Paradise Lost

I’ll begin by stating the obvious in an attempt to secure common ground; we wish to be aspirational, both as teachers and parents, on behalf of our children.

There is however a huge amount of variation in what we understand is meant by being aspirational and what we should provide in order to achieve positive outcomes. I do remember many years ago, a prospective parent asking me, “Do many of your students go on to become doctors?”…and this was on a tour of the Nursery! I garbled something along the lines of “We’re confident that all children who come to our school will have the opportunity to become successful” – but I was shocked nonetheless. At the other end of the spectrum, there were those whose aspirations were limited to their child “having fun”.

With the KS2 SATs results having just been published, there’s the usual feverish activity occurring on social media. One post that landed in my timeline particularly caught my eye and read as follows:

“Our SATS results were shit by the way. Barely above floor standard. It seems like applying pressure to teachers for years to manipulate data on Target tracker to make a weak cohort look good and then doing almost nothing but SATs practice in year 6 doesn’t work. Who’d have thought it?”

Clearly, the author was in reactionary mode, demonstrating frustration, anger and a fair amount of resentment – and I do not judge them for that. However, reflecting on the content, a multitude of issues come to light, the common thread being the importance of leadership based on a clear set of values.

Firstly, let’s consider the phrase, “a weak cohort.” If one can strike the balance between considering achievement alongside attainment, then one’s perspective is likely to be far more positive in its outlook. Heavily implied in this phrase is the notion that attainment is the single important factor when judging success. When such cohorts emerge within a school, this is when those in positions of leadership should embark on additional measures so that from a school accountability perspective, their story can be successfully told. This may involve having portfolios of work outlining the significant progress made by individuals throughout their time at the school. Yes this involves additional work, but if one is organised and has systems in place to closely monitor such groups, it can be hugely motivational both for the children concerned and the staff doing their utmost to support them.

When I began my headship seven years ago, a “weak cohort” with a large number of children with statements of SEN was part way through the school. I knew that their SATs year would yield some very unpleasant headline reading. This we could not change, but we set about gathering the evidence to also reveal a positive narrative. I suspect that, if this process had begun when they were in Reception, we could have been even more confident of demonstrating outstanding progress. We will have a similar situation next year, but we are confident that the story of this cohort can be convincingly articulated. Such cohorts are not “weak”. They have to endure some of the biggest challenges. Their strength often stands in stark contrast to the quality of the materials by which they are judged at the end of KS2. But for class teachers to maintain such a perspective, it is the duty of senior leaders to reassure and enlighten them. The tweet quoted above would suggest that the leadership team have been singularly unsuccessful in achieving this.

Our job is about handling pressure, not creating stress. The tweet is strangled by stress. I won’t focus too much on the aspect of data other than to say that, whilst it’s always important to use data positively and to one’s advantage – it’s important as an SLT that the data is reliable and that the uglier aspects revealed are properly investigated and addressed.

It’s the last part of the message that concerns me most.  Children’s Early Years and Primary education should be a paradise full of creation, exploration, cooperation and revelation. It should be an experience that motivates them to want to become life-long learners. The fact that there are still schools reducing Year 6 to a daily conveyor belt of formulae is truly shameful – and it’s the responsibility of those in positions of leadership to change this and expose those who are doing it.

The school at which I lead teaches the broad and balanced International Primary Curriculum (IPC) throughout the year. Our Year 6 each Christmas lead a fantastic musical production accompanied by adult musicians which is six weeks of rehearsing – sometimes in small groups and sometimes as a cast. Their residential school journey is also in the first term. Of course, we prepare children for some contextual based learning in relation to the SATs. However, we do not make Year 6 the “Year of SATs”. It is the year when they become in effect, pupil leaders. It is the year group that is most highly judged on how they demonstrate the IPC’s personal goals of enquiry, adaptability, resilience, morality, thoughtfulness, cooperation, communication and respect. We impress upon them that they are the ones who should best exemplify our school’s values of the Bible’s “Fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. This is the pressure we put them under. These are values by which one’s understanding of them is not based on an ability to read, write and count.

For those of you thinking, “This is all very well – but I’m judged on results” – let me assure you that this works. Generally, our KS2 results are healthily above the national and Local Authority average – but not suspiciously so with 100% every year!

So let’s avoid falling into the trap of trying to use children to manufacture SATs outcomes. Let’s stop using the proclamations of ill-informed politicians and others whose independence I strongly question, to rob the children of what should be the best years of their school lives.

I know that we’re under pressure to produce results, but the best leaders will never let this prevent them from doing what is right for all children. For if this becomes a tale of Paradise Lost – and one only has to look at the devastating assault on our expressive arts provision to see that the signs are there, then it will have happened on our watch.

I’ll finish with a message for our downhearted tweeter. Firstly, give yourself a moment before reflecting on your own practice; it is only right that you do. Secondly, reflect on the leadership within your school; it may be that you are in the wrong environment. Finally, and most importantly, change your perspective when teaching such cohorts, understanding just how challenging each day is in school for them when they’re being made to engage in tasks which are inappropriate and at which they can’t succeed. I hope that you go on to become a school leader, because this experience will help you to avoid putting your teachers under the same stress that you have been under. Good luck with it.

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