I have worked as a teacher for 14 years. In that time, I have taught in inner cities, leafy boroughs, and disadvantaged ex-mining towns; specialised in several different subjects, from English to Drama, to PHSE, to Life Skills; and delivered staff training on diversity and Anti-bullying. I have had pastoral and teaching responsibilities across Key Stage 3, 4 and 5. I have progressed from being a member of a large core department to running a small Media Studies department single-handed. This is infinitely more experience than the current Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, or the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, have hopefully giving me the right to pass judgement on the current state of provision. In the interests of impartiality, I will not include the general lack of respect for the teaching profession within my list: according to the Teacher Status Index, the UK does not feature in the top ten countries despite working the 4th longest hours of the 35 countries surveyed. And I will steer clear of OFSTED as I might tackle it in a separate article.

Let’s start at the very beginning

The first issue and arguably this single factor is the root of the problem, is our dismal track record in pre-schooling. As anyone working in any capacity with children or young adults knows all too well, early intervention is key. So why is this not prioritised, funded, and resourced accordingly? The government announced this week that the staff to child ratio in childcare settings will be allowed to increase from three to five; at a time when young children need more time and attention to adjust back into social situations after the lockdowns. There are several support packages available to low-income families to help with the financial burden of nursery fees, but many eligible parents are unaware of this support. The number of two-year-olds currently taking up funded early education is just 62%. More needs to be done to get these children into a context where they can interact with others and learn through play, following the free-flowing model adopted with such success in Finland. It is the children that enter primary schooling without these ‘soft skills’ that end up falling further and further behind because primary schools do not have the funding and resources to put the necessary interventions in place. And as any teacher worth their salted-caramel latte knows, it’s the kids playing catch-up that begin to exhibit negative behaviour patterns, which only exacerbates the problem further.

The primary problem

The second issue is the emphasis on data and results rather than a more holistic approach to progress which starts in year six of primary school with the SATs. Rather than seeing the children as individuals and allowing for progress to be made at whatever pace is right for them, all students are expected to have achieved a level four by the time they move up to secondary school. Despite lobbying from parent groups, the government insists on this rigid, restrictive testing system, even in the face of evidence that it just does not work: the Programme for International Student Assessment found that there was no real improvement in reading over a ten-year period. It is shameful that a country with the sixth-largest economy in the world has an average reading age of nine. Our pensioners have better literacy rates than our school leavers. There is an enormous amount of pressure on teaching staff to meet unrealistic targets to keep school inspectors at bay.

More importantly, though, it places the flexible minds of the children in the vice-like grip of rote learning; it causes anxiety which in some cases will stay with them into adulthood. Over 1,200 year six teachers took part in a recent NEU study, which found increased levels of concerning behaviour in the months leading up to the examinations including vomiting, nightmares, crying, and school refusal. Once a pupil develops a school phobia, it only gets worse, and this is an issue I have personally seen increase dramatically over recent years. Teachers reported feeling pressured to cover essential content (literacy and numeracy) at the cost of the wider curriculum, particularly creative and problem-solving skills; skills that arguably serve them far better in a workplace. Perhaps the most damning indictment of all is the damage this does to the self-esteem of the students whose strengths are not in English and Maths, who excel (if allowed) in drawing or music, dance, or drama. Students who learn to label themselves ‘failures’ because they cannot say how many lines of symmetry a shape has, or identify obtuse and acute angles in their classroom, or use fronted adverbials with commas in a sentence. And again once this pattern of thinking is established, it will only get worse once they move up to secondary school where a whole raft of new stress factors come into play.

Secondary strife

By the time some students transition to secondary school, they are already so far behind that only an intensive course of one-to-one teaching would get them back on track. And of course, a state secondary school budget will not stretch to this. One strategy that is sometimes used is to create a ‘sink’ group: essentially form a group of the lowest ability students (based on their SAT scores combined with CATs) and give them extra literacy and numeracy sessions while all their peers study a foreign language. For those of you lucky enough to have never seen a CATs paper, allow me to enlighten you. Where the SATs are didactic in content, CATs are stringent in format, and the mere sight of all the tiny boxes is enough to bring the less dexterous among students out in a rash. They must be filled out in pencil. A straight line must be drawn through the correct box. The line must be perfectly horizontal.

