Ennui

Teaching Year 6 is a tricky business.  For a start, there is the stress of standing at the end of the key stage.  All of the preceding teaching, from all of the preceding years ends up in your class; measured, in May.     And then, at the end of the month, with pretty much a full term left of the school year the pressure is suddenly off.  The tests are over and the children, ah the children.

They change.  After the tests are over you, if you value your sanity, must come up with a new motive for school work, a reason to keep on doing their best rather than going off the boil.  It could be chocolates, it could be stickers, it could be all manner of threats and bribery, but the one I reckon most of us settle for is Secondary School.  ‘We want you to be ready,’ we intone.  ‘We want you to impress you new teachers.’  ‘You must be prepared for the challenges ahead.’   So work hard they, and we, do.  Their achievements are not to be sniffed at.

The thing is, though, that something happens to them when they leave us, and troop a mile up the road.  Something Edu-World calls ‘learning loss’.  We know this.  It happens every year, every time a child joins a new class.  We look at their letter or number on the school tracking system, we look at the child and back down to the crumpled excuse for a piece of writing they have handed in and we wonder, ‘what were they thinking?’   Their capabilities in class bear no relation to the system.

Of course it could be down to the curse of subjectivity.  The inventions of APP and criterion scales, with their rules of ‘three times and it’s a dot or whatever’ or higher and lower level connectives (conjunctions, whatever) were, I suppose, an attempt to counteract that pesky personal lens, but, no matter how hard we try to objectify, to quantify, there is no escape.

No, I have a different theory.  Well, actually I have two theories.  I have children who have made, and are making the transition to secondary school living in my house, and it is an illuminating experience.  For a start, there is all that to-ing and fro-ing.  From being based in one classroom, with one teacher (for most of the time), a tray for personal belongings and tidy tubs with all the equipment they could possibly need in the centre of the table, to bells and the sudden gush of teenage humanity, squeezed and squashed down grey canals, before arriving, if not squalling then red-faced in the next classroom, supposedly ready to learn from the next teacher.  Within a week of starting, A had lost two pens, a ruler, one sock and a glove.  He’d eaten a spoonful of rice for lunch because he’d spent his dinner money on a drink.  He’d missed it entirely when he tried out a lunchtime club.  The anxiety comes off him in waves when he gets home, and he hasn’t got a learning disability to contend with.

But it’s not just that.  You see, we Year 6 teachers sell them an idea of what we think secondary school will be like.  We tell them that they are heading into an exciting new world.  There will be specialist teachers to inspire them, with equipment we couldn’t possibly have in primary, like labs and practice rooms and drama studios, woodwork blocks and real forges.  They will work harder than they ever thought possible.  The expectations will be so much higher.

And I think we aren’t being entirely honest with them.  Off they go, miniature adults in scratchy uniforms and…  Alliteration.  Learned about that in Year 2.   Onomatopeoia.  Year 3.  Journalistic writing.  Been into enormous detail with Year 5.  Shakespeare.  I’ve seen Year 3 children performing parts of Macbeth.  Poetry, plays, non-chronological reports, genres.  Paragraphing, links between paragraphs, lively, interesting writing; all these things are the bread and butter of the primary curriculum.  And yet.  We send them up to secondary school, their little hopeful hearts fluttering in anticipation of new learning, new ideas; a new curriculum.  And what do we give them?  More of the same.  And not just a bit more.   Lots more.

Now that I have three children in three different schools I have taken to sticking up not just one, beautifully symobol-ed up timetable to the kitchen wall.  Now that I have three different schools to contend with they are all up there, and they are revealing.  Sam’s shows a commitment to the life skills he will need to fit him in the best possible way to be as independent as he can.  A’s is testament to a traditional academic curriculum.  And L.  Hers is dominated by vast tracts of literacy and numeracy lessons.  She, like her brothers before her, faces a junior curriculum dominated by the basics.

And while on the one hand I think this is fine because she should have a good grasp of the basics, the insider inside me is narrowing her eyes.  Because I know that Level 6 is the new black.  I know that it is no longer enough to have children reading and writing at the required standard, suitable for eleven year olds.  I know that the new expectation is that they should be doing it with the sophistication of a child of fourteen.  And in the pursuit of excellence there have been sacrifices.  A broad and balanced primary curriculum is long gone.  The arts, humanities, PE, even Science are squeezed in to a couple of hours a week, or as a cross curricular theme.  With all that Basics that they are doing, what are they not doing?  Those great opportunities for the children who aren’t so academic to shine are lost.

