Pass the inkwell…

Last night I watched the year 6 play, which this year took us through periods in time, under the direction of a Time Lord. We visited Boudicca (and some Romans), Beethoven, a second world war kitchen, and even got as far as the ancient Egyptians, before landing safely back in the  village hall in the present day. Every child in the year 6 class (24 of them this year) had a speaking part. Every child sang and danced, albeit some more than others. And every child contributed to designing and selling tickets, painting the set, and so on.

The year 6 summer play has become a tradition here ever since the primary school has had a year 6 (until 2013 the school ended at year 4 and pupils then went to the middle schools which have now closed). It wouldn’t  happen at all, of course, without hours and hours of additional volunteering from teaching assistants to make costumes, source props and so on, teachers of the other classes being there to help, and significant support from the lighting and general backstage guru in the local drama group. It is put together in a whirlwind of activity which starts after the summer half-term as a kind of antidote to SATs.

Some of these children have been in village plays, been regular members of school choir or performed in other ways inside and outside school.  But most don’t have those experiences. The point about the Year 6 play is that, whatever their starting point, all the children are on stage. All collaborating, all memorising lines (even Mr Gove would be proud!). All supporting each other, whether that’s to remember what comes next, put on a costume or to get onto the stage in the first place. I can’t be the only person who derives enormous pleasure from watching children who are not the natural performers in the class grow in confidence, looking out at the audience and enjoying their lines, as the evening progresses. One can only presume that these are experiences our education ministers haven’t experienced for themselves. Why else would they think children will learn more from the precise positioning of the constituent parts of a semi-colon?

You read that last bit right. The government Time Lord, aka Nick Gibb the education minister (no-where near as entertaining as the year 6 Time Lord even when he tries), has decreed that these same children must leave school able to position a hand-written semi-colon not just in the right place but with the comma element of the semi-colon positioned correctly  “in relation to the point of origin, height, depth and orientation”. The reason this has come to light is that it turns out marking of semi-colons (and other punctuation) has been inconsistent. Some children get a mark, others don’t, for exactly the same answer. (This hasn’t just been an isolated incident; the headteacher who brought it to public attention received over 5000 tweets last weekend from teachers frustrated by inconsistent SATS marking). So these children, freshly exuberant from their year 6 play, are supposed to go out in to the world knowing that the system is pitched against some of them for no better reason than the whim of a government department which has forgotten to move out of the nineteenth century.

I’m not saying children shouldn’t learn grammar. (They should, it’s useful in learning how to write effectively.) And I’m not saying their learning of grammar or anything else shouldn’t be assessed. (It should – by their teachers.) Just that learning the precise alignment of a hand-written semi-colon isn’t likely to be something they make much use of in adulthood, or even in the rest of their schooling. Not now that we have exchanged inkwells for laptops and ledgers for spreadsheets. Nor is the precise alignment of a semi-colon – even when consistently marked – a sensible thing to judge schools by, which is what happens with the SATs results.  Whereas confidence, the ability to do things that at first seem outside their comfort zone, self-belief and collaboration are all necessary attributes for embracing the world of work and becoming healthy, engaged and active citizens. Which is what, in my view, education should be for.

These children are lucky. We have a village hall complete with stage in which the children can perform (the school hall isn’t big enough for the whole school let alone a play). And people willing and able to help.  But they are also lucky because they are at a school where the staff still have the  capacity to fight for what children need to learn as well as delivering what they are told to learn. The memory, the skills and the sheer enjoyment which the year 6 class displayed on stage last night will stay with them  long after they have forgotten the precise height, depth and orientation at which the constituent parts of a semi-colon must be drawn.

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