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Debate: Enough is enough!

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By John CoeInformation Officer for the National Association for Primary Education

After two worrying reports, isn’t it time to focus on the children we teach as people?

John Coe

This year has seen two worrying authoritative reports on the well being of the children we teach. Both have a devastating message for parents and teachers, but even more for the Government.

Disturbing reports

First UNICEF placed us at the bottom of a league table ranking the happiness of children in the developed world. Yes, bottom – think about it. This is a disgrace for a country which not so many years ago was universally regarded as a model of enlightened primary education. A model which included the principle that children should be happy in their schools. Not least because happy children learn better. Then came a report, ‘Community Soundings’, part of the Cambridge study led by Robin Alexander (one of the ‘three wise man’ who has become much wiser since he was beguiled by politicians in 1992 to join Chris Woodhead and Jim Rose in launching an attack on our work). Seven hundred in-depth interviews revealed children’s anxiety about the world both in and out of school. Of course, the big issues are there: the pervasive influence of the media, global warming and the pressure of consumerism all emerged as major concerns. Now, we teachers cannot do much more about such issues other than play our part as citizens and opinion formers in our democracy. But school is a different matter. How we teach makes a difference – a big difference.

Narrow and unfulfilling elementary education has been recreated. No wonder so many children are unhappy

Test teaching

Children showed deep anxiety about constant testing and pressures put upon them by teachers and well meaning, but over ambitious, parents, some of whom buy in extra coaching. Children have no time to play and enjoy being with friends. They go from teacher to teacher, who all continue with the same emphasis on test preparation.

Enough is enough

It’s time to focus on children as people. To think about them in the round, considering every aspect of their development. Plugging away at the constantly measured basic skills taught in targeted separate lessons has had dire effects upon the quality of primary education. Narrow and unfulfilling elementary education has been recreated. No wonder children are unhappy. The other day, a teacher in her forties showed me a book she had written, illustrated and bound when she was just ten years old at an Oxfordshire primary school. She cherished the book and had kept it through the years – indeed it had led her to become a teacher. The basic skills used in the making of the book had been learned not for the sake of a test, but as an outcome of a six week project which excited and interested her. The all important skills were gained because they mattered to her as a person. That’s how to make children happy as they try to learn. Are you listening Secretary of State? Stop sending us unnecessary letters saying the 3Rs should be a priority. We yield to no one in our concern for basic skills and the vital importance of a sound start in the primary years. Instead, send us a Christmas card abolishing SATs and league tables. In return, we’ll start giving you a new year’s present of higher standards and much happier school children.

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