When I was nine years old we did a topic on the Romans in school, we learnt about traditional Roman houses, baths, invasions, Gods and Goddesses and food. Our teacher showed us how to make Roman shields and taught us how to fight with swords (or wooden 30cm rulers, to be more precise) and how to cook. We took dates, sliced them open, filled them with crushed nuts and fried them in honey. (Some Heath and Safety officer somewhere is frantically filling in a form in a cold sweat at the mere mention of nine year olds using a frying pan but it was the early 90s; we laughed in the face of health and safety.) That afternoon all 30 of us took our fried dates, our shields and ruler-swords and went outside for a battle. After the battle we sat on the grass and ate our Roman feast, washed down with Apple juice.
I have lots of good memories of primary school. I loved reading, writing stories and trying new things and I, on the whole, enjoyed my time there. One thing that has coloured my whole educational experience and continues to influence my life is maths. Numbers, calculations, percentages, long division, patterns, number lines, adding, subtracting…blah, blah, blah. I hate it all.
I was in ‘top infants’ or Year 2 as it’s known today, when I first came up against proper maths. My teacher then was probably a nice woman, most people liked her and she’d been at that school since God was a boy so most parents knew her of old and were thrilled when their children were also taught by her. I’m sure she was a lovely woman but I didn’t like her and she didn’t like me.
One day we sat down to do some number work. We were sat in ability groups, I was always on the middle table; yellow. I was never the top or the bottom of anything, which suited me. I remember looking at the rows and rows of sums in my work book and having a total mind blank. I had absolutely no idea how to do any of them. I tried one and looked at the boy next to me. He had a different answer. I looked again and drew some dots on my page to help me to count to twenty five. I got another different answer and asked Mrs Teacher to check it for me. Wrong.
“Class Four! Listen to me. Sarah thinks it’s a good idea to draw DOTS all over her work book. Do WE think this is a good idea?”
The class looked at me with a collective expression of horror combined with amusement and happiness that it wasn’t them this time. This was a daily thing; ritual humiliation.
“NO, we DON’T think that this was a good idea. Can you EXPLAIN why you drew DOTS all over your page?”
“I couldn’t remember and I couldn’t count in my head.”
“RUBBISH! We did these sums yesterday, are you really so stupid that you have forgotten how to do them? Go and sit on the blue table!”
The boy next to me helped me to rub out my dots ‘I’ll just do it faintly so you can still see them,’ he whispered kindly. Then off I went to the Blue Table. The table with the other children branded too stupid to work at the same pace as the rest of the class. Everyone did the same work but those on the red table got to go out for play time a few minutes earlier or do an extra art activity or do some drawing. I’d occasionally relished in these privileges myself when I’d finished my story before the end of the lesson. Me and my yellow table friends would be sticky with glue and glitter while the blue table were still battling with adding and subtracting. To be at the other end of the scale was a terrible place.
I cried a lot that day. And in the weeks and months that followed. I got a bad report and when my mum and dad went to parents’ evening I got a bad report that night too. I was too chatty and I didn’t try hard enough. It wasn’t true. I hated the teacher. She humiliated me and didn’t help me to fix the problem I had with numbers.
Since then I have hated maths, I actually don’t know if I have a real, diagnosable issue with maths or if it is a deep and ugly scar from that early experience. I mean, I worked in pubs and nightclubs for years and my mental maths when adding up three pints, a double vodka Red Bull and a shot of Sambuca was accurate every time so I’m clearly not stupid but whenever I encounter data, percentages, or anything numbers related at work, the first thing I say is ‘maths makes me cry’. And it does.
When I had to pass my maths skills test to complete my PGCE I got a friend to help me. After an hour he handed me a box of tissues and said “honestly, I love you, but stop crying and stop shouting at me. I had no idea you could be such a cow! You CAN do this.” My first reaction when anyone tries to explain something number related to me is to cry and shout. I revert back to being seven years old and saying all those things I wanted to say to Mrs Teacher, about how she humiliated me and made me feel bad, that she didn’t understand and didn’t care enough to help me understand and that punishing me was the wrong thing to do. I know it’s pathetic. I’m 33, I should not be afraid of working out how many marks on the exam my year 11s need to get their target grade once you take away their controlled assessment grade, but I am. I get someone, anyone to check it, every single time. I seek out a maths teacher to help me to work out the percentage of boys who achieved compared to girls. If I’m ever in the maths department I skitter around, trying not to look at the wall displays of numbers and sequences. Maths makes me cry.
