When my eldest child started school seven years ago, I soon noticed that my views on my children’s development weren’t the same as other mums’. I recall waiting in line to pick my son up from nursery and overhearing two mums comparing their children’s milestone achievements. One of the mums anxiously stated that her child wasn’t very advanced, but resigned herself to the fact that “you’re either born bright, or you’re not.” No parent waiting in the line flinched when the mum proclaimed her three year old son was destined for mediocrity, in fact they all nodded their agreement. I remember wondering why I was the only person biting my tongue so hard I could practically taste blood.
A few years later, I bumped into a mum who lives nearby on the school run. Her daughter was due to move on to secondary school, so I asked how she was feeling about it. The mum seemed frustrated that her daughter wanted to attend the local Catholic school to be with her friends, rather than the nearer secondary with great GCSE results. But she declared her eleven-year-old “had never been the brightest and had always been in the lowest ability group, so her school choice wasn’t important.” I had to bite my tongue again. Even harder this time.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
In the UK, every aspect of our children’s schooling seems to perpetuate a “fixed mindset” view of ability and intelligence. We still hold dear to the Victorian notion that children can be assigned a fate at a young age based upon how they test at the key ages of four, seven and eleven. Before the equality revolution in the late 1970s, it was widely accepted that children were either destined for grammar school, secondary modern or technical school, based upon an innate level of intelligence that they were born with. The government’s many failed attempts at introducing scores of new socially divisive grammar schools, at the expense of inclusion, makes me want to boil my brain in a vat of Michael Gove’s blood, sweat and tears. No, Michael, grammar schools are not a vehicle for social mobility. They’re really, really not, and they never have been. They’re the hallmark of privilege and unfairness.
If people have a fixed mindset, they believe you’re either born smart, or you’re not. Children with a fixed mindset believe they have been blessed with natural intelligence and that effort is for other, less-able children. Often they boast that they don’t need to try, yet they avoid challenges that they might fail at, preferring to compete only if they’re sure they’ll win. These are the children who *tend* to stress over exams, or worry about losing face and, all too often, suffer crippling losses in confidence throughout their lives whenever they feel their identities as worthy, intelligent people are challenged.
People who have a growth mindset quite correctly believe that intelligence is ever changing and our potential to succeed is unknowable. Children with growth mindsets embrace effort and invite challenges. They know that failure is necessary in order to learn and improve. Because they’re not held back by fear, children with a growth mindset, usually overtake their academically successful fixed mindset peers by their early teenage years, then they stay ahead. In Scandinavia, where education systems promote growth mindsets (no sets, no tests, no homework), children start school three years later, but are demonstrably better educated when they finish school at eighteen. There is a very strong link between mindset and achievement, and our national obsession with outdated modes of assessing, grouping and dividing children has probably always held the UK back.
Mindset featured heavily in the way I raise my children long before I even knew it was a *thing*. When I discovered Dr Carol Dweck’s amazing book, Mindset, I read every page with a huge, enthusiastic (okay, maybe even a little bit smug) smile on my face because I always just knew this was the reason the system was failing our children. I started to speak out. I criticised “ability” groups, I boycotted phonics testing, I ran a Facebook group for parents who see the value in developing growth mindsets, I even made a conscious effort to strike the word “clever” from my language, choosing to praise effort instead, and at teatime, I asked my children about the mistakes they’d made at school, as well as their achievements. I’ll always remember my eldest son telling me his classmate had teased him for getting a word wrong in his spelling test. My son argued that making mistakes were the best way to learn, but his friend disagreed. To him, mistakes were terrible and meant you were stupid. My son’s simple response: “Well, I know how to spell that word now, don’t I?”
Choosing to Speak
For the past few years, in May, I’ve given radio and TV interviews about standardised testing. Each time, I’m always asked the same question: why don’t more parents boycott the tests?
There are a proportion of parents out there that simply disagree with my position and think SATs are a decent way to assess children’s achievement at primary school. I can’t help them. But of the people who agree with me, there’s an overriding reluctance to speak out and take action. I completely understand that, because speaking out is hard. I bear the scars of years of scorching, hurtful remarks and I’ve even borne the brunt of a social media campaign by parents who didn’t want to see me – and my strongly held values – on our school’s governing board. When you’re a woman who voices her opinions without much fear of how they’ll be received, vilification is an all too common reaction. Strength and knowledge are intimidating. Dissenting voices threaten the status quo and raise questions people may not want to ask themselves. Now that more and more parents up and down the country are choosing to speak out against institutions such as SATs, grammar schools and academisation, a quick trip to the comments section of the Daily Mail gives us the clearest of insights into how the most confident and informed parental voices – particularly the female voices – are received. And it isn’t a pretty sight.
Fear of what people will think, is a huge reason why parents choose to silently toe-the-line. Others include not wanting their children to feel singled out, or worrying that not having a SATs result will harm their secondary education (it won’t). Psychologists confirm that most people are massively conflict averse, with only a very small percetage of society willing to speak their mind. Parents don’t like to rock the boat, or make a fuss, or risk upsetting teachers, so they don’t raise their heads above the parapet. They watch how outspoken people, like me, are ostracised and they say “no thank you.” I don’t blame any parent for choosing to keep their heads down, but at the same time, the government knows and expects this behaviour. Their need to proclaim that they’re raising educational standards means they turn our children into data, fudge every possible statistic and ignore reports that our children’s emotional, academic and sometimes even physical wellbeing is suffering as a consequence.
