I held an election at the school recently. It happened just the day before a similar event took place nationally. The two candidates were an octopus (plastic) and a clown (wooden). This was not intended as a reflection on national politics, they were simply the toys that came to hand as I raced out of the classroom and down to the hall for assembly.
This term the theme for assemblies has been fairness. As I lined the pupils up with their voting slips in front of a cardboard ballot box, I explained that we had gone back in time 200 years. Lord Sam (Year 6) and Duke Timothy (Year 5) were to be in charge of this election and would decide who was to vote. The young aristos very much enjoyed turning away all the pupils, except their two wealthy land-owning mates (Cameron, Year 5, and Freddie, Year 4). And so we carried on, conducting elections right through till 1969 when finally everyone was allowed to vote.
The children, particularly the girls, were refreshingly indignant about the denial of their democratic rights. But what was more interesting was the way they became embroiled in the contest. Who was going to win? Was it going to be the octopus or the clown? Factions quickly developed. Arguments erupted in the corners of the hall. Some were passionate in their advocacy of a particular toy. Some came close to tears when a friend rebelled and voted for the opposition. Yet no policies had been discussed. No one knew what the octopus or the clown stood for despite this being an election to decide the leadership of the school.
You get my point, I’m sure. It was reinforced after the general election when the children told me gleefully that Sats were to be abolished. Yes, I said, but did they know that they were to be replaced with more and harder ‘exams’? They didn’t know and they were, for once, silent. I suspect they would also be silent if they read the Conservative manifesto. In a few bleak words the government outlines its priorities for primary education: ‘Every 11-year-old to know their times tables off by heart and be able to perform long division and complex multiplication. They should be able to read a book and write a short story with accurate punctuation, spelling and grammar.’ That the potential achievements of an 11-year-old should be so stale, flat and unprofitable is heart breaking.
I assume no child was involved in drawing up these priorities. What self-respecting young person would sign up to such dreary targets? A very different set of aims emerges when young people are consulted. The Cambridge Primary Review listened carefully to its many ‘prominent and thoughtful’ child witnesses. Its final report (p 489) recommended that in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child ‘children should be actively engaged in decisions which affect their education’ and that schools should increasingly work to ensure pupils’ opinions are listened to in a meaningful way. Children told CPR researchers (final report, p 148) that they ‘relish a challenge,’ that they ‘enjoy succeeding’ and that they like ‘hands-on active learning’ in lessons that are full of variety. They dislike ‘mundane and repetitive’ learning, copying and ‘drill and practice’ exercises.
Children are begging for a broad, balanced and rich curriculum, as sought by CPR and CPRT. They may not express it in those words, but they do express in their actions. They triumphantly find fossils in the school garden. They catch bugs, beetles and dead butterflies and bring them in to show and discuss. They make up great stories while stirring a magic mud potion. They adore playing with electrical circuits and making bits of paper fly off motor spindles. They copy a Turner painting and say ‘Wow, Miss, I didn’t know I was good at art’. They wonder why bruises happen and why we shiver or say things like ‘I know it’s a silly question, Miss, but why did lions evolve?’ They love acting, will volunteer for anything, relish funny books (I wonder if ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ is the kind of book the Tories have in mind) and, of course, some go wild for long division and complex multiplication. ‘Please can I stay in at break and do more maths, Miss?’
So once more, as Warwick Mansell pointed out last week in his CPRT blog, we are back to the ‘basics versus breadth’ debate. Except that there is no debate at government level. The only debate is at school level as heads and teachers struggle to square the circle and reinforce the basics while not losing the breadth. Despite their efforts, largely via intervention programmes run by dedicated TAs and squeezed into every nook and cranny of a school day, some children will not meet those manifesto targets. They will not pass the new Year 6 ‘exams’. Their fate is to have to retake them in Year 7 – how humiliating is that for poor souls struggling to find their feet in their first year at secondary school?
Primary schools will be blamed for failing these children, but the truth is that they have a special need. It will not gain them exemption from the exams, though it ought to. These children are victims of a disadvantaged background where for myriad reasons there is no one at home prepared to listen to times tables or to buy a book, let alone to read it. Primary schools do an awful lot for these children – not least making them feel safe and valued for 30 hours a week. But they cannot and should not run them ragged to meet flawed targets set by a government that doesn’t listen to children and doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
If children had the vote I wonder if the Tory manifesto would have been different.
By the way, the octopus (plastic) won the school election. Make of that what you will.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.