For a decade, I taught in a high-pressured primary school. These are two terms that should never mix yet do, without question now. Learners aged 7-11 were for the most part industrial machines under phenomenal pressure to demonstrate progress at every opportunity. For a while, 10-minutely progress was the standard to reach, and doing so quietly was unacceptable. No, our learners had to be able to stage a learning dialogue at the click of a finger, should a visitor have walked through the classroom. Indeed, any learning – any thinking – stopped such that we may manufacture a brief discussion (known as a mini-plenary) for the benefit of the new person in the room. We had to put on a show.
I hold my hands up for this one. I was a major part of the problem. At least, I became one. It wasn’t always like that. Owing to my rather eccentric character, my lessons earlier in my career usually carried a great deal of enthusiasm, and accompanying noise. My happiest memories were Design and Technology days when we’d plan and then get busy making things, and I’d set up camp somewhere and help the children as they needed it. Oh boy, did they need it! Time flew, everyone was demonically engaged, and everybody learnt, be it from success or failure.
One day, my headteacher walked through and praised me for how quietly the pupils were learning. How odd, I thought: we were doing a test. Then I realised – she didn’t know that. I was never a poor performer, but not often given praise either, and that day was an eye opener for me as I saw the route to success and perhaps the promotion I’d coveted.
Weeks later, I was told I was to be teaching the eldest pupils next year, those under the most pressure as they would sit the dreaded standard assessment tests (SATs). The head of this year group was famous for his iron discipline and silent pupils, even during traditionally less-pressured lessons, such as Art. These two factors, the praise and the anticipated move, brought about a change in me that would characterise the second half of my career.
Immediately, I put the children into rows and introduced a rule of no talking within lessons; we would work independently. I didn’t believe it would work; surely they would talk more and more until we reached a happy compromise of relative quietness.
No. They worked silently. I had sensible rules that allowed for necessary interruptions, such as needing a pencil sharpener, without allowing for general chatter flowing from it. Over the days and weeks, more praise began to pour in, from teaching assistants to fellow teachers. Occasionally, my the team leader popped his head in to see if we were actually still in the room. The transition to SATs year was butter smooth; later came the promotion that seemed inevitable. Then my health failed. Were it not for this; I’d likely have continued down this path and never encountered this minimalist journey I treasure. I knew it didn’t make me happy, but it worked.
Whilst the silence benefitted some (a pupil wrote how the classroom was the one place he felt safe, because it was always calm), it added enormous pressure. Pressure on me to maintain it, pressure on them to operate within the new constraints. At this point, the pressure, though tangible was somewhat aimless. Though children would concentrate better with less distractions, powerful peer-led learning was largely lost, with organic learning dialogue nearing none.
During SATs year, pressure intensified. I quickly learned what it was that children really needed to know to attain (or surpass) the required grade. A complex sentence involves a comma to mark clauses. Open it with an adverb, writing in paragraphs, with a range of simple punctuation marks, and this would be ample. I stress, this would have been well beyond the reach of my particular learners at the beginning of the year: progress was substantial. It was achieved by drilling them. Day in, day out, the same things were said, over and over and over again until they could produce the work independently, and correctly. I have an obsessive personality, I have a hard time switching off and using moderation. This added to the problem, as to me, there was never a moment in that classroom where their performance wasn’t of critical importance. All the while, the praise continued – this was the formula for professional success.
I vividly remember an incident in my last year of teaching. J, seven years old, was drafting on a whiteboard and included a comma to mark clauses (as he’d been drilled to). J was the first in the class to manage it; an avalanche of success awaited. My excitement was beyond belief, and frankly bizarre. Now came the time to transfer this into his Literacy book, so I could show the world that he could do this. It became a common theme. Just being able to do it wasn’t good enough, you have to show it, at every opportunity. Dancing bears come to mind. I waited anxiously over his shoulder as he engaged in the common practice of copy the board into his book (learning what, exactly? Where is his 10-minutely progress in this?), desperate to ensure the comma was there. It would be the first step in proving his progress and education at this point had become a series of precise technical attributes to prove the existence of, somewhat similar to the 118-point safety check on vehicles. He included it. Excitement bordered on delirium; J had managed it.
