Exam Factory Spring? A Lockdown Reflection

Children sitting at dinner table doing school work .

During the early hours of the morning on 16th April 2020, I asked Twitter a question about perceived effects of extended time at home upon children. I had been pondering this during the Corona Virus Pandemic lockdown period, which began in the UK on 23rd March 2020. I was taken completely by surprise by huge response generated.

Parents overwhelmingly replied that their children were happier at home than at school, and some further commented that they were worried that their children would be reluctant to return. One commented ‘I'm sure this is echoed across lots of homes- and just goes to show that our education system isn't nurturing but harming in lots of cases. We need change!’ Another reflected ‘I really hope we can do an educational shakeup as a result of this. We’d be mad NOT to’, while yet another proposed ‘My children are all so much happier, calmer, sleeping better and are dreading going back to school.’ And one parent simply stated: ‘My son doesn't want to go back’.

But why would this be? This question tied into research I have been following for more than twenty years, so I thought I would bring together a blog summarising what I have learned so far in order to reflect upon the background that underpins the outpouring elicited by my tweet.

Between 2001 and 2004 I carried out my PhD research investigating children’s play-based learning in the period between their last term in nursery and their first term in Year 1. My investigations focused upon their play in the outdoor areas of the school, particularly in what were termed ‘playtimes’ which, within the culture of English primary education at that time, were constructed as periods during which children took a break from learning in independent and collaborative play. My findings indicated that, to the contrary, some of the richest learning of all was taking place during such periods, as children collaborated with peers to construct complex narratives that made ‘human sense’ of their activities. There were football games where a rudimentary offside rule was constructed, children competed to ‘be Beckham’, and had discussions about team names where the category error of Manchester versus England was contemplated. There were chasing games where different roles for girls and boys were constructed by the players, and there were fantasy games where the children collaboratively constructed fast-moving narratives involving superheroes, witches, monsters and princesses, and where heroism, justice mediation and compassion were explored. (See Jarvis 2007a and Jarvis 2007b).

At the same time my research in primary school was ongoing, I was teaching ‘A’ level psychology in secondary school. Here, too, I found imaginative, sensitive young people, but later in the developmental process, on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Psychology and Drama were a common combination of ‘A’ levels at this time, and we had many discussions of the psychology of Shakespeare, how he used his depth of psychological knowledge in his plays. Their final performance that year was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I still treasure the DVD of my students’ performance that they purchased for me, along with my memory of their live performance as darkly mischievous traditional English fairies, a narrative that is in sharp contrast with the more familiar Disney ‘sparkly magic’ confection. They collaborated in their performance as did the younger children, but this time with the sophistication to give a compelling portrayal of the manipulative despots that Shakespeare created in his mythically derived constructions of Titania, Oberon and Puck.

Even at that time, however, there were ongoing changes in the way that ‘A’ levels were constructed, and it was becoming harder and harder to teach in such a broad-based, flexible manner. The questioning on the exam papers narrowed year by year; students were no longer expected to demonstrate their broad knowledge of the subject; the emergent goal was to answer very specific questions to which they had been mechanically taught the answers.

Between 2010 and 2014, having moved by then on to a university academic post, I worked with two colleagues, one in the UK, one in the US to examine the evidence on recent changes in the construction of what serves as ‘education’ in English speaking nations. We explored literature ranging across psychology, anthropology, education, sociology and philosophy to create a holistic picture of the situation. Our conclusion was that ‘over the last few decades, Anglo-American society has increasingly placed children within highly artificial, adult-directed environments’ and we identified a key issue within this as the ‘experience of immersion within rushed transmit-and-test processes erroneously presented as ‘”teaching and learning”’ (Jarvis et al 2014, p.63). Our research was published in the article On ‘becoming social’: the importance of collaborative free play in childhood in the International Journal of Play.

