All Stick and No Carrot

My jaw hit the floor reading the report from Policy Exchange today which suggested that schools whose pupils fail to achieve a Grade C in English or Maths should be fined, with the money reallocated to the FE sector where they have to resit them. There is so much wrong with the idea that it seems almost futile to write about it. It’s a headline grabber, designed to ensure that the right wing think tank remains in the public eye. But it also exposes a real lack of understanding among our policy makers of the reality of school life for most teachers and pupils. It’s as if they think we just really can’t be bothered to teach them and that a fine will make us think again.

If we lived in a world where exams were criterion referenced, then in theory, it would be possible to argue that there should be no barriers to success. But we live in a norm referenced system which means by definition that some pupils will always fail – even if all got over 90% in the exams. To penalise those who came at the bottom in a system where there has to be a bottom is farcical. And of course, the schools who would be hardest hit would be those with the most challenging intake.

And there are some really important questions we need to ask about our cultural attitudes towards blame. Teaching young people that other people are responsible for their successes and failures is irresponsible. It traps children in a state of learned helplessness and apathy. If your school is to blame for your failure and not you, then it follows it is also the school who is to be praised for your successes. Where do you sit as an agentive, active person in this exchange? It’s a damaging attitude to foster in our young and it leads to all kinds of problems at University or in employment. Didn’t get your dissertation in on time? It won’t be your tutor who fails. Miss your sales targets? They won’t sack your manager.

Fostering responsibility in our young is a crucial element of what an education system should do. It is part of the bridge to adulthood – the ability to take a deep breath and say “I have no-one to blame but myself” and then to learn from that and become a better person. What are we doing to create this kind of thinker? Not a lot.

Instead we continue to insist that it is possible to achieve the nirvana of success for all, when it is patently untrue – at least by our current definitions of “success”. We insist on feeding children the lie that if they study hard, they’ll succeed and get a good job. Tell that to the 59% of graduates, lumbered with debt who are now, according to a recent report, working in jobs that did not require a degree. Tell that to the hundreds who did study hard for their GCSEs. Those who tried their best and then opened their envelope on results day last week and felt their hearts plummet to the floor.

My husband, still working in the same Sixth Form college where we met; one which serves many students from deprived backgrounds in Oldham, has spent days patiently trying to explain to these disappointed youngsters that they can’t now take up their places. That they will have to resit their Maths and/or English and take up new vocational courses in subjects they have no interest in – that or go elsewhere. The college can’t offer wider Level 2 courses because cuts in funding mean that they can’t support kids through three years of college. It used to be the case that the college would be able to give them another year to get things right – some of the children I taught on those courses went on to pass 7 GCSEs and take A Levels and are now happy adults with degrees and decent jobs. This is no longer a possibility because of the cuts Michael Gove made to three year programmes. No second chances here.

To glibly suggest that this funding crisis will be solved by fining schools is infantile. The children won’t collect a resit fee with their results and hand it over at enrolment onto a new course. The money will be taken from the school by government. It will be reallocated to an FE budget once all the admin costs and staffing have been taken off. Oh. That’s not going to leave a lot is it?

And let’s not forget that the GCSEs are in a state of flux. This year’s young people were doubly hammered. Removing Speaking and Listening from the English GSCE half way through their course, and bringing in accountability measures that meant that only first attempts at an exam would count in the league tables meant that in one swoop they moved into a linear mode of assessment, but for syllabuses that were designed to be modular. The result was that many took between 20 and 30 exams in the space of a few weeks. The pressure was unbearable. And I know because I watched my child go through it. Predicted an A for Maths, he came home from the infamous “Hannah’s Sweets” paper sweating. He knew he’d panicked. He got a C in the end – enough, but a disappointment to him. He just had a bad day. Now let’s imagine he had failed. Would that ‘bad day’ – hot on the heels of days of exams, a sleepless night and a bit of a cold, would that have been the school’s fault? Of course not. Some kids just lose it in some exams. It’s not that they were badly taught or that they didn’t know stuff. They just panic.

What about the child I taught some years ago whose mother died the night before she came in to do her exam. Her hands were shaking so badly she couldn’t hold her pen. Would the school be responsible for her performance? Every child has a different, unique story. The 10A*s kid whose parents spent £10,000 on private tuition. And the one who suffered a brain tumour, worked her socks off and also got 10A*s. Are the schools responsible for those successes?

As we move into the new syllabuses and marking schemes, what schools don’t need is for their chains to be tightened. They need time to get to know the new system. They need freedom to figure out what they need to do to make it work. They need to really start to play the long game, with much higher levels of challenge in Key Stage 3 so that children are not taught to tests, but taught to adapt and cope with this new world. The fines, I suspect, won’t come to pass. But they are representative of two great faults in our system – the misalignment between aim and reality and the removal of joy, agency and autonomy from the process of being educated.