Ability vs. Attainment
Every time I write the word “ability”, up pops the “ ” punctuation marks. I can’t write it any other way because I’m all too aware how misused this word is. When we place children into a group, set or stream, we’re measuring attainment (often on one day, in one test), not their “ability”, which is ever-changing and often, completely untestable. One of my greatest wishes would be for schools to eradicate the word “ability” from their vocabulary. The point of testing is to inform teaching, but SATs doesn’t do that. All forms of standardised testing makes broad, sweeping fixed mindset generalisations that children and their parents often accept as gospel. This leads to children being written off as failures before they can even hold a pencil correctly. I hear it in the schoolyard and read it in parenting forums almost daily. The odds are stacked heavily against children labelled “low ability” at age four, to the point where it’s practically impossible for them to avoid becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
Learning vs. Drilling
The low value content of SATs is particularly harmful. Poet and author Michael Rosen said it best when he tweeted in May 2016: “SATs are tests of how well teachers get children to score highly on SATs. Nothing more, nothing less.”
SATs results are the bane of every secondary teacher’s life because the government disregards everything we know about fixed/growth mindsets and forces them to use children’s SATs results as a baseline target-setter for GCSEs. This foolishness begets a wide range of crazy targets that secondary schools have to hit, or else face humiliation in the league tables. Firstly, the primary schools who drill their children in booster classes and holiday homework clubs artificially inflate their pupils’ performance. Imagine how hard it is to maintain excellence in a subject based upon a single test result you were drilled to pass. Imagine doing really well, but scoring a massive fail on your school report because SATs say you should be excellent rather than very good. I don’t blame primary schools for maxing out on every possible avenue to achieve great results. Their continued existence as a school depends upon it. But, this pits them against secondary schools who are judged on maintaining results which are all too often, glaringly artificial.
Even more alarmingly, maths and English SATs results are used to set targets in every subject, not just maths and English. If you’re a maths high-achiever, then you’re expected to ace unrelated subjects too, such as art and PE. I know of one child who came to the UK from Spain and struggled to get a good grade in her English SATs test because it was her second language. Due to her failure at English, she’s expected to get a low grade in all of her subjects, including Spanish, where she often helps out her teacher. Also, spare a thought for the unfortunate art teacher who has to turn a child who can’t draw a straight line into the next van Gogh purely because he aced his maths SATs test. Stark-raving, mind-meltingly, bonkers, isn’t it?
Judging a fish on its ability to climb a tree
My eldest, year six child has a phenomenal memory. He’s taught himself the entire line of succession (US presidents as well as kings and queens), he knows the entire periodic table of elements and he can tell you absolutely every single possible thing you’d ever wish to know about the Harry Potter universe. His self-trained memorising skills would have given him a head start with SATs, and I’ve been told he would have done very well. My youngest child, age six, has a confident “can do” attitude, and I’ve been told she pretty much achieves everything she’s expected to achieve and behaves impeccably in her class. She ticked all her milestones early and fits neatly inside all of the government’s silly boxes. I don’t worry about either of them.
This is not the case for middle child, age eight, who barely spoke a word until he was three and a half. Middle child is one of those awesomely interesting humans who are wired up in completely unique ways. He has enviable social skills, a keen sense of justice, a huge heart that inspires us all to be better humans and loyalty that knows no bounds. If you were heading into battle, you’d want this kid on your side. But, he writes his own rules and refuses to fit inside a box no matter how hard he’s forced to conform. On paper this child is behind, has a low “ability” label and sits in the bottom “ability” set of his year group. Yet this is also the child who spends every weekend creating plans for his next engineering endeavour and was smart enough to convince his sister to spend an afternoon cleaning his room, then pay her with a mix of euros and dollars. Thanks to a procession of great teachers (he’s been very lucky), middle child has improved immensely and no longer requires additional help, but the system overlooks and disregards practically everything he excels at. There’s no reward for strategic thinking, or designing, or imagination, or persistence, or great people skills at primary school. Yet these are the characteristics that truly set us apart in adulthood.
I have every confidence that middle child will go on to achieve great things in life, but I know that I will have to fight like hell to make that happen. It’s hard for me to see the institutionalised privileges his brother and sister enjoy, as they often come at his expense. He has the exact same unlimited and unknowable potential to succeed as they do, yet there’s a solid wall in front of him, a ceiling above him and a flashing neon sign that says “not good enough.” I guard this child’s self-belief like a fire-breathing dragon, and the inequity thrown his way should put fire in the belly of every parent. I’m sad that it doesn’t. I’m even sadder that too many parents place the self-interests of their own children over equality for all.
The government relies on parents being conditioned into thinking SATs is just something they have to put up with, but we really don’t have to play their game. We have the power to say no. My son’s arrival at secondary school this September without a SATs result, is going to be the best possible start to the next chapter of his life that I could give him. All I needed to do was make the simple choice to speak, be heard and ignore the idle detractors.