I’ve always enjoyed reading The Guardian, ever since they interviewed me on ID cards and young people.

Recently I’ve been reading their series on ‘The Secret Teacher’ – an anonymous interview with a teacher who lives and works in the education system that we hear so much about from every media outlet from here to even the other side of the Atlantic.  It’s a fascinating read, one I think many ought to read.

One of the more recent ones, however, I think should be sent straight to Michael Gove and his advisers.

I’ve always been a fierce critic of what I call the ‘exam factory’ culture of our schools up and down the nation.  It’s painful to have sat through – and even more painful to watch now as I go through university life.

‘Exam factory’ is the process by which schools forget they are giving an education and merely give students facts and methods with which they can gain answers.  Once this process is complete, they teach students how to remember these facts and how to explain these facts.  Then exam-day arrives and students cough it all up.  Congratulations, you got yourself an award or qualification of some description.

I’ve always cited the main reason for this as reputation for schools and the teachers in charge of them.  If they stick to the syllabus and the like, they’ll get good marks.  They look good and then get promoted, thus earning more money.  For the school, awards are showered upon them and they can get extra funding for things.

Anyhow, back to this depressing look into our school culture thank to The Secret Teacher.

This particular edition heard from a primary/early years teacher who had found the school to be a little obsessed with academic achievement.  Now, I think the idea of introducing four-year-olds to the world of testing is a bad idea anyhow, let alone expanding it to the high-stakes nature our government is considering.

The teacher in question used to work in early years – that’s nursery to you and me.  During that time they said that they was delighted that their kids gained confidence – more social and emotional skills.  They cite two examples – being able to say hello in their own native language, and to answer their name during registration time.

Of course, things all changed once our secret teacher moved on to teaching Key Stage 1 – that’s Years 1-3 to you and I.  Our teacher walked in to a school rated by Ofsted as ‘good’ and wanted to move towards ‘outstanding.’  Obviously, solid target – always striving for greatness.

However, it was with this philosophy where things have started to go wrong.

  • Before we go too in-depth, I should probably point out that 70% of the teacher’s group were below the reading level expected for them as they arrived in Year 1.  Quite rightly, the teacher had to set predictions and targets for improvement.  In theory, that’s going to work nicely to get them up to speed.
  • Apparently not. They were branded as not ambitious enough.  As a result, they were levelled up further and the teacher was given a stern talking-to where the “pressures of these expectations” were made clear…

Of course, with these targets set, our secret teacher was curious to know how the school would deal with this in terms of parents and teachers alike.

As it turned out, the result was what she called “manipulation.”  Here are some of the things which happened…

  • Our secret teacher describes it as “making sure no-one had access to enough information for a full picture.”
  • Parents were not allowed to get ‘too close’ to what was going on and held at “arm’s length” – very worrying, especially given they’re part of the cycle of education.
  • Assistant Headteachers were present in all meetings between parents and teachers to ensure that the ‘correct’ amount of information was conveyed.  One example given as if a teacher was seen to be talking to a parent for too long in the playground, another teacher would intervene and get involved.

Perhaps the most troubling thing came when we find out that four of our teacher’s students are in the learning support centre – a way of helping develop skills if they had previously been behind.  Four was considered the maximum for the teachers – any more and it was felt the school was under-performing.

The headteacher asked our secret teacher to do something rather extraordinary:

“One child who came under particular scrutiny had been a “problem” in reception… With a little bit of nurturing he was improving – the other children were not being affected by him and he was making academic progress. Even so, I was told to put pressure on his parent to take him elsewhere.”

Yep, just grasp that for a minute.  The idea that because a class has enough ‘substandard’ pupils, a school would rather ask kids to move on elsewhere.  Interestingly, our teacher didn’t really comply with this instruction?

The result?  Someone else did the job for them – during meetings into which our secret teacher was not invited or informed about.  Either way, it was going to happen.In one case, the child actually did move on to another school.

Aside from this rather shocking development, all of the target-setting and paperwork meant that the teacher never quite got the chance to enjoy time with their students and get to know them.  Ultimately, the stresses of trying to keep up with this exam-factory style meant that our teacher couldn’t quite live with having to struggle on.

Our secret teacher would leave the profession before writing the piece.

In one article, every fear I have ever had about education has been confirmed.  Not only are schools resorted to desperate – underhand, even – tactics to ensure that they keep on target, but teachers are feeling stressed and some are even leaving the profession.

Asking parents to move kids should only ever happen in serious circumstances, not because schools have targets.  It’s just completely tragic and only serves to prove my point that schools are just obsessed.  Either that or they’re under pressure to be obsessed.

We need a serious re-think.




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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.