To dream the impossible dream,
to fight the unbeatable foe,
to bear with unbearable sorrow,
to run where the brave dare not go,

To right the unrightable wrong,
to love pure and chaste from afar,
to try when your arms are too weary,
to reach the unreachable star.

(The Impossible Dream, Leigh & Darion, 1972)

I was sitting in work the other day looking at Year 10 target grades and I was genuinely reminded of this song, one of my favourites, as sung by Andy Williams. Now this isn’t meant to be a negative post. There is plenty of negativity around education (and other ‘public services’). Nor do I think that what I’m writing is in any way new, I’m sure others have said it, no doubt better than I will. That said, I don’t think that repeating truths is a bad thing, especially if it helps make people listen.

The new progress measures, in particular Progress 8, are forcing schools to re-align their approach and skew what they do in order to perform well in league tables. This ‘performativity’ is of course deliberate. Government league tables are there to make schools act in a certain way. It takes a very brave school leader to ignore school league tables, or to think that they have the ability to convince parents and other stakeholders that those performance measures are not in the best interests of pupils at that school. I’m not about to discuss league tables though, that is another argument, maybe for another post. My issue is with a disconnect within our schools system which is driven by league tables and which will only become more pronounced as the Gove reforms really take effect.

To recap which reforms I am thinking of in particular:

  • Removal of levels and move to ‘scores’ at the end of KS2. Although to be fair, the issue I am raising would still exist if National Curriculum levels remained.
  • A more rigorous knowledge based National Curriculum for KS1-3, but which an increasing number of schools do not have to follow; nor does the adherence to NC or school-based alternative seem to feature heavily in performance tables or Ofsted inspections.
  • New more rigorous GCSE courses.
  • The introduction of Progress 8 and Attainment 8, which feature a bias for English Baccalaureate subjects.

As a result of these changes, there is a growing disconnect between primary and secondary schools, which will cause a huge issue to subjects beyond English and Maths and, in turn, lead to problems for the young people we teach.

To start with primary school testing, for many years the focus on SATS results has seen a huge and, in my opinion, unhealthy focus (more obsession) on English and Maths, especially in Year 6. This focus has undoubtedly reduced the curriculum experienced by many young people. Now I am generalising and I am sure that many primary schools still provide some breadth in the face of the focus on English and Maths results. Moreover, I do not blame primary schools for focusing on English and Maths results – league tables and Ofsted grades matter. I do however think back to some days in primary schools which I had to do during my teacher training where a Year 6 day, in January, saw pupils spend the best part of their morning doing a past paper in English and then, into afternoon, you guessed it, a Maths past paper. Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the need for young people to be literate and numerate. Furthermore, instilling a passion for language and for maths sets young people up for the rest of their lives. I would however suggest that teaching English and Maths and preparing pupils for SATS are not one and the same thing.

So where does the disconnect arise? Well, picture pupils arriving in Year 7 and learning a subject-based curriculum in a new way. They are learning ‘Geography’, ‘History’, ‘Science’, ‘Spanish’ and so on. For sure, they may have experienced these before, whether labelled as such or not. The problem is how little they have experienced in many cases. The focus on English and Maths has become a double-edged sword. Not only are their KS2 scores misleadingly good for many children, those children have also done very little beyond English and Maths. As secondary teachers we are having to start from a seemingly ever-lower bar. The knowledge, understanding and skills they come to us with seems less and less.

I appreciate that time is tight in the primary curriculum and primary schools aren’t judged as closely on other subject areas. However, at secondary schools we are. More importantly, the progress which young people are expected to make between Year 6 and Year 11 seems universally to be judged against KS2 results in English and Maths. Now whist there is some correlation between the intelligence demonstrated in literacy and numeracy and how a young person may perform in History or Spanish, it is not a perfect fit. Plus, if a young person’s KS2 results have been ‘enhanced’ by intense exam preparation in English and Maths, how is it then fair to judge their progress over five years in a broader suite of subjects, some of which they have had next to no experience of prior to starting secondary school. Secondary colleagues in English and Maths have a raw enough deal when pupils arrive in their classes and it appears a miracle that they achieved the KS2 results they did; a miracle made possible by the huge amount of time spent on exam preparation. So imagine how much starker the challenge appears for those teachers trying to take pupils from an even lower starting position and yet be expected to make the same progress as in English and Maths. Schools are being judged on the progress made and the pressure felt by teachers is ultimately passed on, to some degree, to pupils who face intervention, revision sessions, resits, etc because they are not making expected progress. Maybe some pupils read this as a posh way of being labelled as ‘thick’.

Perhaps most importantly, just as intense English past papers in Year 6 may shatter any hopes of developing a passion for language in a child, how on earth can we instil a passion for Geography or French if we’re constantly banging on about exam technique and a need to ‘get through the content’. This is without doubt the worst effect of the Gove reforms – making it even more difficult to make children enjoy school and have a lifelong passion for learning. Individually some of the Gove reforms make sense, but taken together they have this perverse effect of making everyone miserable: primary teachers must find working in a SATS past-paper factory soul destroying, in secondary we are left dejected in the face of an impossible task, and pupils are left with a poorer experience of education. Overall, teachers want to enjoy teaching and pupils should be able to enjoy learning. Instead teachers face the impossible dream as the targets we’re set sees us trying to get pupils to reach an unreachable star.

So what is to be done? Maybe taking a more realistic view of the progress which can be expected. For sure, primary schools should focus on literacy and numeracy. If we allow for this focus though, there has to be some allowances made for the progress expected in a wider curriculum at secondary schools. A focus on literacy and numeracy – or any element of the curriculum though – should be far more than preparing for exams, in order to improve performance measures. Enlightened thinking may even go so far as to suggest that providing a curriculum which young people can enjoy and thrive in will improve outcomes. Just saying. Importantly, this shift in emphasis has to come from government. Progress measures and the focus on testing has to shift if primary schools are to be given the chance to change their curriculums. Also, progress measures at secondary schools need to reflect the lack of foundations beyond English and Maths at primary level.

A slight tangent – powerful knowledge

We must also remember that the curriculum we teach is designed to provide knowledge, understanding and skills which pupils will not get elsewhere. To use Michael Young’s words, to provide ‘powerful knowledge’. It is noticeable when you get a new Year 7 geography class to see the different backgrounds of young people. Some know capital cities, map skills and talk about geographical issues they’ve seen in the news. Others might not know the difference between a country and a continent, or have ever seen an OS map before. Clearly some of this is down to pupils coming from different primary schools. However if primary schools aren’t providing geographical knowledge, then it falls back to family background to give children their ‘general knowledge’, which provides them with an advantage over their peers in the subject-based curriculum they experience in secondary schools. Now secondary schools, with the higher degree of specialism, can absolutely do something to address those inequalities in knowledge. Primary schools could however have already addressed some of that inequality in knowledge. Not only could literacy and numeracy be delivered through some subject teaching, surely providing a little more diverse subject content in the primary curriculum will be good for children too.