Children need to know how to develop their writing, and commas for clauses is a necessary facet – but the pressure never was. It came from a place of fear, emanating from high governmental office and cascading onto the unhappy masses of professionals and learners below.
That comma was the only thing that mattered in his work that day. I have no idea what he wrote about, yet I can recall the incident so clearly, such was my focus on that comma. I was not a lone wolf in this draconian approach – it was mandatory that we included punctuation at the top of the page to tick off. It was clear what was valued, and there isn’t time for everything in a fast-paced, high-pressured environment. Robotic progress was costly.
No longer would writing be fun, even for those that loved it. It was reduced to a series of hurdles that must be overcome. Children choosing the direction of their writing was a thing of the past owing to the tight control. How many could have been inspired by a Dead-Poets-Society-style exploration of the depth, significance and meaning of texts, rather than the surface deep, impassive analysis they were subjected to? It was more akin to a laboratory chemist analysing ingredients in a substance.
The rules should be a support to write effectively, never the purpose of the communication. Hey, look, I can use a semi-colon! No. Hey, look, I care about this. It stirs a passion that burns inside me and I am so excited to have this moment in time to experience this and document it so you may have the same and we connect through it. That’s what writing should be about. It’s that passion that will inspire the next generations of writers. How many are lost early on, twinning writing with boredom and that frustration that accompanies the pursuit of ever-elusive perfection?
Minimalism is stripping away what isn’t important, that which adds neither joy nor value. Constant pressure to meet ever-increasing standards from above, combined with fear of losing your position as the government continued to erode the rights of teachers, produced a system of education that added neither joy nor value. Worse, it denied the opportunity to attain them, as every second was crammed with pressure-fuelled hysteria.
It didn’t stop there. Everything, even Art, became vehicles for Literacy, to demonstrate that they could meet the required standards in a range of contexts. More evidence to fall back upon. Even those unable to participate in Physical Education were given paper to write on about what was happening. They couldn’t just watch on, perhaps engage meaningfully with friends and teachers to become a part of the learning, and, dare I say, enjoy themselves.
I feel ashamed of my part in this process. I lost sight of what learning is really about, I was selfish. I wanted success and this was the route towards it. If I could go back in time, would I have changed things? I don’t know. Refusal to play the pressure game would have resulted in endless training or my replacement. An act of disobedience wouldn’t in itself be enough, and though other colleagues would voice similar feelings of discontent, would we all risk our careers by refusing to do what wasn’t in the best interests of the children? It seems idealistic in concept. It’s an embedded, systemic issue. I feel that I’m guilty of cowardice here. Tidal waves of change begin as a thought in the mind of just one person.
When I was young, school was a different. We had time. The teachers were relaxed. We would go out, collect bugs, draw pictures of them and write about them. Our writing developed and ideas in our minds were given room to mature – none of this cramming took place. Above all, learning was a happy, safe activity. We were successful, or guided towards so being. By the time I left teaching, two years ago, it had become a ‘you are not allowed to fail’ activity for pupils and teachers. The difference between the two, beyond the obvious happiness/fear contrast is pressure. It’s said that pressure can create a diamond or a lump of coal; is it right for us to decide that children have to become one or the other at all, let alone so early? I am confident that if you asked pupils which they were – diamond or coal – they’d answer fairly in line with their understanding of their attainment. The assessment would be based on perceived intelligence without consideration to other metrics such as altruism, creativity and effort. Effort has given way to attainment, and academic self-esteem has suffered as a result for many – a tragedy, with the potential to turn a lifelong pursuit of learning into an activity that makes us feel bad, one which should be avoided.
It is my belief that it should be up to learners to decide upon the amount of pressure they wish to subject themselves to, as they grow into adults. Removing a great deal of pressure (created by bureaucrats with their sliding scales, targets and buzzwords) from our educational system would allow minds to develop at a pace their owners can feel happy with. By ongoing exposure to ideas that change the way learners see the world, this development will have the breadth required to be able to participate in a wider range of discussions about things that matter. And most importantly, learning can be a thing of wonder, for all: an exciting, open-ended journey from a place of emotional security and instilled self-worth.