Volume 13 Number 3
No Way to Teach a Seven-Year-Old
01 June 2000

An English primary school teacher makes a plea that young children should not be crushed in an academic straightjacket. The writer has asked to remain anonymous.

Every day, every minute, of my teaching I am forced to compromise my ideals, and almost every primary teacher I know feels the same. We feel desperate because there seems to be nothing we can do. So we ask ourselves: do we continue working within a system we know is failing, even damaging, children--or do we leave, disillusioned and heartbroken?

Education has moved away from the child-centred ideals I was trained in, where the needs of the whole child were foremost. Nowadays the process of learning is no longer valued--everything is focussed on results. We are training children to do better and better in written tests while other vital areas of education are passed by.

Children learn at different rates and in different ways. Some children learn best visually, some aurally, while others (especially boys) learn kinaesthetically (through touching and doing). The classroom environment should enable children to learn through whatever means works best for them. But now much of the teaching is prescribed, with the children having to sit passively for long periods listening to the teacher. My hands are tied. I have to teach these lessons as directed, knowing that for some of the children there are much better ways of learning.

When I started teaching, the role of the reception/infant department was to be a happy, friendly environment where the children could learn to be apart from their parents and prepare for school life. Since the introduction of the written SATs (School Assessment Tests) for all seven-year-olds all that has changed. Schools are under pressure to get from the base-line assessment (made at age five) to the levels deemed appropriate for age seven. So for the whole of the first two years the emphasis is on pumping the kids with information and developing strategies for doing well in the SATs. Because it is a written test there is a huge emphasis on developing writing skills--to the exclusion of other methods of learning which may be more appropriate. It is especially hard on boys who don't develop the necessary hand-eye coordination skills as early as girls.

All this pressure to achieve leads many to feel that they are a failure even by the age of seven. I see boys who are withdrawn and switched off. They may be very gifted in other ways but because their paper and pencil work is not up to the mark their confidence is eroded. Once they see themselves as failures they become reluctant to continue engaging in education. They don't participate in lessons, and they won't risk putting their hand up to answer a question.

No seven-year-old should be told that he or she is a failure--yet too many parents compare their children in ways which are hurtful and unfair. There is a lot of pressure on schools from parents, and in our market-led system schools are forced to play the game. Schools which get good SATs results attract more children, which means more funding. Parents at our school demanded that the six-year-olds should have spelling tests. One day I found one of those girls in tears because she only got nine out of ten in a spelling test--she said, 'My dad will kill me.'

What will be the result of this experiment? We will only know in 10-15 years time. But it's interesting to hear the experience of a headteacher who moved schools recently. At his old school he had fought a running battle with the reception/year 1 teachers who disregarded the government prescriptions and taught as they knew best. The school got poor SATs results at age seven, but did very well at age 11. In his new school, where they pumped the kids early on, they got very good results at seven but poor results at 11, with a high level of kids switched off.
The writer has asked to remain anonymous

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