Today while scrolling through facebook I came across a shared post. It was a letter to a teacher with a photo of a maths SATs question. I looked at the question and, unsurprisingly, I had no idea what it meant to or how to work it out. Then I read the text. It was a letter from a mother to her son’s teacher saying she supported him and the school but her son would not be doing the SAT exams. It’s something I’ve thought about for my own son, Little Monkey, I believe that boycotting the exams is actually a good idea. I read the accompanying text again and stopped. The maths question that made my heart race, my palms sweat a little and that annoyed and angry voice in my head pipe up ‘we can’t do this, we’re too stupid’ was aimed at 6 and 7 year olds. Year 2 SATs. It actually made me cry.
I strongly believe that primary school should take that spark of curiosity that is in every child and nurture it. Look after it, feed it with knowledge and experiences and things that they don’t get to do at home. Teach them how to fight with rulers and make a village out of match boxes, let them cook dates in honey and choose a Roman myth to act out for the rest of the class. Show them what a privet hedge is and how to choose the right leaves for the school stick insects.
Don’t humiliate them, don’t tell them that drawing dots to help them count to 25 is naughty and don’t tell them that they must be stupid. Now I can look back and understand that actually, she was not a good teacher. Little Monkey has a brilliant teacher and the school he will go to in September is also brilliant. Their emphasis is on happy, well rounded children and not results. When we went for a tour on open night my first question for the year six teacher was ‘do you do SATs booster classes?’ The answer was no. A few parents looked a bit shocked, annoyed even, that there was no special arrangements in place to ensure the children did brilliantly. ‘Good. I’m glad about that. I don’t agree with them’ was my reply. A little flicker of solidarity sparked between us.
I can’t speak for my primary colleagues but I do know this. It is easy to teach kids who are motivated and have worked hard. Kids who have been mentored and guided to know what to expect and how to approach it will do well. Pupils who are stressed, worried and anxious are a risk. Countess conversations at staff meetings all taking the same path “…she’s bright but she’s so stressed out, she’ll crack in the exam…” as we worry about how to reach out to the worst affected and let them know that it will all be ok, trying to strike the balance between ‘this will affect your future’ and ‘it’s ok, it’s not the only thing in life that matters’. It’s a near impossible task.
But for this to start at six years old is wrong. For a child, at six years old, to think that he is stupid and a loser because he didn’t get 100% on his practise test is wrong. For children of six years old to be worrying about what they will do when they leave school is wrong. When I was six I wanted to be a dolphin. Not a dolphin trainer, or a marine biologist, an ACTUAL dolphin. I was a keen swimmer and liked the way they moved in the water and the clicky, high pitched noises they made. This seems normal to me. If you can’t dream of being a dolphin when you’re six years old, when can you?
For children of 11 years old to be worrying about how their performance in an exam at primary school will affect their GCSE results is wrong. At 11 years old you should be more concerned about wearing your summer school uniform for the last time, what high school will be like and if you’ll be allowed to get the bus home now that you’re almost a teenager.
I actually did get slightly better at maths while at high school. I had a wonderful teacher called Mr Bolton (who later retired and went on to shoot wedding videos). He was exactly what you imagine a maths teacher to look like; beard, glasses and leather elbow patches. He got so excited by fractions he made us want to know what was so fascinating about it. My friend, Laura, whom I sat with for 2 years, was just as bad as me at maths. We’d been through primary school together and when we were put in the same maths class we clung to each other for dear life in a ‘we’re both terrible at this, we’ll fail together’ kind of way. Mr Bolton was brilliant though. Instead of separating us and putting us next to more able pupils in an attempt to raise our aspirations and hope that by some stroke of magic, some maths genius would unlock the part of our brains that controlled Pi, he let us stay together. He started every lesson by explaining to the whole class what we’d be doing that day. Then he’d crouch by our desk and say ‘right girls, how much of that did you understand?’ And there he would stay until we got it. He let us chat, he never minded if I drew dots in my book to help me to count to 25 and he let us take text books home to practise. I got a C in my GCSE. I am forever thankful to Mr Bolton for that. He never gave up on us, he never even hinted at a threat to move us down from set 3 and he never shouted when we got it wrong. He just celebrated every single time we got it right.
This is what school should be about, studying the Romans, having sword fights, drawing dots to help you to count to twenty five and celebrating the little victories that will eventually lead to the bigger successes. Not crushing the spirit of every child that comes through the door in an attempt to turn them into results machines.
There is a campaign called Let Kids Be Kids started by a group of Year 2 parents who are boycotting the SATs on 3rd May in a stand against the government and the increasing pressure on children to achieve higher and higher results. It’s a campaign well worth supporting if we are to have any say over how our children are educated and how their school experiences are shaped.
Let them be Dolphins, not results robots.