What did you learn at Primary school?


Those of you that follow me on social media, or work with me, or are taught by me, or have passed me on the street this week will know: I WENT TO QUESTION TIME! I was in the same room as Dimbleby!


As if that wasn’t exciting enough the Man on the Piccadilly Line got picked to ask his question. The chances of this are so slim as the audience of 100 each submit 2 questions. Out of these 200 questions they choose just 6 and normally only have enough time to get through 4 or 5. His question was:

“Is the Government turning our schools into joyless exam factories?”

If you’re interested in what the Question Time panel had to say about this you can watch it here (54:58) He wrote the question following the announcement that the government wants to introduce tests at the end of KS1. This has confused a lot of people because children are already assessed at the end of KS1. They take tests and the teacher looks at all of their work from the year and then, using the information from the test and the class work, the teacher decides on a level. The new tests will be marked externally and the mark the child gets on the test will be the level they are given for the year – which is how it works with the end of KS2 assessments.

Much to our excitement, the question sparked debate on Twitter. Toby Young and Michael Rosen debated until the small hours and the conversation continued in our staff rooms the next day. Most teachers seemed to agree tests are a very useful way of assessing children’s understanding. The problem is when test scores become a stick to beat teachers and schools with. When schools are judged entirely on their test scores they HAVE to spend a disproportionate amount of time preparing for those tests. In some schools an average Year 6 day looks like this: Maths, English, Guided Reading and SPaG. It isn’t the fault of the teachers. It is the ever increasing pressure on schools to get higher and higher results year after year. As a result, most Primary schools are  sending pupils to Secondary school with good maths and English results but sadly they are becoming increasingly “switched off” from learning.

I sometimes look at my own class. They have such small worlds – some of them have never ventured out of Ilford. Last week I postponed a Guided Reading lesson to spend some time convincing a boy in my class that Turkey was a real country. Even when I showed him the map, photographs of Turkey and got two children to tell him what life in Turkey is like he didn’t seem convinced. Another day in the middle of an English lesson a girl said to me: “You’re a Christian because you’re English isn’t it Miss?” So we spent some time unpacking why she thought that. My class desperately need life experiences. Most of them don’t really understand why they’re at school at all. For so many of them school is a place they are dropped off at in the morning and collected from 6 hours later.  Every day needs to be fun and centred around learning through play and I do as much of that as I can.  At the end of this year they will take the new KS1 tests which will include a SPaG test. The results will be published, Ofsted will look at them and if they aren’t high enough there is every chance my school could become academised. It isn’t the testing I’m against it’s the fact that schools have to spend so much time teaching for the test they don’t have time to teach other, equally important, skills.

I started thinking back to my own Primary school education. I loved my Primary school. It’s the reason I became a teacher myself. Yes we did tests and maths and English but the experiences that have stayed with me were rarely those lessons. Here are my stand out memories:

  • In Year 5 we made a huge model of Smaug out of chicken wire. It was so big we had to move it in the playground to work on it. We spent days slapping on inches of paper mache and waiting impatiently for it to dry. After that there was days of painting and adding detail. It was amazing!
  • In Year 6 we made a Victorian street out of cereal boxes – I remember spending days adding detail to my Victorian house and the pride I felt when it was put on the wall.
  • I remember making toys out of junk model materials in Year 3. My friend Holly made a pair of shoes for our teacher using string and yoghurt pots. I remember our teacher doing a catwalk style walk for us. Interestingly, Holly is now a fashion designer.
  • I was in Year 5 when that song “I Believe I can Fly” by R Kelly was released and there was a teacher in my school who HATED it. So my class teacher taught us the song and we practised it every day for a week. Then one afternoon to perform it for this teacher just to wind her up.
  • I met my best friend Lizzie when made jelly together in Year 2. We’d also been in the same class in Year 1 but we hadn’t decided to be friends then.
  • In Reception we had a dentists’ chair in our classroom. Just because. We also had a Ghostbusters Art Gallery for all of our work that we opened to the public. I think I was a guide.
  • In Year 6 on hot days we’d go outside and read in the field under the trees. A couple of times our teacher bought us ice lollies.
  • In Year 4 Thursdays was our TV room day. We’d go to the TV room and watch Look and Read. It felt like it went on for a whole afternoon but I think it was probably 10 minutes. Geordie Racer anyone?
  • My Year 6 teacher gave me my love of poetry. We read the Lady of Shallot and drew pictures of her stuck in her tower.
  • The plays and assemblies. We had a big musical performance every year and a Christmas play as well as concerts and full class assemblies. In Reception the highlight of our class assembly was kicking down a large lego Berlin wall.
  • I was in the netball team. We never won anything if I remember correctly. I remember one day when, after losing 5 games in a row and our teachers took pity bought us Freddos.
  • Quiet reading – every day. 20 minutes of just reading for pleasure. Not writing about reading, answering questions about reading just reading. It was my favourite part of the day.
The more testing, the more pressure on schools, the more other subjects and experiences get “squeezed out”.
Finally, I think the biggest problem with these tests just aren’t equipping children with the skills they need for working in the 21st Century. Employers moan that young people are leaving school without “workplace” skills. Yes, you need a good grasp of maths, reading and writing but you also need to be able to find creative solutions to problems, to read people, to communicate well, to manage your time, to meet deadlines, to work well with others, show empathy etc… These are just some of the skills you need to succeed at work. At the moment schools have to spend their time jumping through hoops and working towards these tests that the “whole child” is being forgotten. Some school’s are better at fighting it than others and are insisting that their pupils become inquisitive, thoughtful, happy individuals as well as get Level 4s.
I was discussing this with a teacher friend on Friday night. She’s the sort of teacher you never forget. Her classroom is a magical, fun place full of fairy doors and bourbon biscuits. We were talking about how we manage the pressure for Maths and English results whilst at the same time teaching our pupils to be happy, well adjusted members of society. She tells her class, “if you learn nothing else in my class this year you will learn how to listen and how to get along with others.”
I’m not saying Maths and English shouldn’t be a priority in schools, nor am I suggesting that we should all build large chicken wire models of dragons every day but do I worry that we will end up with a generation of children who can perform very well in tests but will be switched off from learning in adult life.


One thought on “What did you learn at Primary school?

  1. Thank you Zoe, made my day! So glad you can recall those good times at SCP! As you will discover these are the gems that make it all worth while. Beware what these politicians are doing to the next generation unless you and others like you get it right we will all regret that we failed them so badly. Testing in its place NOT the only place!


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