Testing Times

the wireThere is an episode in the American hit TV series The Wire (Season 4) which will resonate not only with teacher-viewers in the USA but with many in the UK as well. Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski, a former officer in the Major Crimes Unit, has left the force after inadvertently killing a fellow officer in Series 3, and has re-trained to become a maths teacher in inner-city Baltimore. Initially, he struggles to come to grips with the job despite his best efforts, and the kids refuse to play ball no matter how many approaches he tries, including the introduction of card games into his lessons. The less than subtle message is that teaching is tough, no matter how ‘tough’ a guy (or gal) you think you are. Eventually however, Pryzbylewski’s hard work starts to pay off and most of the kids are beginning to recognise that – hey – he really is in this with them, when all his efforts are suddenly undermined. The district authorities have announced that their literacy scores are too low, and for the coming session the focus will be on raising attainment in literacy. For Prez and his colleagues, what this means is reading directly to a group of kids who are not listening, and administering tests which even he doesn’t understand. Not one person in the school, including the headteacher, believes in what they are doing, but the future of the school depends, literally, on their going along with it.

Watching this scenario play out, you find yourself laughing uneasily at the absurdity of the situation, while realising that perhaps that it isn’t so far from the truth – an education system where statistics and targets rule, and teachers are forced to abandon their better instincts and teach to the test.

lifeRoland Pryzbylewski’s plight came back to me this week as I finished reading  The Life and Death of Secondary Education for All by Professor Richard Pring, former Director of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University. A refreshing analysis of the state of education in the UK, with a particular focus on England and Wales, the purpose of the book is, in Professor Pring’s own words, ” to advocate a secondary education for all which embraces a wider vision of learning, a distinctive role for the teacher in providing the cultural basis for that vision, and a provision of opportunities through which all young people (however modest their circumstances) might have a sense of pride and fulfilment.” In Pring’s view, ‘education for all’ is still a viable goal, but only if we are prepared to address the fundamental question of its purpose, rather than simply accepting many of the assumptions of the past fifty years. The key question as far as he is concerned is, “What counts as education – or, more accurately, an educated person – in this day and age?” According to the author, those who doubt the viability of a genuine ‘education for all’, including the current Secretary of State Michael Gove, rarely address that question, preferring instead to examine how they might do the same things better:-

“However, ‘reform’, so-called, too often begins with qualifications, examinations, institutional provision, paths of progression. All those are very important, but their value lies in the support they give to learners and to their sense of fulfilment. We need to start with what it means to learn (practically, theoretically, morally). We need to question critically the value of that learning. We need also to respond to the many different needs of the learner and of a democratic society into which they are entering.”

I would wholeheartedly recommend The Life and Death.. to anyone involved in secondary education, including, and perhaps especially,  Michael Gove. The key themes for me are these:-

  • There needs to be less top-down control from government and local authorities, not more; teachers and schools are reluctant to innovate for fear of failure
  • There needs to be greater opportunities for teachers to work together in planning the curriculum and their own professional development
  • There needs to be a redirection of resources to those most in need; the single most significant factor in the success or failure of an individual in the system is poverty
  • There needs to be less reliance on performance targets which lead to a ‘teaching-to-the-test mentality’
  • There needs to be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education which has personal development at its centre
  • There needs to be a more robust debate on what it means to be a ‘citizen’ and the concept of the pursuit of the common good
  • There needs to be a greater role for practical learning and knowledge for all – not to be confused with vocational skills or learning for so-called ‘non-academics’
  • Finally, while developing the individual is important, learning to live and work fruitfully in groups is essential to quality learning

“The curriculum, therefore, is not the means to a fixed outcome, but the engagement, assisted by the teacher, with a body of knowledge (theoretical and practical) through which learners come to understand and act intelligently within the physical, social and moral worlds they inhabit.”

In wishing you all the best for 2013, I leave you with a letter from this week’s Guardian, which sums up admirably much of what is currently wrong with secondary education in the UK, and which frustrates the lives of the many dedicated professionals working within it. May Professor Boyle’s wishes also come true.


