I’m not a teacher, though I am daughter, niece, sister in law and friend to many who are. Not to mention being mother of two primary age children, with another in the wings. I think it’s probably fair to say that I take a greater than average interest in education. Nonetheless, I am very clear that I am Not A Teacher. To me, one of the most important aspects of Not Being A Teacher is resisting the urge to assume that because I’ve looked after and worked with children, read lots of articles, and indeed went to school myself, I have a degree of expertise equivalent to a professional. It’s an urge which many commentators and politicians feel, it seems, and which they resist with varying degrees of effort and success.
The teaching profession and school pupils seem to be facing an unprecedented level of beleagurement. A prolonged hokey-cokey over the rebranding of GCSEs. Schools toppling like dominoes into academy status. Money being found from somewhere for free schools, while a baby boom lifts the cap on infant class sizes and leads to children being taught in temporary accommodation or shifts or both. EYFS settings becoming more formalised so that children are in a less play-based environment even at the outset of their education, and a radical overhaul of the national curriculum. Schools being touted as ideal childcare provision for working parents who need someone to look after their children before and after school and even through the night.
Today, the latest proposal: national rankings for children leaving primary school. Each child will be slotted into a decile, so they (or their parents/schools) know precisely where they stand next to their peers.
I’ll be honest, here. I don’t like the idea of it. I like the idea of it as much as I would like, say, a scorpion in the toe of my shoe. However, as with all the other apparently pointless-at-best proposals, in my capacity of Not Being A Teacher, I am willing to accept that my instinct may be wrong. Perhaps there is good, solid research and evidence that this will improve standards and, contrary to the naysayers, won’t consign the bottom few bands to a bin marked “failure” while those at the top stroll cockily into secondary school, secure that they are The Best. There may be, but we’re not being shown it, just as there’s been little evidence for any of the proposals to date other than a kind of scrapbook of cherry-picked, context-free Best Bits from around the world.
I know that we are to be wary of anecdata, but my fondest and most abiding memory of my (small, Catholic, not at all posh) primary school is spending Friday afternoons learning embroidery with our headmistress, who was a nun, while the boys did football. The end of my last year involved several weeks devising Junior Showtime, a sketch show written and performed by the leavers. We played, and had fun, and were children at the end of the first stage of our lives, not sitting tests and being branded with a figure of attainment before moving onto comprehensive. We all did pretty well, though granted the embroidery was a bit of an anachronism.
I can’t unpick each new education proposal because I don’t have the expertise to do so, but I am conscious of a growing sadness that “childhood” is being eroded. Just as the Jacobeans et al painted their heirs in stiff miniaturised ruffs and farthingales, standing with swords and ringlets as diminutive grown-ups, so we are in danger of losing the idea that childhood is anything other than adulthood in waiting. Ranking and testing and grading at very early ages runs the risk of painting our own children into a frame from which they may well struggle to escape.
When I was pregnant for the first time, I couldn’t quite believe that this baby would grow without me needing to do something. My toddler pulls tiny plants up to see how they’re growing, frankly incredulous that a small seed, soil, water and sunshine will accomplish anything without his assistance. I get a similar feeling seeing interference in education, and when it’s combined with the recurring themes of ensuring children are made as little of a hindrance to their parents’ employment as possible and the chimeric aim of producing “globally competitive” workers, I am left wondering where attention to young people’s needs and welfare is to be found. We have a large body of expert, dedicated and committed education professionals in this country. Would it be so very difficult to work collaboratively with them rather than engaging in scorched earth tactics which are poisoning the very ground in which our children are trying to grow?