to the point that the heat in the classroom wasn’t conducive to learning, and you thought that the opportunity to get out to the local park to do some drawings and take some photographs was a more sensible thing to do, you weren’t allowed.
If a group of children had a huge argument, as groups of young people tend to do, you couldn’t drop everything to discuss this sensibly. It might take up valuable minutes of factual learning, when in point of fact, nobody was going to learn a thing that day because they were too upset.
What was even worse, if a child was fully engaged in some learning, like making a book with poetry, illustrations and all forms of technical design and technology – and it overran the allocated time because the children were so engrossed in the activity, you had to stop. You had to move onto the next activity and leave the child disillusioned by an incomplete piece of work. What sort of message was that giving?
Sadly, “us” teachers were indoctrinated; our imagination and skills were suppressed and we lost our ability to think for ourselves as to what would enthuse, enlighten, energise and educate the children in our care. “And” this obliteration of our individuality was set in doctrines and diktats of education policy.
Whoops! I’ve just failed Level Two Literacy for using the word “us” instead of “we” and a connective at the beginning of the sentence, even though I used a “wow” word such as “obliterate” in the same sentence. Hopefully the meaning that I was trying to portray wasn’t lost in these childish errors.
We are now awaiting the new National Curriculum, and as we’ve already mentioned in a previous blog, the Fact Fodder Merchants are out in force. Everyone wants their special area to be made compulsory. Everyone wants their particular historical interest or favourite book included. Mr Gove is determined, for instance, that our fifteen year olds are going to look at Dryden instead of looking at poetry that might be far more relevant to their own lives – perhaps the lyrics from a song, for instance.
Teachers around the country are eager to find out what they’ve got to teach, and then they’ll dash off to spend exhausting hours finding appropriate materials to support this form of teaching, preparing new lessons in accordance with the current educational fashion and will be grateful that they’ve got their crutch of a curriculum back. For the biggest indictment on our education system over the last few decades is the fact that politicians and policy makers have tried to rob teachers of their ability to think of appropriate content and learning styles for themselves.
We’d like to make it abundantly clear here that we’re not tarring all teachers with the same brush. There are thousands of brilliant teachers in our schools who’ve stuck to their principles and taken every glimmer of possibility to personalise the curriculum for their sanity and for the good of the children whom they teach. However, there are a percentage of teachers, as we’ve said, who’ve never had to think about content or even teaching style before, and they are frightened. They may well need a considerable amount of retraining too – training to think for themselves, should the curriculum enable them to do so.
Mr Gove has made it very clear that he wants the new National Curriculum to give teachers more freedom to teach what they want to teach, according to the needs of the children and young people in their care. This is indeed the only commendable statement that has come from the man since he was given the role of Secretary of State for Education. However, what Mr Gove seems to have forgotten is that many teachers aren’t prepared for this liberty.
So what are we going to do about it?
Let’s return to that first question at the beginning of this piece. What’s going to happen if we remove the exams? What are Year 6, Year 10 and 11 teachers going to do if Key Stage Two SATs and GCSEs are removed? What if the minister finally listens to what people are saying and decides that testing children at the age of sixteen, when the compulsory school-leaving age has advanced to eighteen, is madness?
Our beloved profession, however, isn’t prepared for such liberty, such is the level of indoctrination.
So we need to prepare teachers. We need to enlighten them as to what they could do without the constraints of an over-prescribed curriculum and a potential loss of examinations (we say hopefully, though goodness knows why because education policy-makers on both sides of the political divide seem committed to these pointless exams).
In good schools and with good teachers, assessment will always be an integral part of teaching. Without knowing what a child needs is as bad as the existing arrangement of testing them when you know damn fine that they’re not ready for tests. It is imperative that we look carefully at assessment and understand once and for all how young people can be involved in that assessment.
We need to look very carefully at local and individual needs, and plan a curriculum that resonates with and engages the learner.
Importantly, we need to be free to consider what is the purpose of education? What do we want to achieve? If we do indeed choose to feed them with dead poets like Dryden, then why are we doing that? If businesses are asking for the same skills that we feel are of value to children becoming adult human beings, then how are we going to teach these? If we are going to get rid of GCSEs then what sort of rounded and grounded education do we want to teach, and please, for goodness sake, let’s not see it as an opportunity to have another year of A-Levels with its constrained subject teaching.
The purpose should be clear. Engaging children in their learning, providing them with an opportunity to delve further into a subject that they enjoy has to be an aim for a post-GCSE life. Imagine going into a school where all children are learning according to their interest rather than compulsion? Imagine a child who thinks he can’t draw being given something like an iPad, or equivalent electronic tablet, to “draw” on and suddenly realising he can be creative after all. Imagine a child who, having read “Of Mice and Men”, actually wants to read more Steinbeck, and is then given the opportunity in school to do just that rather than switch rapidly on to the next prescribed text. Imagine the development of skills, values and attitudes that be the focus in schools when people finally realise that every single ‘fact’ that we teach our children can be accessed through the internet. Imagine what life will be like when teachers realise the brilliant potential of being enablers of learning rather than the fount of all knowledge.
The immense possibilities open to teachers almost sends me reaching out for a life back in school. Almost, for a bout of realism soon hits in.
But those of us who believe that education goes way beyond the attainment of decent examination results should be prepared. We need to think very carefully about how we can be proactive in deciding not only what is taught but how it is learned. We need to think carefully about how we are going to make personalised learning a reality not a vision. We need to think carefully about how we are going to develop all of the intelligences and the skills within all those intelligences that businesses and indeed society are crying out for – shared values? virtuous behaviour? empathy?
Other countries survive quite contentedly without a 16+ examination. Their curriculum maintains meaning and fullness. Their children are engaged. Opportunities are ever-present.
It really is time to consider how we are going to deal with this before something else is imposed upon us.
Meanwhile, we must not lose sight of the need to campaign for education to be placed back in the competent hands of the educators. We can’t keep having these swings in policy that we will now come to dread every five years of these fixed-term parliaments. It’s evident that Gove is trying to put everything in place now because he knows that there is a strong possibility the coalition days are numbered and the Tories may not be returned to parliament as the largest party. Wouldn’t Labour look idiotic if they were to come to power and changed everything again? Who would the teaching profession blame?
Finally, we need to help teachers to think out of the boxes that have constrained their individuality, liberty and educational philosophy for all of these years. This is the only way we can give children and young people the type of education that they need.
Let’s use the “gift” of freedom from a too prescriptive curriculum that Gove is allegedly about to provide to ensure that our children and young people are afforded the education that they need and deserve.
Let’s plan for this now.