Posts Tagged ‘schooling’

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

On being tested (not for COVID!)

June 2, 2020

Something brought to my mind the horrifying realisation that it’s half a century this month since I did my O-Levels, which were the end-of school examinations at age 16 in England way back then. This has had me reflecting on the experience of being tested, which seems to happen a great deal more frequently than in my younger days…

I took the 11+ shortly before my tenth birthday (for some unknown reason, Lincolnshire County Council allowed you a go at age 10 if your school wanted you to, as well as the usual attempt at 11. I knew that it was an important test, on which my future education possibilities depended, and wanted to pass; the headmaster of our primary school coached a small group of us and I was successful. I have no recollection of the experience being stressful, and found the test itself quite straightforward and rather strange in places – I recall a (presumably mathematical) question about an election in which each of the candidates received exactly the same number of votes (2 each).

I was at a small Catholic boarding school when O-Levels came around. For some of the subjects I was aware we were following some kind of course; there were set books to study in English, RE and Latin, for instance, and specific topics to cover in History and Geography. None of the work felt particularly onerous, and I had some idea of the kind of questions I might meet. There was a French oral with an external examiner which required me to read a passage aloud and then converse with him about whatever came up…

I contrast my experience with that of students nowadays, including many of those whom I taught in a career of nearly thirty years: I felt very little pressure or stress, either from myself or my teachers. I have been fortunate in that I evolved a system for organising revision which stood me in good stead through all the stages of my education: no revising after 9pm, and no last-minute panic in the morning, so avoid conversations with peers about the upcoming exam. Triage of material: this stuff I know and understand pretty well, this stuff here needs a more careful look over, this other stuff I really do need to work on…

What was different then? Why did I feel more stressed about whether I’d get through three hours of exam without needing a pee, than about the questions on the paper? You were being assessed on what you knew and understood, and the examination wasn’t competitive, in the sense that there would only be a certain percentage of each grade awarded. There was also a trust in the markers and marking, which increasingly disappeared during my teaching career with the increase in the number of papers and exams, and the ever more complicated descriptors and mark schemes. These, along with markers being increasingly badly paid, led to people almost but not quite being dragged in off the street to do the work. I don’t think university places depended so much on grades at age 16, whereas everything seems to be taken into account nowadays. On the other hand, for many universities, O-Level Latin was a must for matriculation…

I felt supported by my parents, and my teachers, whose jobs and future prospects did not depend on how well we managed to do in our exams: they did their job, we did our work and it all came out in the wash.

A-Levels were a similar performance, and university applications and interviews – yes, they were important and pretty much de rigueur – a very gentlemanly business. The professor of French and I chatted and discussed whatever, until at a certain moment he said, “Bien, continuons en français!” (which we did) – I hadn’t expected that, but it was fine.

University exams were more stressful, because I developed hay-fever, which plagues me to this day, even as I write, and because they were in enormous exam halls with vast numbers of invigilators, some of whom thought it was OK to chat in the corners of the exam rooms… I loved my MA exam, because it was my first and only experience of a takeaway exam: we trooped in to collect the paper from the office at a set time and were instructed to return our scripts a fortnight later. And the viva for my MPhil thesis was a very civilised affair over a good lunch at the home of an academic, with two examiners, a hard man and a soft man. A serious grilling, though.

My most stressful experience of being tested came in a practical field: learning to drive. I passed only at the third attempt, finding the whole ordeal much more gruelling than most of my peers. I’m sure this was right, given that letting someone loose on the road in ton of metal that can move at up to 100mph or so is a very serious business. I’m still grateful to the friend and neighbour who insisted on my driving to the Lake District and back in her tiny Fiat 500 the day before my successful test, building up my confidence enormously and convincing me that I could be a driver.

I’ve read about countries where there are no examinations; I’ve read about countries where things are much more competitive and stressful. As a teacher, I experienced and administered 100% continuously-assessed coursework, which produced comparable results to examinations, but without the pressure and stress on students. So what is it all in aid of? How many ways can you weigh a pig? To a large extent, I think we’re victims of the fact that there have always been examinations, and as a society we have failed to think seriously enough about their purpose or necessity. Also, because data collection and analysis is now so easy and a money-making business in itself, the end justifies the means, and we are persuaded to believe that it’s fairer, more scientific, more accurate and a whole lot of other subjective things.

I have had to support students through the stress of their own expectations and their parents’ expectations of themselves. Some suffered greatly, and unnecessarily; sometimes they gave up. Some people can function effectively under pressure in examinations, some cannot; this does not mean they are incapable.

I’m no expert, but I have experience, personal and professional. I can not see any point in exams at age 16, since we expect students to remain in education until 18. Perhaps there is a need for some kind of certification of competences at a certain level in a few areas such as language, maths and IT at the end of schooling. Unless we plan to limit the numbers moving on to higher education, then what’s needed is an assessment of whether someone is capable of accessing and potentially succeeding at the next stage: this doesn’t have to be by examination…

Finally, I remind myself that examinations are now a vast industry: writing and rewriting syllabi, writing and publishing textbooks, producing exam papers and marking them, analysing all the data, providing training courses… the money recycling goes on ad infinitum. And who is it all serving?

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