Dear Damian Hinds,
Hi there. How’re you doing? Well, I hope.
I wanted to write to you, because I have something on my mind. You see, my son Jamie, he’s eleven, and he’s in Year 6 at school.
As you will no doubt have already surmised, what with being Education Secretary, Jamie is about to take his SATS. Now, he goes to an amazing school, with some incredible teachers. As are almost all teachers, and if you would like to read my thoughts on what the Department for Education are getting quite so badly wrong when it comes to upwards of 40% of teachers deciding they have no choice but to leave front line teaching altogether, perhaps I could encourage you to scroll back down my timeline and read the post I wrote on Thursday on precisely that topic. In particular, please read the hundreds of comments that post attracted, from teachers who are, quite simply, at breaking point.
I digress. Jamie is about to take his SATS, and the school have taken an entirely sensible approach to preparing for such an utterly pointless set of Government devised hoop-jumping, encouraging the children to relax and enjoy their Easter break, not spend it studying.
That notwithstanding, Jamie did come home with a couple of sample test papers to have a go at. And, out of curiosity, I picked one of these up to take a look.
If I pause for a moment, Mr Hinds, to give you a brief overview of my own academic prowess. By any standards, I would have been described as “bright” when I was at school. I have two As and eight A*s at GCSE, AAB at A Level, a 2:1 BA (Hons) and a Distinction in my postgraduate qualification. Specifically – and relevant to the below – I achieved an A in English Language/Literature combined at A Level. Oh, and I’m also a published author.
Let me share with you, a sample of the questions I read in Jamie’s paper:
Circle the relative pronoun in the sentence below.
“It’s too rainy for the picnic today, which is a shame.”
Circle all the determiners in the sentence below.
“The man’s hair was very long, so my uncle cut it using a pair of the clippers he owns.”
Underline the subordinate clause in this sentence.
“I don’t need a school dinner today because I have brought sandwiches.”
Circle the modal verb in this sentence:
“If I can leave early, I would like to meet Anna at the park, as she said she might be there.”
Tick one box to show whether the word ‘before’ is used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction:
“We left the cinema before the film had ended.”
“Simon finished before Paul in the race.”
“Train tickets are often cheaper before 9am.”
I could go on. There are many, many more, all in the same vein.
Now I ask you, Mr Hinds. Can you honestly say that, without the aid of Google, you would be able to answer all of those correctly? That you could identify a relative pronoun, a determiner, a subordinate clause, a modal verb, a preposition, and a subordinating conjunction?
Because I sure as hell couldn’t.
My boy is eleven. ELEVEN. He is naturally bright, capable and switched on. I am actually one of the lucky parents, in that his primary response to his SATS has been to simply switch off from education. To ask me, quite openly: “What’s the point, Mum? Why do we have to bother learning this? When is any of it going to be useful?” And I was honest with him. Because it isn’t going to be useful, not unless he chooses to become a professor of linguistics. Being able to write fluently and create compelling communications is absolutely useful; I would go so far as to say it’s a vital skill. But do you need to be able to identify a modal verb and the lesser spotted fronted adverbial as you do so? No. You absolutely do not.
You might ask why I’ve referred to myself as lucky in the paragraph above. How can my son choosing to switch off from education because of the pointless information the Department for Education has decided he must learn be lucky?
But that’s because I’ve seen how much worse it can be. I had my daughter – just eight – in floods of tears the other night because she couldn’t tell the difference between a complex and a compound sentence. I reassured her, neither could I. I have heard stories of kids sick with anxiety, becoming withdrawn, their mental health permanently affected because of the almost impossible expectations the DfE have set out for them.
And don’t get me started on what it does for the teachers, trying to keep their own mental health together while simultaneously seeking to help their classes meet those impossible expectations and working every hour there is just to keep their heads above water.
Something has to change. Something has to change, now. And I beg you, please: be that change we need to see. It doesn’t have to be like this. There can be a different way.
Children need to learn, and they need to work hard. Nobody ever said that life was easy. But you have got the balance so very, very wrong. We have a duty to redress that balance, and I am asking you, please, as Education Secretary, to make that happen. Not to pay lip service. Not to trot out meaningless platitudes. Not to ignore the voices of so many, as I have observed frequently happening on your social media channels. But to commit to delivering wholesale change, to get our education system back to being one where students and teachers alike can thrive.
And to consign the concept of primary-aged children being able to identify a fronted adverbial in a sentence to the bin, which is frankly where it belongs.
Kathryn Wallace, blogger at I Know, I Need To Stop Talking