Give me the child for the first seven years…

I sometimes wonder what would happen if we could provide hard scientific answers to the question of what works best in education. Having spent most of my career on the receiving end of a steady stream of progressive ideology, I find myself asking what would be the consequences of its being possible to prove that this does actually harm children’s prospects.  Would there be a sudden U-turn?

Having witnessed, earlier this year, the results of a pupil survey that showed unequivocally that they distrust peer assessment – and the subsequent instruction that therefore we need to do more of it “in order to show the children why it is valuable” – I somehow doubt it. In fairness, I equally doubt that many traditionalists would abandon their ideas either, were they shown to be flawed.

I persist in my doubt that there will ever be hard answers, so perhaps ideologues need not worry too much, but recent events have got me thinking about another, perhaps more easily identified matter, namely learned behaviours, and the degree to which these do or do not support the learning process.

In particular, this is about the effectiveness with which one phase of education prepares children for the demands of the next. I have kept an open mind about the primary sector, because I have little direct experience of it, and because I know how essential its work is. But following the blog of Quirky Teacher in recent weeks, I have encountered some controversial views from a mature entrant to primary education and this has sown some doubts over its efficacy. While the long-term effects of learning are invisible, it is easy enough to observe how pupils fare with the increasing demands placed on them as they age.

My brushes with the primary sector have not filled me with confidence. Some time ago, I attended a Healthy Schools seminar dominated by primary teachers; I came away incredulous. The majority were young and female (I mention this purely in the light of Quirky Teacher’s comments about the over-feminisation of the primary sector). Much of their attention seemed to revolve around voracious careerism, various gossip and scandal. Not much specifically about teaching young children…

This was of course one isolated instance – but other experiences, including having a similarly-minded primary teacher as a near neighbour for many years, hardly dispelled the impression. I do wonder whether rampant careerism is really compatible with the core priorities of establishing key cognitive abilities in young children.

Equally, I sympathise with Quirky Teacher’s reservations about teachers (at all levels) who claim to ‘love children’. To me, this speaks of a level of emotional involvement incompatible with the role of a professional; we are not their parents. Certainly, the word may be used loosely, but that in itself raises questions about professionalism – and it also ignores the many other reasons for going into teaching. We do need compassion – but love?

This implies an emotional involvement that may prejudice the more detached work we have to do with them. Such focus risks cuddly indulgence, a narrow focus on the current state of a child’s being rather than where he or she is going next, and perhaps a reluctance to create situations that cause short term ‘pain’ in the interests of long-term gain. While it is hardly contestable that children entering the education system for the first time need a caring transition from the home environment, our job as teachers is gradually to wean them from this and induct them into the wider world. By the end of primary education, children should be equipped with the skills and attitudes needed to cope with the greater demands of secondary school.  Indeed, my own memories centre on groups gradually giving way to formal teaching and lines of desks.

I am not convinced that this is widely happening. Before I am accused of being over-critical of primaries, secondary schools make it worse by falling over themselves to smooth that transition; I would rather that children arrived in Year 7 being – yes – slightly apprehensive about what they will encounter. I think they should be a little in awe of the teachers, and we should not discourage this.

In secondary school, the problem is extended by treating educational ‘outcomes’ as being the end of secondary schooling with its attendant exam results; we need to question whether we are really using Key Stage Three to prepare pupils for Key Stages Four and Five – and whether we are really equipping older pupils with what they will need after school.

My recent lower school teaching has been heavily loaded with less able classes. I resolved to continue with my broadly traditional approach, and this initially created some low-level behavioural issues from children who appeared unused to it. Nonetheless, I established good relationships with the majority, even those who sometimes fell foul of my expectations. In particular, the issue of inappropriate talking arose; it seems to me that many children no longer have the self-discipline to know when it is inappropriate to talk; even with a very firm hand, self-restraint does not come easily. Delving into this suggests that they don’t understand what they are doing wrong, or that they need to modify their behaviours to others’ expectations. A lot of children transgress not through deliberate naughtiness but through learned bad habits – at which point we need to ask where they learned them…

The expectation appears to be that school is about fun (that word again) and not formal learning – hence the grumbling about being formally taught – and given that this started in Year 7, this message may have come from primary school. By the time they arrive in secondary school, it is harder to change the expectation, even though their book work has improved…

Confronting my Year 10 G.C.S.E. class this week about a very mixed set of exam results, the confession gradually emerged about how little revision many had done; despite clear advice, most seemed to think that a few hours just before the exam were enough to master a content-heavy subject like geography. I deployed the thinking of Robert Bjork and David Didau – the necessity for spaced learning, desirable difficulties and the rest. There was silence… and then one voice muttered, ”But that means we have so much work to do…”

Why exactly are able students, with much to gain from the educational system, who overwhelmingly come from comfortable home backgrounds, baulking so greatly at the need to work hard? And this in an outstanding school? Why is it that many of them have found the workload at Key Stage Four difficult?