These tests have no bearing on anything they have been studying. Students are told, “don’t worry about them, you cannot prepare for them, just do your best.” Little wonder that some just guess their answers or draw their lines to make some sort of visual pattern, to create some meaning out of an arbitrary exercise. When I taught one of these ‘sink’ classes I came across an extremely bright student who was clearly far too able to need this extra ‘support’. She would show me the book she was writing, complete with beautiful illustrations. Her vocabulary was better than average for a year seven and her ability to work independently was better than many years elevens I have known. When I flagged this up with senior staff, it took weeks to get her moved because they could not seem to see past the CAT score. I wonder how many other students are currently languishing in groups like this, their potential stagnating.

There are always options

It would not be so bad if students were allowed to find their strengths once they took their options in year nine. ‘Options’ sounds liberating; like a reward for putting up with years of educational rationing. But just as the UK has a two-tier school system, we also divide subjects into two categories: EBacc-worthy (a ‘proper’ traditional curriculum of staples, consisting of English, Maths, Science, Humanities and Languages) and non-EBacc (‘soft’ subjects that develop ‘soft’ skills, such as art, music, drama, DT and media studies). Less able students are encouraged to take BTEC subjects which are looked down on by many parents as less appealing to employers. The word BTEC is now used out of context by students in the same way that ‘gay’ has come to stand in for anything substandard. The same goes for Foundation. Many schools will simply not run less popular subjects, forcing staff to compete against each other at Options Evenings. But it is not an even playing field. If you are a teacher in a core subject, you have job security. If you teach one of the ‘soft’ options, you spend sleepless nights each year, worrying that you will not attract enough students to run your course. This could perhaps be justified if there were no job opportunities in the ‘at risk’ subjects.

But there are far more opportunities in our thriving Creative Industries than in careers where speaking fluent French is an essential requirement. At this point, many students who have been looking to year ten as their ‘Promised Land’ of opportunities and autonomy, become completely disillusioned. When faced with two blocks of subjects and forced to choose just one from each, it’s easy to see why. For some, resentment sets in, for others, it’s apathy. Certainly, there’s a need for all students to leave school equipped with the basic numeracy and literacy skills required to function in the adult world. But how relevant is speech writing, analysing Shakespeare, or algebra in the context of securing work in say retail, hospitality, or the care sector? Since the UK average reading age is nine, a full year before primary pupils sit those dreaded SATs, we must ask ourselves how much beneficial English at secondary school really has. And I’m not for one moment suggesting that English teachers are failing our students. I used to be an English teacher. I know how hard they work, and I know how difficult it is to be constantly asked by students, “why do we have to do poetry, Shakespeare, letter writing…” [insert whatever is currently being taught]. Imagine how much nicer the job would be if students could opt for English Literature. Options should mean options. Radical, I know, but the word ‘overhaul’ is right there in the title – what did you expect?

The exam factory

It would be impossible to write this article and not bring up the gruelling examination process. Essentially, eleven years of schooling culminates in probably the most stressful six weeks of a young person’s life. Some students have as many as twenty-five exams; sometimes sitting three in one day. Up to 2017, I taught the WJEC media studies GCSE specification. This was weighted 60:40 in favour of coursework. The single terminal exam was based around a pre-released brief that was received by teachers four weeks beforehand, giving time to prepare students for topics that they could be certain would appear on the paper. I currently teach the EDUQAS specification which is weighted 70:30 in favour of exams. Course work must be delivered in as little time as possible in order to create the time necessary to cover the enormous amount of content that might appear on the final paper. I can honestly say, having delivered both, that the vast majority of students got a more rounded experience of the subject the old way. And I don’t dislike the specification itself. Far from it, it's a rich and interesting collection of set products covering every media industry.

Everybody I know that works in a school agrees that the stress of exams on top of all the other pressures of teenage life that the modern world presents is often the final straw when it comes to mental health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a marked increase in anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and depression. I have observed this first hand. It’s staggering. Children as young as eleven are diagnosed with depression, an epidemic of panic attacks, brought on by anything from identity-related factors to relationships at home, to the mere mention of the word ‘test’. Recently the Daily Star ran a headline, “Weapons of Maths Destruction”, ridiculing the idea that we should be mindful of using the ‘maths’ word lest it trigger anxiety in the numerically challenged, but anyone working in a school knows that it is the slightest thing that can tip an ‘anxious learner’ over the edge. This is partly down to a lack of resilience and partly down to the issue of self-confidence referred to earlier. I’m not going to suggest that there is a quick fix but there is a simple answer to this: switch to modular assessment. Then we could give time to developing resilience, along with other, far more relevant skills like emotional literacy.