The English education system has since continued further along this trajectory, becoming even more ‘transmit and test’ focused. The latest initiative in this area has extended literacy and numeracy testing to children in the first half term of their reception year, which for some will fall within in weeks of their fourth birthday: Baseline testing, intended to become statutory from September 2020. The test that has been endorsed by the government requires that, during the first half term of their Reception year a child sits with an adult who moves through a set of standard questions about set activities, recording ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ answers. The child’s overall score is automatically calculated and forwarded to the Department for Education. The resulting file is then ‘black boxed’- the results are not shared at all with the parents, whilst the school may receive some brief overall comments. The DFE current position is: ‘as we develop and trial the baseline assessment, we will explore whether any information it produces should be shared with schools& parents’. Eventually, the Baseline score data will be used to plot a progress trajectory against which the school will be judged once the child has taken his/her Y6 statutory assessment. Both sets of data will no doubt be drawn upon again when the child reaches the end of his/her compulsory education. How such a statistical program will effectively track a human being’s development from make-believe games of fairies, princesses and superheroes to their later comprehension of Shakespeare’s “dark imp” concept is unclear, but it is a point I have frequently pondered.

The construction of the Baseline assessment makes no allowance for the fact the adult carrying out the test will be a relative stranger, or for developmental or experiential differences between children aged 48 months and those aged 60 months at the point of assessment; a 20% developmental difference, the same as that between an eight and a ten year old. The avocation of such a practice is in conflict with nearly a century of psychological research relating to cognitive development, its more recent integration with emotional development, the process of self-regulation development and the crucial importance of learning through play in the early years. The whole culture of education from entry onwards therefore stands to place significant psychological pressure upon children, potentially storing up mental health problems for the future.

When it is considered that the Early Years Foundation Stage (2019) advises that practitioners should make sure children are ‘safe’ and that the Teachers Standards (2013) propose that teachers should establish a ‘safe learning environment’, a double bind dichotomy arises. If children are being forced into situations where their mental health is compromised, when should their teachers refuse to co-operate with the government policy that is creating such unhappiness? And the evidence on how growing datafication in education impacts on the children is plain. Health professionals are consequently required to deal with much of the ‘fall-out’ in terms of poor juvenile mental health. Increasing numbers of children presenting with mental illness are placing pressure upon busy GP surgeries and stretching CAMHS to breaking point. And of course, teachers themselves are also adversely affected. In October 2018, the TES found that one third of all teachers had experienced mental health problems in the previous year. The ultimate result is a huge exodus from the teaching profession

Teachers are already acutely aware of all these issues. For example, here are some comments that they made to the report Exam Factories? The impact of accountability measures on children and young people:

*It is heart-breaking to have a four-year-old approach me in tears because they ‘are still in the bad group for reading’ because they have already been streamed in phonics at age four! Primary teacher 'outstanding' primary school, p.45

*All the focus is on phonics, so children are not learning other key reading strategies. Often they don’t even realise it is a story they are reading! Primary teacher 'outstanding' primary school, p.46

*EYFS/Year 1 children are suffering from night terrors, sleep walking and other sleep disorders. Parents confide that the children cry at the thought of coming to school and are often exhausted due to the stress of learning. Primary teacher, p.59

*As a teacher you are not allowed to teach any more’ Secondary teacher, p.48.

A secondary teacher offered a sombre reflection upon professional integrity: 'Do we constantly try and just hit the targets of whatever the government is saying at the present time or do we do what we think is best for our students and face the consequences'? Secondary teacher, p.42

However, wider evidence indicates that the DFE does not listen to teachers or to early years and education academics but instead responds to criticisms by turning the debate into a political point scoring match. There has been less focus upon parental responses to the ‘Exam Factory’ question, but the responses I received to my tweet offered me the unexpected chance to gather some such reflection upon this issue.

Many clearly and succinctly stated the problem:

*Freedom…[has been given] to children to learn in secure relationships and in an unhurried way.. wellbeing needs to be the core to academic development.

*Because [the children] are free. They aren't told every second of the day what to do. Stand here, be quiet, play when the bell goes, eat when the bell goes. Ask to use the washroom. It's a beautiful thing when we have kids engaged with what they want to learn.

*The curriculum is so jam packed that Heads aren't able to make changes to slow the pace down.

*A slower pace of life and more opportunity to play and make up games at home

*A lot of pressure to achieve, what a lovely bubble they have at the moment. Perhaps schools need to slow down and smell the roses.

*Would be wonderful to have a better balance with creative subjects.

