The march of progress leaves too many behind
MY YOUNGER child starts school in September. I don’t think he’s ready. At his age, our elder child was counting beyond 100, writing and reading a host of words and colouring inside the lines. This one stops counting when his fingers run out and if you gave him a pencil he’d eat it.
“What on earth are you worrying for?” said my mum. “Of course they’re not the same: they’re different children. Comparisons are pointless.”
I shook my head sadly. What did she know? She finished her 40 years in the classroom a decade ago. She still believes the job of a teacher is to look at every child’s starting point and move them on as far as you can regardless of what those around them are doing.
Of course, in this enlightened age we recognise that isn’t enough. We need comparative data. We need to compare children, cohorts, schools, even countries.
Of course I don’t think all comparison is bad, but surely benchmarks should be tools to aid teaching rather than pressure-inducing scorecards to beat you over the head with?
When we teach SRE topics, we place huge emphasis on the message that every child is different, that they will all develop at different times and this is perfectly normal and acceptable.
But when it comes to other aspects of their education, this message is not so consistent. Sorting children by who achieves “age-related expectations” automatically places those below into a failing category of children who are falling short of your expectations.
Some of these children will be your pupils with SEND: children who, for a multitude of reasons, simply take longer to get there. They may work their socks off, they may have made great progress but, statistically, their year will end in failure.
The system, at the moment, seems hopelessly inadequate when it comes to charting and celebrating the real progress that some children make every day.
Children like Jayden, who I taught in Year 4 and who, despite the many factors that made learning for him so much more of a struggle, always came to school with a beaming smile.
Jayden could read very little and struggled with writing. It took a month for us to teach him to write his surname and we worked with him endlessly on reading and basic comprehension skills. One day, when his teaching assistant was away I gave him a book and a comprehension sheet and told him to give it his best try.
At the end of the lesson he sidled up to me, sheet in hand. He’d answered every question (mostly correctly) and he had done the whole thing completely independently.
Looking down at him I felt a surge of exhilaration. This was no small step but a giant leap: a huge achievement for a child who, just weeks ago, struggled to put pencil to paper without supervision.
On the official scale of progress
Jayden remained exactly where he was but both he, I and the rest of the class knew what had been achieved. Sometimes in teaching we see progress that is simply beyond compare.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary school teacher in the Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse