School Soul

Are we in danger of losing the very soul of primary education?

I’ve thought this a lot over the last few years, as a hostile target culture has kidnapped traditional primary education and handed it over to bureaucrats and talentless technocrats. We really are in danger of ruining what should be a gradual introduction to the joys of learning coupled with a nurturing journey through the complicated networks of social relationships. A Primary school is the first big community that children are a major part of – the values it espouses will stay with a child throughout those tricky teenage years.

I was reminded of this again on World Book Day. Yes, there were justified criticisms about dressing up; I agree with the one about competitive parents and oneupmanship. My own family members were pouring scorn on this through our WhatsApp group; my sister-in-law making the ethical point that many of the ‘costumes’ are sewn by exploited children from the developing world. Very possible.

But there was another criticism, often implied on Twitter, one which one couldn’t help notice.That of dressing up as if it was a waste of valuable curriculum time, or that the true value of reading was being diminished.

Well, yes, it is cosmetic and peripheral, and it doesn’t have the rigour of a reciprocal reading session (or whatever new trend we have now) but isn’t that the point? Children and staff having fun? Having a giggle at Mrs Perkins dressed up as Mary Poppins. Or at the headteacher with a wig.

We did deliberately try to have a true learning focus by asking children to come as a word. It was brilliant – many fabulous ideas, my favourite being ‘melancholy’ (t-shirt with picture of ‘melon’ on front and ‘cauliflower’ on back). But the wordplay was not overplayed; it was just good fun.

But no, fun is outlawed by many educators now. As is music, art, drama and sport. They don’t meet the narrow standards agenda.

And what has happened to the poor old primary school assembly!?? Once the staple of a primary school day, they were first cut back to one or two a week, and now many heads can’t be arsed doing a single one. Ever. Not a bleeding one. Why? Because they don’t meet the ‘standards’ agenda, and they encroach into valuable curriculum time. Even when they are timetabled, some poor kids are dragged off for ‘intervention’ in an effort to squeeze more evidence out of them to justify the ‘expected standard’.

Assemblies are vital for so many things, but especially to inculcate that community mentality. That’s where children hear nuance, hear values, hear about others, celebrate with others. Realise that they are one amongst many. Instead, the ‘standards’ agenda inspires individualistic consumerism – my SATs, my entrance exam, my abilities, my ranking, my position in this whole standardised hell. Just ask the Chinese as I have – they hate it, and can’t wait to change it. Even the Singaporeans have realised that it’s been a dreadful mistake; they have confined league tables to the rubbish bin marked ‘What the hell were we doing?’

But instead we insist that we must do Singapore bloody Maths intervention instead of going to an assembly.

I spent two afternoons last week teaching the whole of Y5 and Y6 a series of songs for a quite amazing concert that takes place on Monday. Not once did I think that they were missing out on valuable revision time, a chance for them to gain 2% on their target grade. Instead, my colleagues and I put the hours in so that they will perform with confidence, skill, professionalism and pride. They will have rehearsals at the venue on Monday morning and the concert on Monday afternoon. (Oh, bugger, another whole day without SATs revision. No wonder we don’t ‘smash it’ when it comes to May).

As an employer, please give me the person who has these four attributes (confidence, skill, professionalism and pride), and not an individualistic hedonist who got a standardised score of 110 and thinks that dressing up and having fun is immature (unless it’s on his bucket list). I actually had a trainee teacher ask for a pay rise two weeks into his year’s placement. Yes, after two bloody weeks! That’s what an individualised education delivers – no empathy, no understanding of those around you, no idea, and an inflated sense of one’s own importance.

Listen, there are some justified criticisms of World Book Day, the competitive element being a big one, but if it’s just a bit of fun and makes children laugh, shriek and smile together, please let it go.

Primary schools can be places of communal action, of joy, warmth and hope. They should not be cold and fearful places, where learning becomes atomised and calculating, where a child is told at 7 their ‘flightpath’ means that it’s only reading, writing and mathematics for you now until you meet your ‘standards’.

But to end with an optimistic message, for every one school that has traded in its soul for a turgid race to standardisation, I think there are many more that are maintaining a traditional primary school family and community vision. Good on you.

And as for dressing up, I’m afraid I failed. I was violently sick overnight, felt marginally better in the morning, took some paracetamol, donned my suit and went as ‘delicate’.

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