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.