I’m tidying my office. It’s going to take a while. There are papers everywhere. They cover every surface.
Most of them are old SATs papers; specifically maths SATs papers. They are organised into piles – one for each of the children I have been working with. Piles and piles of past SATs papers alongside other piles of diagrams and calculations. Because, like many primary school headteachers, I have been spending my afternoons over the past weeks coaching children to pass tests.
Many of our children will reach the expected standard, or higher, in these tests which they sit at the end of Key Stage Two, without any help outside their regular lessons. A few struggle much more – you might even theorise that these tests are not appropriate for them. And then there are the children which are right on the cut line; who might hit the pass mark or might not. And it is these children, or at least some of them, who I end up coaching, having allowed my messiah complex to escape its shackles and convince me that I can single-handedly teach them everything they should have learned over the preceding four years in a few half hour sessions.
Maths is my forte in this unreasonable endeavour. When you sit down with children one-to-one and ask them what you can do to help, they are surprisingly forthcoming about what they do and don’t know. Fractions, decimals and percentages are top of most lists for some extra help, and I end up drawing a lot of pizzas. But the fun really starts with what we call word problems.
You know the sort of thing: “If I buy three apples and a packet of crisps while pouring out a litre of orange juice and paying with a fiver, how much shampoo will I have used by next Tuesday.” At least I think that’s how nonsensical they must seem, judging by the look on some of the children’s faces.
There is a structure to these sorts of questions, a pattern. Add these two things together and take them away from that. Add these things together and then add them to those things. Divide this much something or other by that many portions.
Here are some real examples:
A packet contains 1.5kg of oats. Every day Maria uses 50g of oats to make porridge. How many days does the packet of oats last?
Miss Mills is making jam to sell at the school fair. Strawberries cost £7.50 per kg. Sugar costs 79p per kg. Ten glass jars cost £6.90. She uses 12kg of strawberries and 10kg of sugar to make 20 jars full of jam. Calculate the total cost to make 20 jars full of jam.
Jacob cuts 4 metres of ribbon into three pieces. The length of the first piece is 1.28 metres. The length of the second piece is 1.65 metres. Work out the length of the third piece.
I suppose to be fair to the test setters they are trying to replicate real-life applications for maths. I’m sure Miss Mills is preparing for the school fair even as I write. But the questions fall within a fairly narrow range. What we actually end up teaching the children is exam technique, which at the age of 11 seems to be on the boundary between absurd and cruel.
Similarly the reading test, in effect a lengthy comprehension exercise, also has some less benign effects. For instance, we spend our days educating our young people to answer in full sentences rather than monosyllabic grunts – “What would you like for lunch?” “I’d like a school packed lunch please, Miss.” And we teach a specific, structured form of joined handwriting, praising its exponents for its beauty.
But when SATs time comes round we throw all this out with the bathwater. No need to write “This is because the writer is trying to convey…”, just get the key words down. And don’t take too long! Never mind about perfect cursive script; as long as it’s legible, that will do. Exam technique above all.
Meanwhile the grammar test is a ghastly nonsense, most of which would defeat any adult who has had the benefit of a sane, balanced education. (Do you know what a fronted adverbial is? Or the subjunctive mood? Do you care?)
By the time we packaged this year’s test papers up – using an amount of plastic which would have made David Attenborough’s blood boil and surrounded by a comical level of secret squirrelry – you could see in the in the children’s eyes that they had had enough of tests, and enough of people like me, and school in general.
Isn’t it about time we stopped putting them through this? Drilling them in test technique and hothousing them in the school hall for hours on end. Allowing maths and English to dominate the curriculum. Can we not find a more intelligent way of assessing what they have learned and how well their school is doing?
Memories…of the way we were
I have always envied those teachers who meet their ex-pupils years later as adults. It always seems such a rewarding conversation – all the difficult days are forgotten and there is usually just nostalgia and gratitude. Some of my colleagues even get the “you’re the best teacher I ever had” treatment, or even “you changed my life”. For a variety of reasons, mostly to do with not living in the same place for too long, that has never happened to me.