I suggest there are many reasons. Wider lives have to play a part: many of these children want for nothing, and are used to being indulged by wealthy parents; they lack the hunger for self-improvement that often feeds educational effort as much as they lack clear boundaries. Schools may have fuelled this by providing extra support to get them through the exams; learned helplessness has become an epidemic. I have frequently challenged pupils up to sixth form age about this: they admit that the more we do for them, the less they do for themselves – and consequently know how to. On the other hand, maybe we need to consider the possibility that too much pressure has been applied through testing, and we are turning children off learning. Can both even exist together?

It is possible that the focus of Key Stage Three teaching, often informed by primary school techniques, is preparing pupils insufficiently for the greater intellectual demands to come – and it is also possible that over-loving primary schools are too focussed on naturalistic readings of early childhood to establish the key expectations of self-discipline and cognitive focus at that critical stage – apart from cramming for KS2 tests, that is. By the time children arrive in secondary school, it is nearly too late; many of the issues I deal with seem rooted in their earlier years.

While there is not much we can do about the wider societal issues, I think the time is overdue for the education sector as a whole to have a lengthy discussion about the totality of how we prepare children for their futures.

9 thoughts on “Give me the child for the first seven years…

  1. True – too true of primary. Don’t worry about being critical – there are enough primary teachers who are willing to do just that if they are in a position. The truth is that too much time is spent infantalising children. I know of a Year 6 TA who talks about them being babies – how ludicrous. Children who are physically maturing, some of whom are already going through puberty, are being called, and no doubt treated, like a child 10 years younger than them. It’s actually not the fault of the children but of adults and we need to take a good long look at what it is that we are producing here.

    In the end, so much is bunkum in education, even more the lower down you go, the less intellectually adept the teachers are and often less mature. I have worked in primaries for over ten years now and the suspicion with which anyone with a higher degree is held has to be seen to be believed.

    Primary schools were not always like this and there is hope that they can change for the better – first stop is EYFS – seriously need to rethink early years education and its purpose. Either make it more about actual learning (as opposed to social skills) or leave it off altogether. A child’s first encounter with a school should not be to spend all day playing – they could do that at home. Neither does it help that they don’t feel the weight of accountability in the same way as the rest of the staff do as they keep themselves as a separate group who act as though no one can understand how young children learn like they do despite the fact that very few have a strong enough understanding of theories or the critical analyses of them to be able to make an informed decision.

    • >> Either make it more about actual learning (as opposed to social skills) or leave it off altogether. A child’s first encounter with a school should not be to spend all day playing – they could do that at home

      Interesting comment. As I mentioned some time ago, the children of my various continental friends started school later than in this country – but when they did start, the expectation seems to have been high from day one.

      • I have a friend in Italy – don’t start until 7 but it is straight onto the learning. I am wondering about that – the more we do the more we are expected to do. Parents should take responsibility for the absolute basics and we should come in when they need it.

  2. Sometimes I even think that the behavioural damage is entrenched right down in infant school, possibly even EYFS. I also have grave concerns about the trend for less academic, younger teachers being automatically put in EYFS and KS1 because you find these people have no real experience of the realities of bringing up children. I maintain that wisdom and maturity (whether a biological parent or not) are basic requirements for the upbringing and instruction of children, and frankly many young teachers still live at home with their parents! This situation is, in my view, utterly inappropriate. You find that the more academic, older teachers (if they are allowed in a primary) are usually placed in UKS2 whether they like it or not. The mature, wise and intellectual teacher is frequently seen as not able to ‘connect’ with younger children, even if they have children themselves!

    • >>mature, wise and intellectual teacher

      I’m afraid to say that such people seem to have been marginalised right up the age range – as you say, the implication is that they don’t have the ability to connect with children.

  3. All of these reflections were going through my mind when I heard, with incredulity, the “news” that primary school in this country were generally very successful, and that it was the secondary schools that were the problem….unfortunately, Ofsted judgements support the infantilising approach.

  4. Your comment about inappropriate talking strikes a chord and I agree, I think this is learned (or unchallenged) behaviour. I’m pleased to hear that I’m not alone in my views.

    • 23lou, you most certainly are not! I find this quite an intractable issue. Experience suggests that the ‘tolerance level’ of children to sanctions for this offence is high, by the time they have reached secondary age. In other words, the application of detentions and the rest seems to have relatively little lasting effect – especially with the less able, where it has to be said, the problem seems worse.

      I think this may link to the ingrainedness of the habit, such that they don’t identify what they are doing wrong. The primary school emphasis on group work may be a root of this, as the requirement for quiet effectively goes against a lot of earlier classroom conditioning. The modern willingness of adults in the wider world to let children interject at will may add to it.

      I’m not certain how widely the issue is being confronted. Progressive teaching may have more tolerance to begin with, and the hassle of confronting it can be great. Personally, I never give up!

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