I asked my Y4s what they are excited about for Y5. All they said is they are scared because Y5 is one year from SATS. #ks2sats
— Jonny Walker (@jonnywalker_edu) 26 April 2016
As in many schools at the moment, test fever is settling into our playground like a beautiful flock of birds, if the birds all carried Avian Flu.
The Year 6s have a more frenetic energy than usual, veering between giddy and anxious. Kids who have all year bounded into the playground with a football in hand early in the mornings are shuffling in with all the effervescence of tired librarian, clock watching her way to retirement.
We have allowed ourselves as educators to be backed into a corner. The KS2 SATS Tests have no tangible lasting impact upon the lives of pupils. The secondary schools, by and large, have long since given up on the reliability of KS2 SATS, favouring their own initial assessments. Most children are not in selective areas in which their test scores would have bearing on school entry. The 10 and 11 year olds will not be sitting in an interview room in ten years time having to share their SATS results as they look for their first jobs.
We live in a test culture. Debates about SATS can rumble on, but actually, complete resistance to testing is not going to help our pupils. As they move through the education system, their test scores objectively gain more and more gravity, and have a longer impact. Tests matter.
To my mind, there are an array of intricate equilibria that we need to work at.
- How can we encourage children to do well on tests without becoming dependent on their test scores as the sole metric of their self worth?
- How can we motivate children to succeed in tests because they are knowledgeable, skilful and wise, rather than because they have crammed everything lovelessly into their short-term memory?
- How can we give pupils a coherent ‘purpose’ for the tests we put them through, that neither deceives and fear-mongers but nor does it demotivate the pupils by rendering the tests futile?
For all of its debatable truthfulness, simply telling the children that the KS2 SATS don’t matter won’t necessarily help them – nor, for that matter, is it wholly helpful to tell them that the SATS do matter.
If we tell the kids the tests don’t matter, that you can’t judge a fish by its ability to climb trees and that dancing is the SPAG of the soul etc, to do so would be riddled with thorny hypocrisy in most of our professional settings. We can tell the children the tests don’t matter, just to do their best and that it is more about measuring the school, but to what extent do our personal and institutional actions contradict this?
The message will only become clouded if we seek to siphon the pressure off the children by talking down the SATS, whilst at the same time presenting them with daily test-question practice, booster sessions and the repeated wide-eyed assertion that ‘EVERYTHING’S FINE, IT’LL ALL BE OVER SOON, DON’T WORRY DEARS, DON’T WORRY ABOUT IT, JUST DO YOUR BEST AND REMEMBER EVERYTHING AND BE NEAT AND HAVE A BIG HEALTHY BREAKFAST AND A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP BUT IT’S JUST A NORMAL DAY AND DO YOUR BEST BECAUSE IT’S ALL FINE JUST GO ON AND TRY, GO ON, YOU CAN DO IT’
This is the MrsDoylification of State Education.
The kids respond to and take in our implicit messages more firmly than our explicit ones.
I struggle to think of what might be the best approach to take to meet the following desirable outcomes
- good test scores for the cohort, so the school can demonstrate its effectiveness and avoid the accusatory pointed finger of underperformance
- good test scores for the kids so they can feel successful rather than inadequate in our ‘Percentage=Worth’ culture
- children do not see test scores as the end point of learning, or the purpose of schooling
- children do not see their education/testing solely as a stepping stone to more education/testing and to employment
- children are not made to feel unduly pressured, stressed and anxious
- children do not have their curriculum shrunk to accommodate test preparation
The closest I can get is to get kids to pass accidentally with a flourish of subversion and honesty, and to flummox the chumps who perpetuate this system with a bit of trickery.
Tricksters create portals that allow the ostracised to come streaming back, thereby reinvigorating the social order. Trickster as playful and poetic prophet identifies the needful absent, exposes surds, and transforms structures. Tricksters restore deteriorating persons and cultures by identifying and reinstating banished ideas, ideals, purposes, passions, and values. Without such prophets, no culture is born again. Trickster prophets expose the infinite possibilities of existence concealed by finite laws, logics, and beliefs.
