This open letter to UK Secretary for Education Michael Gove was posted on the English blog Secret Teacher: life inside the classroom.
I’ve taken the liberty of reposting it here, as its message is applicable internationally. Please comment on the original article.
Dear Mr Gove,
I read recently how you described the current cohort of teachers in the UK as “…the best generation of teachers ever seen in our classrooms- including the very best generation ever of young teachers.” You described how you believe teachers hold the success to this country and the well being of its citizens in their hands.You rightly claim that teachers are the most important fighters in the battle to make opportunity more equal. Therefore, I hope as a young teacher you will appreciate how difficult it is that I have felt the need to explain how I feel, Mr Gove, as I am exhausted, demoralised, disengaged and surfeited.
I attended a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) session today. In this conference we, as a group of professionals, sought to address the imbalance between boys and girls attainment in reading and writing. We examined a multitude of ways to support boys in literacy, to engage them in writing, to deconstruct barriers to learning and to enhance the life opportunities of reluctant readers and writers. Finally, to finish the session, we discussed how ludicrous school league tables were and considered SATs (Statutory Assessment Tests) in a facetious manner. We compared the creative and engaging ways we can make a text come alive for children to interact with, and the monotonous and uninspiring manner in which all SATs are presented. We discussed how difficult and abstract exams really can be. We considered how absurd it is to compare the scores of two different schools which will be so incredibly different in terms of prosperity, cultural diversity and parental support. And then, we looked at funny answers from SATs gone by.
We laughed, oh how we laughed, Mr Gove, as one by one we were shown unintentionally humorous retorts. Then, slowly, after looking at 5 or 6 ridiculous answers, we sat in silence. Suddenly, it wasn’t very funny any more. The joke had been lost, for we came to realise that we work in a regime that repeatedly and systematically provides opportunities for pupils to fail; for pupils to be labelled failures.
In the UK, pupils enter school at a younger age than almost any other country in the world. By the time they reach the age of 6, the age at which students begin school in Sweden (a country you often like to draw comparison from), our children already are provided with an opportunity to become failures as we assess them on their ability to use one reading strategy to read words which don’t actually exist in the English language, or indeed any other language for that matter.
The following year they complete their Key Stage 1 SATs. Already, by the age of 7, pupils begin to develop an awareness of where they consider themselves to be academically. You will often hear pupils as young as this professing how terrible they are at reading, or how they are unable to do maths, or how they cant write. If they are lucky they will have a teacher who can deconstruct this self image before it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If they aren’t, we have lost them before other nations have even considered their pupils’ attainment.
Then they move into the big world of Key Stage 2 where they can look forward to three years of a generally “broad and balanced curriculum” which of course is continually being eroded by more and more time being spent on being able to identify your subordinate clause from your main clause and the article from the pronoun, before counting to 1000 in Roman numerals. Of course this is before you even enter the graveyard of educational creativity, vibrancy and expression that Year 6 has become in this country. Children will be blitzed with maths, reading and writing until every ounce of their being becomes disengaged. We force SATs upon our children in such a way that stifles creativity, limits vibrancy and diminishes expression…and that’s among more able pupils. Those who were lost somewhere around Year 2 have long since resigned themselves to failure and ridicule. If they try, they may just be able to come out with a personal best which is in no way celebrated privately as it still below the target that the Fischer Family Trust set for that child many years previously, failing to account for the individual needs and circumstances of that child. But hey, Mr Gove, they’re only a statistic. Its not like we are setting that child up to be seriously disadvantaged throughout their entire life, right?
Then we move our children on into secondary school. We (and by we, I mean you) continually move the goalposts so that it is progressively more difficult to achieve meaningful GCSE or A Level results. In fact, the ever changing system of assessment seems to be shifting towards a style that will make it increasingly easy to fail, and increasingly difficult to do anything about it. Finally, if a pupil has managed to achieve in spite of our education system, they will face the dilemma of whether to pay £9,000 annual fees to access further and higher education before entering a system where youth unemployment and underemployment is as high as we’ve ever seen in this country and economic promise looks bleak, at best, Mr Gove.
Now, forgive me if I am presumptuous, Mr Gove, but I rather suspect you wont reply to me so I shall hazard a guess at one of your replies. You often speak of ’rigor’, so I suppose I could assume that you will claim you are making our exams more rigorous. If encouraging pupils to fail is rigorous, perhaps you are right. If responding to 100 educational experts by calling them ’enemies of promise’ when they wholeheartedly (and rightly) disagree with your policies, is rigorous, perhaps you are right. If independently writing an entire section of the National Curriculum despite having no qualifications or experience to do so is rigorous, perhaps you are right.
I’m tired, Mr Gove. I’m tired of being told I am a valued educational professional when I see unqualified teachers being employed in other schools. I am tired of being told I have a vital role to play in addressing educational imbalance when we are forced to fail children at the age of 6. I am tired of pupils being disengaged in reading and writing when we present them with such ridiculous and unsupportive means of assessment. I am tired of being made to feel like I am lazy or incompetent when I spend every ounce of energy I have trying to provide opportunities for every child I encounter on a daily basis to succeed. I am tired of such destructive and invalidating means of judging schools capabilities. I am tired of daily attacks on my pension, my work ethic, my commitment to raising standards, my commitment to improving the quality of pupils lives and my reputation as a professional. I am tired of a pretentious egomaniac, who has no experience of education other than having gone to school as a child, holding the education system in this country to ransom.
I ask you, Mr Gove, who is the real enemy of promise? Who is causing incomparable destruction to our education system? Who is condemning a generation of young people to mediocrity and demise?
Surely not you?