Throughout the course of my teaching career, in both state primary and secondary settings based in the UK, I have spent a great deal of time – as I’m sure many have – discussing levels; their pros and cons for both students and staff.
My main concern with the ‘best fit’ leveling approach was that teachers often felt pressurized to ‘mark positively’ and move students up, the results being not just a reflection of student’s effort and ability, but also demonstrative of their own teaching ability and the school overall (and even in some places now directly linked to salary.) The outcome of this was that lessons were often taught at break-neck speed and children who didn’t secure skills/concepts as quickly as their classmates would be left with fundamental gaps in their learning.
From 2016, the government sought to alleviate this problem by scrapping levels altogether and allowing schools to create their own assessment criteria. ‘Best Fit’ was no more; now we’re underachieving, on target, or overachieving. This is definitely a step in the right direction, it’s just a crying shame that the government didn’t use this opportunity to bring some cohesion to this already disjointed system – an issue for another time…
So are we all better off without the levels? The jury’s still out. What is clear is that there remain a huge number of students with gaps not only in their academic attainment, but also in the fundamental skill-set needed for successful learning and life after education. I’m talking about concepts like awareness, communication, resilience, independence: the tools needed to foster good relationships, make good choices and cope when things don’t go your way. These are the real ‘gaps’ in learning.
For the most part, we don’t measure or assess or even teach these vital life skills. We’re just too busy writing up pupil progress data to think deeply about how we can encourage little Johnny to stop seeing himself as a failure, or support Caroline as you watch her social awkwardness spiral into isolation and anxiety disorder.
I know that some will argue we are teachers, not therapists – that this is out of our remit. I think that’s crap. If you teach, you want the best for your students; you want them to have a good future once they’ve left you. What’s the point in preparing them for a test but leaving them unable to cope with life?
And I speak from experience. I left school as an extremely successful student – academically successful – yet I was paralysed by a total lack of social confidence. My reports home always commented that I was quiet and needed to put my hand up more, but this was my only instruction. As I made progressed academically, I regressed socially. My teachers and I accepted my ‘shyness’ and I upheld my self-belief that I was a ‘freak’; a ‘weak, shy, pathetic person’, who would never be able to speak publicly or do anything that required real confidence.
Let me be clear – I do not blame my teachers for this at all, or my parents. I isolated myself and never spoke about my problems. I also think that the culture in schools twenty years ago had much more of an academic focus – there’s much more onus on schools today to provide pastoral care and look after the ‘whole’ child.
As my story goes, my pattern of avoidance continued throughout college, university and well into my twenties. It wasn’t until I was 25, sad and tired of so many missed opportunities, that I bravely decided to embark upon a PGCE in Secondary History teaching; a decision which forced me to confront the things that I have spent my life running away from.
Battling intensely low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, it wasn’t until I’d had a course of cognitive behaviour therapy, read a library of self-help books and watched hundreds of TED talks, that I began to see the blue sky on the horizon. I learnt that controlling my thoughts could set me free, and that avoiding painful situations would only lead to more pain down the line. So now, whilst I wouldn’t describe myself as a social butterfly, I am for the most part just as anxious as the next person and probably more confident than most. I regularly push myself to do things that scare me, nerves and all.
It all seems so simple and easy written down – in reality, there were so many times when it felt like I was surrounded by darkness; like there was no hope. Today, it’s the memory of this darkness that motivates me to be the teacher that I never had to others; to notice, support, guide and challenge.
For the generation of children being taught right now, these skills are even more important. The advent of iphones and ipads have resulted in many children being more at home tapping on screens than speaking out loud. Their communication skills just aren’t getting the same workout that they would from having real face-to-face social interaction. This, combined with the government’s obsession with exam testing, funding cuts, the overstretched nature of support services, and the number of children bringing problems from home into school, mean that the explicit teaching of these skills is even more vital.
I struggled through my problems – and eventually, I triumphed. But it was such a struggle. And I don’t want that battle for our children. I want them to learn, in school, to be resilient and hopeful and kind and thoughtful. I want them to learn to embrace challenges rather than running away from them; to work with people who aren’t just like them and be okay with it; to develop their own strategies of solving problems before asking someone ‘smarter’ to work it out for them.
The government has finally begun to tackle the gaps in academic learning, but it looks like it will be up to us to ensure that our students leave us knowing more than how to pass an exam. It is up to us to ensure that our young people are given the toolkit needed for a happy, successful life after school, no matter what life throws at them.