>The Lesson of League Tables

>I’m sure many UK readers will have seen the news today about the primary school league tables, whose results have just been published.

Angela Harrison of the BBC reports that almost 1 in 10 of schools with validated and published results failed to meet minimum standards in the SATs. But how many of these schools will be located in the most challenged areas of this country, where pupils and parents alike need support and encouragement, rather than teachers bound to a regime of relentless formal assessment?

Teaching in a London school where a high percentage of pupils had English as an Additional Language, I was incredibly frustrated by the box-ticking mentality, especially in literacy.

Such an attitude encourages teaching to the test rather than a love of reading and writing. The best teachers in the world will find themselves sitting with an “underperforming” student on the day results are due in, thinking, “Just let me tick one more box so I can move you up another sub-level!”

My class made great progress in their literacy skills – but more from an attitude on the part of our year group that we would make learning fun, engaging and creative.

A poetry unit was delivered to rap music – our class gave themselves rap names and learned to freestyle to The 900 Number (“I like / chocolate / I want / CHOCOLATE CAKE!”). I knew we had made an impact when months later one of our pupils, who had little English and numerous educational needs, was still using the rap names with his friends in the playground.

In another class, we created a ‘living comic book’ together, using a whiteboard for each panel of the story of ‘Melon Boy’, a superhero who transformed into a caped, flying cantaloupe when he consumed too much of the fruit in question.

The story was inspired by a boy in our class who had given himself a laughing fit that morning, when he said, ‘My mum says if I eat too much melon, I might just turn into one.’

It was the first time he had ever given himself an attack of the giggles. He couldn’t stop, and the whole class ended up laughing along with him.

By using that moment as a springboard for our literacy lesson, the entire class became enthused and empowered to apply their own creativity to reading and writing.

When the education system mandates ‘teaching to the test’ in the very earliest stages of schooling, which should be about fostering a love of learning…
When teachers have their performance management directly linked to children’s formal levels….
It becomes incredibly difficult for classroom practitioners to be confident, creative and…dare we say it…a little subversive.

With the best will in the world, teachers find themselves ‘playing it safe’ and delivering mediocre education under such a system. Check-boxes will never prioritise the kind of passion for learning which brings together parents, pupils, and teachers – the kind of whole-community commitment which schemes like Paint the Town Read deliver so well in Australia.

It’s frustrating that around the world, so much of the ‘heavy lifting’ of encouragement and enthusiasm in education – work which is actively frustrated by the league table/”No Child Left Behind” mentality – falls to committed, creative, subversive teachers – and to those generous members of the community who commit to schemes like Volunteer Reading Help, Reading Partners, or Paint the Town Read. It’s time for the authorities to rethink their priorities and put a love of learning before league tables.


Well, that’s almost it for 2010. Next time on Books and Adventures, our review of the year, along with some sneak previews of features, interviews and guest writers for 2011!

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