A great experiment in education May 2016 – Wobbly jelly learning

Reflection (Not part of the book)

I believe we are currently seeing the implementation of a great national experiment which covers all key stages including early years.  This experiment is based on the hypothesis that if we raise standards and expectations significantly, students will achieve more. Unfortunately, our current Government doesn’t recognise the experiment. It has moved lock, stock and barrel into creating this assumption and its reality in each school and classroom across the country. Sitting alongside this experiment are two subsidiary trials:

  • The first is that, we can raise expectations with no or minimal training for teaching staff. In particular, non- specialist subject teachers which can be found in primary schools and middle schools. Although with a shortage of teachers they are now appearing as a regular occurrence in secondary also. The experiment assumes that all have the capacity of knowledge for all these subjects at the higher standard, and can jump to this demand.
  • The second is that, by implementing a high stakes exam system to sit alongside some of the largest hikes in expectations, that I have ever seen, all key stage learning will be further enhanced.

Having experienced the birth of this experiment as a secondary head teacher, and witnessing the ensuing chaos created from an ever advancing curriculum and rapid, and continuous raising of exam standards. (As secondary teachers we used to be able to predict grades, now we spend our time second guessing the latest grade hike.) I am interested currently in looking at the impact on learning in the primary school system as this experiment reaches their key stages. Will this high stake experiment improve learning? Will secondary schools see the uplift to accompany these changes when their new intakes arrive?

My current evidence base is limited. Consisting of visits to primaries and small pockets of observation and conversations with primary and middle school teachers predominantly. My only science to this is my ability to observe. None of what I write can been seen as in anyway conclusive. However, in visiting various schools a repeat pattern is occurring which concerns me. I am witnessing the pressure to meet expectations, and jump the hoops in the next exam, is overtaking the necessity to check students learning and to revisit immediately where learning is not secure.

The pressure to meet these new expectations has left primaries with a high paced and prescriptive curriculum that seems out of kilter with students recognised stages of development. Sitting in lessons and discussions, with a variety of primary teachers the pressure was palpable. The expectation to get through the curriculum burning into their judgements and balance between pace and ensuring learning is secure. I could hear in conversations, the frustration of having to move on, before students have established and secured this new and demanding learning.

In Maths in particular, I am deeply concerned that eight and nine year olds are being asked to manipulate and comprehend number that is beyond practical application and requires a thought process that is abstract. It feels that the curriculum is sitting at a juxtaposition to the developmental stages of the brain. I am not an expert in psychology, but even with really quality teacher input. The learning feels like jelly, wobbly without a solid foundation, and likely to slide off the plate of secure understanding at any point. The new curriculum and expectations are imposing a planning model that is ignoring the essential ingredient to any students’ learning, where are they at? What are they secure in? Plan with this in mind and don’t leap prior to securing this knowledge so that it is solid and they are confident.

If this is the case and teachers are recognising this problem, why don’t they in the autonomous system take the opportunity to scarp the curriculum. If you are an academy you can do just that?

For me, the high stakes scenario we work in, is adding to the necessity to tick the box of expectations. Currently school assessment relates directly to the Ofsted judgment and to teachers pay awards.  The pressure to meet the new age related expectations and beyond, takes no consideration of the fact we have just sent primary expectation in to the stratosphere. The spurious exam processes now entering the primary system adds additional pressure to get through that content. All in all, schools have very little choice but to push on and ignore the wobble.

Is this the type of learning that will secure great learning? No. What will it create?  A lot of students with wobbly foundations, significant amounts of insecurity and a lack of curiosity.

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