Garrison (2009) Teacher as Prophetic Trickster. in Educational Theory 59(1) p 79
If I was to be given a KS2 Maths test right now I would do very well at it – full marks perhaps. This is not because I spend a great deal of time practicing the test papers, thinking about them, revising and learning how the questions are phrased in a very explicit way. I would pass because my knowledge base is already such that I can answer these questions.
It would be great if we could get the children to the point of being so curious, knowledgeable and interested in the world around them that because of their insatiable love of learning across all disciplines, and their solid work ethic and their fertile desire to soak up written language, that we could just perhaps give them a piece of paper with some questions on one day, completely out of the blue as far as they were concerned and they would know the answers because they know so much through their assiduous, voracious and impassioned connection to the world around them, and all that would do is give a little bit of quantifiable evidence to support our well-founded opinion that this child, who also has beautiful manners and handwriting so perfect it hurts and is kind to the less popular children, is wonderful.
Kid’s a liability, I don’t like him or her, get him or her out of my class, I want to swap him or her for a different one who is grounded, quiet and trusts in me to steer them.
Despite being the very embodiment of our shared understanding of perfection, this heaven-sent spawn of intellectual marvellousness, glistening with the dew of epistemic ambrosia, would do well alright in a private school, perhaps. These institutions see our annual May-time carnival of pointlessness for what it is, and they don’t have to do it. The dream child above may flourish there, but in our humble little classrooms, as the paint slowly chips off the walls around them, and the hole in their TA’s shoe slowly gapes into a little screaming mouth with toes for teeth, the aforementioned child would be a quantified failure, a fetid red blip in the spreadsheet, unless he or she could pronounce ‘fip’ at the age of 5 from a nationally standardised checklist, or unless he or she could narrate his or her experience of his or her school having the Building Schools for the Future funding cut, as below.
The contents of a test paper, and a syllabus are fundamentally arbitrary in the sense that they are socially determined and are the consequence of the process of a hierarchisation of knowledge.
Torn from cultural and social context, without the stratifications of class, taste and power, there is nothing innately more or less valuable about knowing that Modest Mussorgsky wrote the opera Boris Godunov as compared to knowing that Beyonce is in the Top 40 Chart this week with six different songs. It is through the cultural scripting of prestigious knowledges, cultural taste and wider social processes such as misogyny and racisms that mean one belongs to the esteemed canon of the cultural elite, whilst the other belongs in what is deemed and cordoned off as pop culture.
At the highest levels of politics, the media and the arts there is a well documented over-representation of individuals who were privately educated. This is not a new process – it is as old as the institutions themselves, and their growth and the primacy of the elite have been forever entwined. Meanwhile, in the state sector, the current curricular expectations which are purportedly about high expectations for children of all backgrounds simply reduce our children to focus their attention on box-ticking whether the word ‘after’ is being used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition.
Presumably once our children in the state sector have finally addressed their long-held inadequacy with formal grammar, our council estates and underfunded schools will be flooded with scholarships to the elite grammar schools then? Once the Tory dream is realised and all the children have that fearsome Hirschian core knowledge, presumably we will all be on a level playing field in society and the private school kids will gladly step aside to make space in the upper echelons for their newly literate neighbours from Grimsby?
I can’t pretend to have visited Eton or Harrow, or the prep schools that feed into them, but I doubt they are doing remedial classes for their new arrivals who failed to accurately pronounce pseudowords like queet, plap and froin.
Whilst the well-off prepare their kids for life at the top with the kind of individualised, child-centred, engaging, mind-expanding ‘Build a Curriculum Around My Special Child’, ‘Why read about Vesuvius when we can go there?’ learning opportunities that good money, a private apartment full of tutors, a spare yacht and the freedom of affluence affords, state school teachers who suggest that our children deserve more than to be the passive recipients of multiple choice questionnaires find ourselves denounced as intellectually-febrile merchants of mediocrity, and are pummelled with the knotted shillelagh of low ambition.