Imagine the dismay they feel when they enter this exciting new world, a world they have dreamed about, read about and worried about for some time, and discover that apart from the physical movement around the school it is not new after all, that instead it is just more of the same.  And not just for the stragglers, the ones who have struggled and struggled and gone over and over and over their phonics again and again and still didn’t get it.  The bright ones too.  They find, perhaps for the first time, that they are in exactly the same boat.

Learning loss?  Ennui more like.

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8 thoughts on “Ennui

  1. “…instead it is just more of the same.” Ain’t that the truth?

    Two children from each Y6 class at my daughter’s primary were selected to attend a ‘taster’ programme once a week after school at the local secondary. My daughter was one of them. She was wowed by the programme – and then devasted to find the day-to-day of secondary school was just more of the same.

  2. Ah…many a time as a year 6 teacher have I sat in a room with my brood alongside a suited and booted secondary school head of year and rolled my eyes at the propaganda the naive, innocents are fed about the wonder of the brave new world they will encounter at the start of the next academic year. Whilst I am not wishing ever to crush a child’s hopes and dreams…a pinch of reality wouldn’t go a miss. “Oooh look, a shiny lunch pass.” As though this is what we’re building them up for.
    It also wouldn’t hurt for us to allow our primary aged children to be just that: Primary age. I have watched in horror these past few years as year 6 teachers are obsessing about how many children will leave with level 6. I find this worrying. I also feel the basics are no longer basics; From what I see, teaching in a relatively affluent area, the majority of our children do not leave primary school secure in the basics for these “basics” have increased in number and led to a watered down skill set. (And I don’t care what that number at the end says. I passed a GCSE maths exam because I was drilled to do so. I could honestly say, hand on heart not one of those ‘skills’ stayed with me and I’d not pass one now.) I have a year 4 maths set (higher end ability) Four out of the twenty have come to me, secure in understanding subtraction. Four. Imagine what the lower set looks like. This is because we spend too much time trying to push them through other “basics” which are not basics at all.
    And as for the loss of other curriculum areas. It makes me weep to see how even over the past two/three years music, art, drama, dance, PE, History etc…is simply sidelined. They just do not appear to be important any more.
    And now we’re to have grammar tests for year 2 children. This whole merry-go-round has me despairing.
    Yes, just keep feeding them more of the same from 5-16 and surely they’ll get it? I’m waiting for the powers at be to finally grasp that children are all different and some of them may never “get it” at the level they are expected to. They certainly won’t if we keep pushing the boundaries and goal posts out of their reach.

    Sorry, I’ve taken over your comments section! Great post. I do love a good Saturday morning rant! 😀

  3. Exams lead to a certain type of teaching that can easily lead to shallow learning. I would argue that this is the main reason Year 7 teachers take the SATs results with a pinch of salt. In the same way university lecturers often need to do the same thing with A level results. I was re-reading about good old Vygotsky recently: “…the concept of the zone of proximal development opposes the use of standardized tests as a means to measure student intelligence.Vygotsky suggests that instead of assessing what a student knows to determine intelligence, it is more helpful to compare their ability to independently solve problems with their ability to solve problems with the assistance of someone who has mastered the concepts being learned.” (Berk, L & Winsler, A. 1995 “Vygotsky: His Life and Works” and “Vygotsky’s Approach to Development.”)
    Teachers need to take back teaching and until they do there will be lots of intelligent people scratching their heads wondering why the system is so often tedious and indeed meaningless for children, the one related to the other of course. Educators should be leading the education system, that is teachers, educational researchers and so on. If these people are not overseeing the education system then we must ask: who is?
    http://jennycollinsteacher.wordpress.com/

  4. A lot of the repetition is that too much of what’s happened at primary has been taught, but not learnt to fluency, or even learnt to last beyond the test. There is also the additional matter of things that have been taught in such a way as to cement misconceptions, that then have to be retaught from scratch to undo the misconceptions.

    Year 7 teachers are usually shocked at how *little* their students seem to know, not how much and also how wrong ideas they have. I don’t care if a child “learnt” their times tables in year 4. If they can’t recall 7 times 8 without counting on their fingers or staring off into the middle distance for 30 seconds, that’s no good to me. I don’t care if they have learnt to multiply 7 by 0.4 in year 5 if the method they were taught means they will never be able to do 0.7 by 0.4 without forgetting that method first.

    In my view this has got even worse since the introduction of the year 6 tests. Even more content taught, even less practised to the point of fluency or learnt without misconceptions. There’s rarely any “learning loss” between tests at the start of year 7 and the end of year 7, even in students whose end of year 7 level is lower than their SATs level.

    1. Totally agree. We are spread too thinly at primary, and would do better to do proper basics well. So that the year 7s can come up to you secure and ready to learn stuff that is new to them.
      Firm foundations and looking forward to it. I’d consider that a job well done.

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