Consider the following hypothetical : If your child’s future was financially secure would you strongly encourage them to pursue academic attainment? (I’m making the assumption that many of us put a premium on such things in the absence of untold riches. An education is at least some competitive edge in this economically Hobbesian world of ours).
Before you answer this understand that I’m not suggesting that you might eschew all attempts at learning for your child, but rather you might remove the pressure that is applied to formal learning’ (the word formal is key here). Certainly passion should be nurtured as an end in itself but should the same be said of academic achievement? After all, it’s enthusiasm and passion that got the Richard Bransons, Bill Gates and Jeremy Corbyns of this world over the finish line. Okay, that last one was a joke. I’m not a big fan, but he did manage to lead a major political party in this country with a mere two Es at A’level and a ‘failed to finish’ at a technical college. Gates did something similar at Harvard and Branson left school at sixteen. The point here is that they had a drive that was ignited by something beyond the confines of the classroom. Passion comes from a deeper place. Beethoven was composing symphony’s at five and Da Vinci (who received an informal education) was a universal genius, intent on discovering the seeds of knowledge. Historians have noted that the empirical methods he utilised were unorthodox at the time and breadth of his interest was without parallel. This urge was not found in a school room.
There is an idea that some things are easier to tolerate when there is a notion of escape. Consider the prisoner who serves his sentence with his cell door ajar, content in the illusion that he can leave at any time. Time is easier on him. The same idea might also be applied to the workplace. Many of us do jobs we don’t, if we’re honest, particularly like. We kid ourselves we’re free to leave them at any time, but in reality financial obligations ensure our enslavement. It is the illusion that gives us a measure of freedom. Might we also make the same argument for education, a formal sentence of tutoring, assessments, restrictions and conditions that are forced upon our children by the state. Perhaps if we allow a child a ‘get-out’ clause, we shift the paradigm, removing the anxiety that comes with ‘having to do well’. Time is easier on them. I’m not saying a formal education is a bad thing per se, but what do we do when the status quo is tending that way?
A recent report by the Commons Committee has found that in a survey of school leaders and staff (incorporating personal views, official records and anecdotal evidence), eight out of ten primary children have been recorded as suffering some sort of mental health issues or stress related symptoms as a direct results of Sat testing. These include, but are not limited to, sobbing during examinations, sleeplessness, anxiety, fear of academic failure, loss of eyelashes through stress, lower self-esteem and depression.
This survey was released in the run up to the controversial national standardised tests in English and Maths known as Sats. It was accompanied by a scathing report on primary assessment by the Commons cross-party education committee, which warned that the current system of using Sats as a measure of school performance was creating a high pressure environment which damaged both teaching and learning in primary schools. This is not surprising. The school day becomes focused on the sole attainment of these targets rather than instilling a love or passion for learning.
This view is echoed in a paper by MPs on the Education Select Committee who have warned that the current system was leading to a narrowing of the curriculum and a “teaching to the test”. It recommended reducing the use of Sats as a measure of school or teacher performance , suggesting that a results be averaged triennially on a rolling basis. The suggestion was welcomed by teachers.
Neil Carmichael, chair of the education committee, said: “Many of the negative effects of assessment in primary schools are caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself.”
“The resulting high-stakes system has led to a narrowing of the curriculum with a focus on English and maths at the expense of other subjects like science, humanities and the arts.” He went on to say that, “It is right that schools are held to account for their performance but the government should act to lower the stakes and help teachers to deliver a broad, balanced and fulfilling curriculum for primary school children.”
Mps have expressed concern that such tests are hijacking creativity in primary schools, forcing a need to focus on the technical aspects of writing such as spelling, punctuation and grammar at the expense of fostering inventive composition. They suggest such testing should be non-statutory at key stage 2. They were also keen to emphasise the exclusive nature of such testing, arguing that there were few entry points for pupils with special educational needs.
Fortunately , it now looks likely that’s Sats for seven years will scrapped and replaced with teacher assessment of four and five-year-olds to “reduce the burden” of assessments on teachers and pupils. Even so, the existence of these tests, current and historical, does highlight the fact that we are vulnerable to the vagaries and whims of those in charge of our educational system.
The question is, are we forced to buy into this system or do we have a choice?
A Department for Education spokesman iterated to MPs that it will look into their report, but the wheels of government grind slowly and in the meantime there is a generation of children being affected. Not all children fit into the model of Sat testing and for some parents it comes down to a choice of their child’s health or their academic future. In an interview with a group of mothers from Birmingham, they noted that at times the tests felt more important for the teachers than the pupils and the stress of extra work and teacher expectation left their children frequently upset and anxious.
The Chinese model of education, learning to test, is a Darwinian dead end. This is something they themselves have increasingly woken up to, which is why our universities are inundated with eager Mandarin speaking students. Learning by rote is to teach recall and emulation. This is a path that leads back to itself. To strive for invention, to create something new, to truly contribute requires thinking outside of standardised frameworks. This is where all evolution occurs. To allow this mindless tinkering of our educational system by whoever who happens to have the conch is a foolhardy enterprise. It stultifies and impoverishes our children, particularly the vulnerable ones, and is made all the more unpalatable by that fact that if we do not embrace it, we run the risk of leaving them at a disadvantage. So in the absence of my theoretical golden parachute, we have to be brave for them and trust that they will find their way.