Of Mice, Flies and Farms: Death by Examination

I’m returning to a topic that I have written about many times in the past, but it is an issue of such fundamental importance to our education system that it can never be aired often enough. The context is Scotland but I would be willing to bet that it applies in many parts of the developed world, and it was prompted by this tweet which appeared in my Twitter timeline from Erica at the Young Adult Literature Symposium in St Louis, Missouri, last week:-

Now, while I don’t have a problem with introducing 45-year-old books to young people – and of course many of the best books  ever written are much older than that – I think implicit in that statement is the fact that when it comes to the English curriculum in schools, and those texts which candidates choose to write about in examinations, the core list of texts often seems to be set in concrete, and the same very narrow range of texts is promoted as if they were the only books ever written – Of Mice and Men anyone? Animal Farm? Lord of the Flies?

How does that reduction happen? Consider the following key outcome of the new curriculum in Scotland. Despite the language of the outcome, which suggests it was written by a committee (and believe me it was), the objective is clear and commendable – that, by the age of 15, or before in some cases, all young people should be able to say that they are regular readers and are able to make personal choices in their reading. I would have preferred it to say something along the lines of ‘Reading is an important part of my life and it is something I will continue to pursue long after I have left school’, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

“I regularly select and read, listen to or watch texts for enjoyment and interest, and I can express how well they meet my needs and expectations and give reasons, with evidence, for my personal response. I can identify sources to develop the range of my reading.”

Curriculum for Excellence Literacy Outcome 3-11a (S1-S3)

Why is it then, when young people are able to meet this outcome by the age of 15, many of them are failing so dramatically to demonstrate this ability by the age of 16 and 17? What has happened to them in the intervening two years? Three simple words – the examination system. Have a look at some of the key points emerging from this year’s External Assessment Report for Higher English. These statements are taken directly from the report and are unaltered.

  • There was more evidence than in recent years of candidates coming to the exam with prepared answers (often on questions from recent past papers, as the appearance of key words suggested) and attempting to adapt these to ‘fit’ the questions asked.
  • The high number of choices of inappropriate choice of poem for questions 12 and 13 leads to the suspicion that significant numbers of candidates are coming to the exam with just one poem on which they are determined to answer come what may. This practice cannot be discouraged strongly enough.
  • A number of candidates are in the habit of writing at the end of most paragraphs stock phrases such as ‘….and this helped me to understand the central concerns of the text’, without ever having stated what they believed these central concerns to be, let alone how what they had just described had aided their understanding of them.
  • The term ‘theme’ continues to be used in an inappropriate way by some candidates, as if it were a ‘technique’, similar to, for example, setting, characterisation or symbolism. A proper understanding of ‘theme’ is key to the study of literature.

This is what happens when teachers are judged by the exam results of their students, when there is pressure on young people to learn a procedure which is quite alien to them, and for all of that to happen within a very short time frame. Writing ‘critical essays’ is not something which most of them will ever do again, and simply reflects an academic study of literature which is inappropriate for all but a tiny minority of students. Any love of reading has been squeezed out of them by the end of the process. How can it be that so many young people who at the age of five were reciting poems and enjoying the rhythms and patterns of language, will, by the time they sit Higher English, be thinking of poetry as that single poem which they have ‘analysed’ to death, the lines and responses to which they will have spent the best part of a year committing to memory.

There must be a better way, and there is. If Higher English is to remain in its present form – and it has seen too many ‘reforms’ in recent years to suggest that there is any appetite for further change – we need to make sure we provide a viable alternative for those young people who have genuinely developed a love for reading but not for essay-writing, and we need those people in positions of authority who talk about Higher English using expressions like ‘the gold standard’ and ‘benchmark’ to think more carefully about their own language. More importantly, we need to recognise that a love of reading, and by implication a love of learning, SHOULD BE THE NUMBER ONE  GOAL FOR ALL LEARNERS.  When a young person is able to ask, in response to the literacy outcome above, “I’ve just read this. What do you suggest I should read next?” you know as a teacher you have done something invaluable.

You may also be interested to read Braintrack’s The State of Young Readers in America

For my extensive list of fiction for 10-14 yr-olds, each text summarised and reviewed, click here.