According to an article published in last week’s TES, researchers at the University of Oxford have found that the UK is among the worst countries for teaching to the test. I’m sure this doesn’t come as a revelation to any of us in education. Alas, it will be yet another stick for certain organisations to regurgitate and beat us with.
Sadly, the key message of the story has been missed by the tabloids who have picked up The TES account of the research being done. Yes, teachers do teach to the tests. Even the most principled practitioners do so to a lesser or greater extent in an effort to support students on their journey to qualification.
However, the obvious question that is not being asked is why? Why do people with a love of their subject, a passion for education and a dedication to passing on the baton lose sight of their vision and spend a disproportionate amount of time teaching to examinations that will be over in a matter of hours? Why do schools whose very purpose is to encourage a holistic approach to education, buckle under the pressure and steal hours from creative subjects in an effort to feed the Best8 and EBacc monsters? Why are the number of child and adult stress-related issues associated with schools increasing at an alarming rate?
League tables and data have become the enemy of reason.
A disappointing Raise can lead to the removal of a whole leadership team or change a school’s ethos, a bad set of exam results can contribute to a teacher’s pay being withheld or competence procedures being implemented. So why wouldn’t teachers teach to the test? When the actions of the powers that be suggest that performance tables are the only thing which matters, teachers would be stupid not to play the game. But what has the game playing actually achieved? Has it developed happier, well-educated, adaptable young people who become lifelong learners? The universities and statistics beg to differ. Has it brought the sectors of education closer together? It could be argued that it has resulted in quite the contrary, universities blaming the FE colleges, they in turn blaming secondary schools who point their fingers at primary colleges in an effort to share the blame. Teaching to the test must have made the lives of teachers easier right? Sadly no. We have become complicit in our own unhappiness. Increasingly, teachers look at the data not the individual students and leaders look at the set of results not the combined effort that has brought about the end result. Then there’s the onset of the blame culture, whether it’s the level of the students you are getting or the achievement of those you have just lost, we find somebody else to blame.
The result? A culture where there are no winners, only losers.
League tables create an unfair competition where a win at all costs sentiment is promoted. Students never fully understand the lessons gained from success or failure because it’s never their effort. Schools don’t let them go it alone because we can’t take the risk. Character which is currently in vogue, is in danger of being compromised by our own actions in the dichotomy between a love of learning and serving the ego of our government.
What would happen if league tables were removed? I’m old enough to remember when my teachers didn’t care about the scores on the doors, only teaching me well and encouraging a love of their subject. They wanted students to do well but for their own self-worth, not for their teacher’s pay or the school’s next inspection. I honestly believe that this is still the case, teachers do want the best for their students and genuinely care. Students aren’t as incompetent as the media would have us believe. However, on results day whose thoughts haven’t touched on the implications of the data for the next Ofsted or how the department/school will look when compared with others?
Would teachers teach any differently if the results didn’t matter for schools? What if the criteria on which they were judged did not amount to a set of numbers on a page? Would schools take more risks in their curriculum if the students’ results belonged to the students and not their teachers? Would literacy and numeracy deteriorate if there wasn’t such an emphasis on their importance or would teachers labor the basics, getting it right for students’ long term learning if they knew there wasn’t the demand to move ’em on? Would students be more independent and resilient if they were told that their achievement was down to their effort right from day one? I don’t profess to know the answers to these questions but I do think they are worth considering.
My very first Head of Department was a kind and caring man. I learned a lot about person-centred leadership from him as a relatively young teacher new to the profession. When I started teaching some fifteen years ago, league tables were somewhat of an ephemeral concept to NQTs (perhaps they still are and it’s only as we get more experienced that we become more enslaved to the data). My first GCSE students did well, really well. I was ecstatic. My HOD was proud of their achievements, as he was of my efforts. He knew I’d done my best by them and they’d got what they had deserved. He also reminded me that it was a team effort, the group had been taught by other teachers before me and that the results were a product of everyone’s hard work, this always kept me grounded. The school’s results that year were 26% A*-C (I didn’t know this at the time or what it meant for the school) but my class, my kids, felt like winners and so did I. The year after, the group I had didn’t do so well. The students did ok but not great. They didn’t reach the bar I had set. When the results came in I felt as though I had let the students and my Head of Department down. Again, he reminded me that it was a team effort. None-the-less, I felt as though I’d let the side down. I couldn’t tell you the school’s percentages that year, they were better than the previous year but I didn’t care. I felt as though I hadn’t done my bit. Regardless of league tables I cared about my students and the colleagues I worked alongside. I don’t consider myself different from anyone else, arguably every teacher feels a duty of care to their students and their team, achievement measures only cloud this. They result in a lack of focus, moving away from achieving the best for all to a which students will make a difference mentality and for that we should be ashamed.
What it takes is a leap of faith.
For headteachers, to focus on great teaching for everyone not just exam classes, Key Stage 3 should no longer be the poor relation of 4 and 5. The best headteachers do this already but it does take faith in the team to lay the foundations lower down and know that it will be ok in the end. School CPD should be moving away from the latest craze and maintaining a relentless drive towards quality-first teaching which is personalised for the individual member of staff. Teachers being equipped, trusted and expected to do their job, not continually worrying about being caught out. There is a call to flip the system as the excellent book by Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber suggests, which most of us are completely in favour of. Currently I’m not sure that this will happen. However, if the continual and ritual weighing of the pig was no longer a cliff edge for schools then there may just be a chance for this approach to gather momentum.
A leap of faith from Nicky Morgan et al. could result in a revelation. Schools could focus on the true purpose of education without the worry of the EBACC, Best8 or PISA. Perhaps we would see students taught beyond a test, ones who are filled with knowledge and who can transfer it expertly, students who see education for all its intrinsic beauty and not as a route to passing an exam. Teachers see all of these qualities in our brilliant young people every day but maybe with brave ministers who care about who we are not how we look, society can take a view through different eyes.