So I was mildly surprised to meet a real-life grown-up ex-pupil over half term. She was serving as a receptionist at the swimming pool. She seemed oddly unchanged compared to the last time I saw her ten years ago; it’s remarkable how similar some adults are to their child selves. I must say I was more surprised to see her than she was to see me – because she didn’t recognise me at all. And I think here we may be reaching an alternative explanation, because no one who hasn’t seen me for around ten years or more ever recognises me. It’s the hair. Or the lack of hair. For those of you who haven’t met me, I am pretty much completely bald, but ten years ago, I not only had hair, I had a lot of it and its absence now seems a highly effective disguise.
Undeterred, I proceeded to tell the poor girl not only who I was, but who she was too. When a flicker of recognition finally passed across her face, it turned out that she remembered one thing about me.
“You used to do those assemblies,” she said. “Where you mucked about on a chair.”
Those of you who have been to school (I’m guessing that’s all of you) will have at some point tried leaning back on your chair so the front legs lift off the ground. There was something highly satisfying about it and, some kids were able to turn it into an art form – experimenting with the tipping point and hovering there as long as they could, or – and this was hardcore chair swinging – balancing on one leg. If you were a skilled practitioner yourself, you’re welcome to come back into school now and have a go – but I’m afraid you will be sorely disappointed. In the intervening years, school furniture manufacturers have developed chairs which make it impossible to swing on them. They simply won’t tip back.
However, back in the day when I was teaching the young woman from the swimming pool, chair swinging was rife, and a significant distraction for the children I was teaching. And that wasn’t all; the children at that school seemed to be well-practised in all sorts of irritating habits which stopped them concentrating and drove us teachers nuts. Drumming on the desk with a pencil, rummaging around in pencil cases, doodling, tapping, curling up the corners of a book, putting a ruler on the side of the desk and making it go bbdddddddrrrrrrr. It was constant.
So my bright idea was that I would bring a kids’ table and chair into assembly and, equipped with a few items of stationery, I would mimic some of the behaviour we were seeing in class so that the children would realise how daft they looked. I would then show them what good learning behaviour looked like. The reaction of the children, however, took me by surprise. I was hamming it up, I must admit. I walked in and, without saying anything, began rocking back on my chair. By the time I got as far as sharpening my pencil and blowing it in a plume across the room, I was fully channelling my inner Mr Bean. But the children went wild – screaming with laughter and jumping around. It took me a while to calm them down before I got to my sober demonstration of how a putative Oxbridge candidate should conduct themselves in the classroom.
What I do remember is that I only did that assembly once. I wouldn’t risk it again. But my ex-pupil seemed to think it was a regular part of my repertoire. For her it was not just the highlight of her time under my tutelage, it was the only thing she remembered. Which has made me reflect on exactly what impact I have had on people in my 20 years in this profession. What would most of my ex-pupils say? Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for.
But before I entirely sink beneath the surface of my own self-pity, I should point out that most people don’t really remember their primary school days. If you ask where someone went to school, they will generally reference their secondary school first. And when they say “we didn’t do it like that when I went to school,” especially when they are talking about maths, they usually mean that they didn’t do it like that when they were 12 or 13. It’s hard to dig back far enough in your memory to recall learning to read or counting in tens to a hundred.
When children leave us at the end of Year 6, they don’t know what they know or how they found out about it. Their recollections of the seven years of intensive schooling they have just experienced, much of which was spent sitting at a desk, are overwhelmingly the fun bits – school trip, football matches, residentials, that time when…
The key learning – the foundations which they are going to build on at high school and perhaps later at university – have been dripped in, drop by drop, day by day, by skilful primary school teachers. And we should be pleased that we managed to do that and make them laugh along the way.