Sunday, 20 November 2016

Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution…

Wherein our hero bares his soul to the reader and single-handedly saves the education system.

This time last year I was ready to quit teaching. I was working hard, sacrificing time with my family and friends, not exercising and, despite all this, I still felt that I wasn’t doing a good job. I wasn’t doing enough. Some teachers I know, people I like and respect, told me that the trick was to care a bit less. Which didn’t seem particularly satisfactory. So I stayed lost for a while, and even tried to get another job. I was saved, believe it or not, by Twitter. By Doug Lemov and Joe Kirby. By Debra Kidd and Ross Morrison McGill. By all the other wonderful teachers and educators who made me realise that the trick was not to care less, but to care more about what really matters. So thank you, you’re all awesome.

Now, apart from providing a charming anecdote to engage the reader, and displaying a pathetic level of sycophancy in a desperate attempt to gain acceptance from some Twitter titans, what is the point of that opening paragraph? And what has it got to do with Tracey Chapman? And, in fact, with saving the education system? Well, as I was reading about Finland scrapping subjects this week (which, of course, they are not doing; read this if you don’t believe me), I remembered something I thought about this time last year as I stared into the abyss, but which I had forgotten because it seemed too crazy. Seeing as, since this time last year, crazy seems to have become more mainstream, I thought I’d share it:

Let’s scrap exams.

Now, before you stop reading and start shaking your head at the absurd naivety of such a statement, let me explain. I don’t mean that we should stop teaching pupils the traditional subjects. I don’t mean that we should teach them with any less rigour or passion, or that we should not hold them to account for actually working hard and improving their skills and knowledge in these subjects. What I mean is that we should start thinking about what really matters, and to start caring more about that.
Ask yourself this: what is stressful for about school? Remembering which pen to mark your books with, you might say. Remembering to mark all your books, full stop. Planning lessons which stretch and engage all pupils, all the time, taking account of the different (and sometimes contradictory) needs of your PP, EAL and SEND pupils, perhaps. All of these things are stressful, but they are all stressful mainly because, in the back (/front) of your mind, is the knowledge that, at some point in the future, the smiling, innocent darlings in front of you are going to walk into an exam hall, turn over an exam paper and be expected to provide sufficient evidence that they have made at least the same amount of progress over the previous five years of schooling as the average pupil (whoever that is). And, moreover, if they don’t, it’s your fault.  And it isn’t just stressful for teachers. Many, many pupils, under our current system, are essentially told at the age of 16 that they have “failed” school. How can that possibly be right? A great teacher I know, George Stroud, said to me earlier this year: we have an examination system, not an education system. How can that be right?

However, that doesn’t get us very far. What will pupils leave school with, if they don’t walk away with a set of exam results? I think that we could do a lot worse than this: at the end of Year 11, all pupils take a test which assesses them on a varied set of skills which can actually be translated to things which will be useful to them in the future. I don’t profess to know exactly what this set of skills should be, but it might look something like:
  • Creative thinking
  • Analytical thinking
  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Communication skills
  • Teamwork

You might disagree, or argue about what each of those things mean, but that level of detail can be ironed out. The important thing is that the set of skills is non-hierarchical and is reflective of who the pupil is and what they can do. It focuses and celebrates what they are good at. A 16-year old would know that they were pretty good at working in teams and being creative, but that they weren’t so great at analysing and communicating. And, equally as important, colleges, universities and employers would understand that too.

At this stage, you might very well ask why you should listen to any of this at all. I’m just some English teacher in Manchester. But, I did work for 4 years as a lawyer and for 5 years as a recruitment consultant before I became a teacher, and I sit on the Student Support and Access Committee at my old university, so I know something about the way people in the real world (or what constitutes the real world in the spheres of law, recruitment and higher education) thinks about exam results and how useful they are when making decisions about whether to admit or recruit someone. Which, frankly, is not very much.  

So, just imagine with me for a minute. Imagine that you could teach the subject that you love, in the way you want to teach it. Imagine being able to focus on giving pupils the knowledge and skills they need to actually really understand and be good at your subject, rather than just be good enough to get through an exam. Imagine if the focus of the entire process was on the individual pupil and helping them to become a better, more mature, more knowledgeable, more self-aware version of themselves, with an understanding of the meaning and value of the things they are good at. Imagine if no-one “failed” school. Imagine if large groups of pupils didn’t have to spend huge chunks of Year 11 being intervened upon because it looked like they might not make at least “average” progress. Just imagine.

It's probably just madness. But, as I said, it is in the air. Tracey knew, revolutions start with a whisper. Well, I’m whispering. Feel free to ignore it.