For children in Years 3-6, there is a statutory expectation that they have about 25 hours of teaching in each week, about 5 hours a day, excluding collective worship, breaktimes and lunchtimes. For younger children, it is more like 22 hours a week. Either way, under current time budgets, more than 50% of that time is spent teaching English (an hour or so a day) and maths (again, about an hour a day), usually in the morning, but with guided reading or some other similar reading activity taking up 20-25 minutes a day on top of that. What teachers do with that hour is of first importance, and it behooves each teacher to use that time to the very best of their ability to enable children to progress, learn new material, attend to new understanding and to practice and apply what they have learnt.
It follows, therefore, that if you have good or outstanding teachers (by whatever measure you choose to make such judgments) then the curriculum, for all that it is a dire, unimaginative and deadening piece of work, is designed generally to be taught in that hour a day in each of English and maths and that you should not need to teach extra lessons of maths or English. The law of diminishing returns tells you that there comes a point where the investment you put in no longer repays you with the same amount. It is like accelerating uphill in a car which has reached that point where the foot is on the floor and the sheer weight of the thing cannot be coaxed any harder up the pass.
A number of children can get to that point, yet I am conscious that at this time of year, many primary schools are flat to the floor trying to get more and more learning into children – 10 and 11-year olds generally, but also 6-7 year olds, which seems just abusive to me – not so that they become better mathematicians or writers or whatever – but so that they can increase the proportion of children who meet the required standard. Some schools even sit the children next to their “interim framework” for KS1 and KS2 and encourage them to self assess against this list of writing features that are simply an assessment list not a curriculum of honour and depth (except that, unfortunately, depth is defined by three bullet points on the list). Of course there are features of good writing, and of course teachers will have their eye purposefully on helping children acquire, practice and imaginatively use these features to improve and deepen their clarity and breadth of expression. But I suspect we have forgotten what writing is for. We have looked at children too much as pupils and students and not enough as uniquely created works of beauty, purposefully designed by a great King, a heavenly Father, to live life to the fullest. If we, as teachers, help them become great writers and mathematicians in the process, then good. However, if we try and do that by offloading the stress that we ourselves feel from the government onto their tender shoulders, so that children are stressed about whether they should get the “required standard” or not, then we are perilously close to emotional abuse. If, in the course of all that English and maths struggle, we fool ourselves by putting the pedal to the metal when the car is nearly stalling, we will be tempted to compound that abuse by teaching more writing, more maths, more grammar, in the space where children should be learning to dance, paint, sing, experiment, research and play. This is not a plea for any less effective maths and English teaching – parents and school leaders, as well as teachers themselves, should have an expectation that what happens in that two hours a day is at the very top of their ability to teach and the children’s to learn – but a desire that all we have learnt over centuries of working effectively with our young should not be sacrificed just to meet the requirements of some pieces of paper thought up by those who want nothing better than to turn our children into economically-motivated earners and spenders.
One of my teachers was talking to a parent the other day about the stress that his children’s friends at some schools were under because of KS2 SATs, and wondered why his son was not similarly being stressed at Christ the Sower (it wasn’t, I presume, a request for more stress). The teacher replied that we teach everything to children, not just English and maths – the whole curriculum for the whole child the whole of the time (Oakeshott’s “whole of his inheritance”) – and that we prepare the children in the curricular space available. She mentioned that of course we are under stress as teachers, but that we don’t pass that onto the children, and would not think of doing so. I was pleased to hear of the parent’s reaction to that – appreciative of the work we do, and even more appreciative that there was not the pressure on his son that his peers had – but saddened that we have created this monster, driven solely by the fear that schools have of accountability, progress measures and the inspectorate. That this has impacted some parents is obvious: last year I had a child in a set of able writers who asked me not to give him any homework because with the amount he had from his teacher and the amount his parents gave him from his home tutors, he would only fail me, and that he didn’t want to do. At that point he burst into tears from the stress – too many people that he loved were putting too much pressure on him to perform.
As I muse to myself from time to time, a school system driven by fear and the big stick is hardly worth teaching or leading in, and most days I wonder how long it is worth me staying in it. However, I have a statutory responsbility to protect children from abuse in school, and whilst children need protection from a curriculum and assessment system that will damage them long term unless heavily modified by love, I had better stick around.