And in response to the claims that this is an act of salvation for a cash strapped FE sector, here are a couple of alternatives:-

  1. Remove VAT. Post 16 education is not a luxury – it is now a requirement and yet the tax costs most sixth form colleges in excess of £350,000 per year.
  2. Reduce the number of GCSEs children sit. Have a core set of exams and other subjects that are internally assessed. The savings in exam entry alone would fund an expansion of FE. Or better still get rid of GCSEs altogether – every school would save 100s of thousands of pounds.

That’s for starters.

The Great Learning Gap

Sugata Mitra’s controversial new study summarised in the TES here suggests that self study on the internet can boost a child’s performance by seven years. Basically, 8 and 9 year olds studied GCSE content online before being examined three months later in examination conditions. They were successful. It sounds astounding, but it’s true, at least for the small number of children involved. And actually I don’t think it’s that surprising. To me, this is not a study about the power of the internet. It’s a study about the power of children.

Despite what the traditionalists may tell you, kids teach themselves stuff all the time. And they retain it too. The problem for us as teachers is that too often we don’t find out what it is they know because we have already decided we’ll tell them when we’re ready. And the other is that often the stuff they’ve learned is not what’s on our syllabus. It may be that the child has mastered the complexities of a computer game we know nothing about. Or it could simply be that the content doesn’t match our curriculum structure. Take Sam for example.

Since he was five, Sam has been obsessed with natural geography. Largely driven by a fear of natural disasters, he’s spent hours over the past three years teaching himself about volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, fault lines and the like. He’s pretty much mapped the world into safe and unsafe zones. He can name and point to places on a map that I didn’t even know existed.

More recently, as I’ve written before, he has decided he wants to be a Buddhist. He’s not just said it, he’s researched all the different kinds of Buddhism and rejected many because he feels that they are more religious than philosophical and he wants one that is a way of life. This has brought him to Zen Buddhism. All this research has been done on the internet or in books written largely for adults. He’s found a branch of Zen Buddhism in Japan. And now he has a problem. Japan is one of the countries he has designated as “unsafe”. But he want to live there to study this form of Buddhism. So he does more research. He’s identified the places in Japan he thinks are more secure and able to withstand an earthquake or tsunami. And he’s read up on building safety and what to do in the event of an earthquake. He’s decided it’s a risk worth taking and so when he’s 28 he’s moving to Japan.

“That’s a bit specific” I say, trying not to giggle.

“You’ve got to have goals” he says, putting me right in my place. WP_20150627_012

But now he’s realised that to live in Japan, he’ll need to learn Japanese. He finds an app on his i-pod and the kindly folk of twitter point me in the direction of Memrise. All summer he’s spent a couple of hours a day learning Japanese and testing himself online. I have no idea how he’s doing but I keep getting emails from Memrise saying I’m doing well on the tests!

My point is not about Sam really – there are children all over the country, indeed all over the world, who find a passion and who find that the passion leads them to others, connecting and shaping their dreams, their ideals, their hopes for the future. And how often do we squash them? He got a C for effort in RE this year because he talks too much. “I was trying to talk about Buddhism” he said miserably. But Buddhism isn’t on the syllabus until Year 4. No-one at school knows what he understands about Geography. It’s not been “done” yet. And no-one has a clue he’s learning Japanese. And when they find out, they’ll say “that’s lovely” then teach him French. I sometimes feel that his education, and that of many, many children in our country, largely happens at home. If they’re lucky. At school they plod along politely learning stuff they already know. And at home they enter a world of their dreams. What a missed opportunity.

Of course for many children, that potential doesn’t find an outlet at home either. Too few facilities, no quiet spaces, no adults to nurture an interest, no access to computers. Too hungry, too stressed, too tired. For those children, it is vital, absolutely vital, that school allows spaces for those passions and interests to be seeded, grown and harvested. It is vital that teachers look for any spark and seize upon it. For children like Sam, a school’s lack of interest in his interests is irritating. But for a child with little or no support at home, it is a catastrophe.

What Mitra’s research reminds us of is the amazing capacity of children to learn, retain and perform when they find something they are interested in or when it is presented to them in a way that allows for autonomy to grow. When we listen to those who say we should have a core curriculum, controlled and delivered by teachers through direct instruction, we ignore this potential. We reduce a child to recipient rather than investigator. That’s not to say we should just have a system in which kids sit at computers without teachers. A teacher’s role is vital in identifying the gaps and fixing them; in directing children towards necessary areas of learning that they might not be interested in, or aware of. It is vital in building and securing articulacy, communication, relationships and trust. But if we do this in a controlled way, with little attention paid to the needs and existing interests of the children in front of us, we are in danger of reducing their education, not enhancing it.