*There's too much pressure on results and academic achievements in school here. In Denmark we started at 7 and there was focus on teamwork, social skills, and mixed ability learning where we helped each other

*It’s quite simple.... the education system is broken and really not meant to learn the way they teach... quite often schools put out their fire

*My 10 year old is in the garden recreating Van Gogh’s blossom painting after seeing the blossom illuminated against a brilliant blue twilight sky. All her activity has been driven by her

*The real struggle will be trying to reintegrate this particular cohort post lock-down. I say it's now prime time to reinvent the education system. Focus more on well-being than attainment. As obvious as it sounds.

*My son is much happier and dreads the thought of, as he put it, “going back into captivity” once schools reopen. He is… more motivated than I’ve ever seen him

*My 14 year old is loving learning from home. He gets up and does his school work. He started a dog treat business while in quarantine and is building me a bookshelf. He’s never enjoyed school but he does love learning.

*Broader, deeper enjoyable learning & finding real interests & passions

*This tweet and thread encapsulates why Education needs to take a long hard look at what is happening to our children… can it change after this pandemic

A parent/teacher additionally commented: ‘more secure learning with real fluency/security. More arts, play, outside, talking & real world work. Less formal testing- we assess all day everyday- all about knowing your children. [We]… need to be brave/empowered to do it.

Some parents were very candid in saying what they hoped would happen in future:

*I'm hoping this change will inspire a shift towards greater autonomy and create enthusiasm for learning again.

*Education is failing massively when 12 yr olds are worried about school. This Lockdown is shining a light into dark corners.

*We have all been getting it so, so wrong. Now we have paused and discovered what matters. Let’s remember and act on what we now know.

*I'm sure this is echoed across lots of homes- and just goes to show that our education system isn't nurturing but harming in lots of cases. We need change!

*Education should be about fun and caring. In my experience it's become about results, neat books and off rolling. The homeworking packs being made available to my son,and many others, are nothing more than a bundle of classroom-secrets handouts. Education needs a massive rethink

Some also reflected upon what might happen if the government attempted to return to the way that things were before the shutdown:

*Will we see a large number of parents applying to home-educate? Sounds like it...

*I think a lot of families will continue to educate at home after this if they are able to, realizing the many positives.

In fact, a survey of over 2000 parents recently undertaken by found that 23% of them had ambitions to continue home schooling once the lockdown was over, due to the positive responses of their children to home learning, and the greater sense of well-being that was emerging within their families.

However important concerns about children in less fortunate homes and families were also raised: ‘I also think we have to factor in those children not lucky enough to experience all the delights of being off school: those vulnerable children, in small homes (sometimes bedsits), with no garden, few toys, those in homes where abuse is happening, lack of parenting..etc.’ This reminded me of a literature review on daycare I have recently completed (currently under peer review). The results indicated that children in difficult family environments in which financial and/or emotional insecurity were prevalent factors experienced additional stress in tense, rushed education and care settings. This highlights the imperative to provide emotionally supportive care for such children beyond the family, which is likely to be equally as important for older children with complex problems in the home environment.

I also uncovered a poignant parent-teacher meeting of minds between my respondents and the teachers interviewed by the Exam Factory researchers. While one of my parent respondents tweeted ‘[Education is]… geared around turning out robots. No reflection on staff but what the government want’, a primary teacher told the Exam Factories researchers five years earlier: ‘I don’t want to be some robot stood in front of kids’ (p.49).

Our recent unexpected opportunity to reflect, particularly within a pandemic that has impressed our human vulnerability upon us has given families a taste of a different mode of existence, whilst highlighting unnecessary stresses in their previous routines. So, is the government now going to listen to parents and teachers speaking to them in unison? This will be an interesting debate to follow through into the post-lockdown period. What will happen when the country emerges into the light of a post Corona Virus world? There will be financial concerns and a range of new uncertainties, most definitely, but is it possible that there will also be a spring of heightened emotional intelligence, which will nurture children at its core?

Dr Pam Jarvis is a chartered psychologist and Visiting Research Fellow at Leeds Trinity University. This blog was first published on Dr Jarvis' own website on 17 April 2020.

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