I don’t like exams. Students freeze, questions can be complicated, markers and adjudicators differ and the students are crammed to produce good results in order to justify high school fees. “Exam factory” said one student to me who reached Cambridge University from his expensively selective public school “and I hated it there. We were exam cattle and they gave us fodder.” I prefer fair and regular assessment, even including the probability of copying other people’s work. Good teachers would see through and challenge the laziness.
In New Zealand we teachers met as a team, coursework results evaluated. We knew strengths and weaknesses, laziness and effort. We had the record of all that the students had done over the year. Imagine a total of 260 was the minimum pass-mark (out of 500). Not much chance of favouritism over five different subjects: 92% would look strange alongside 4 x 42%. Fail, we would agree, without a glance at creepy favouritizer.
The students who failed were allowed to take national exams. If too many passed, then the school knew it had set too high a standard; if no one passed then the school was probably too lax. The exam boards and other schools would be watching carefully. You don’t make that mistake twice. A natural and careful awareness steered a clear course.
I liked that. A whole year’s work was of value and the students knew it and they worked steadily. I remember one smart (very intelligent) student taking on the system – not completing assignments, careless work, daring us to fail him. We did. He made a fool of himself – but he did well in the exam and obtained a university place but had already “forewarned” the university that he was lazy and smart. They would be watching.
Last week we saw general rejoicing at exam results based on teacher assessments. I trust those results more than exam-fodder schools’ results. But I saw who were not sharing in the rejoicing. Did you? They had dropped out of school over the years. Failed. Hardly able to even read or write. No home background to encourage them, no one to coach them or even coax them, hating school where books with pictures was their limit, never exploring their own ideas and those of others because class discipline was hard to enforce, knowing they would never catch up, be able to read or write or discuss with joy, able only to count money in order to survive.
Teachers in such sad schools face great difficulties – but how good they sometimes can be, how unselfish, how encouraging. And senior students who have made progress can be asked to help the younger ones who respond to someone genuinely encouraging them. When I was teaching I would ask the sixth formers to give some of their study or free time to youngsters (with school permission, of course) and saw such good results: the genuine reward from helping the weak, the genuine gratitude for being helped.
Which is why on Tuesday 10th August we began to plan our own school from St Joseph’s parish, open to everyone but especially to youngsters who want to improve in reading and writing. The school is dedicated to St Hugh of Lincoln, the teachers will be boys and girls at school who are willing to help slow learners a little younger than themselves. The headteachers (a woman and a man) have accepted their supervisory role – they will not teach, simply support this new school. The teachers will be girls and boys.
The inspiration comes from a book “Letter to a Teacher” written by eight Italian boys who founded “The School of Barbiana” in the 1960’s to point out hat the Italian education system had failed them badly. The book is a fierce, brilliantly-argued, attack on the favouritism given to wealthy fee-paying families – such as the UK knew until higher education became possible for many, with the 11+ exam after World War II and the ideals of Comprehensive Education later “Letter to a Teacher” is published by Penguin (still in print) as an Education Special. Read it, absorb its sadness, be inspired by its message. Eight young boys set Italy on fire with their message: the Italian education system favours the wealthy few but fails the great numbers of the poor.
Please pray with us. The seed has been planted. The power of the internet may carry our school everywhere because every youngster knows how to text – but they need to learn to spell, read, write – and to teach those a little younger who will in their turn teach the younger . . .
I share a memory with you. I knew the family well. They spoke only Italian at home. The boy knew no English. He came to our parish school, aged four and a half. “Will he cope?” I asked the teacher whom I knew well. “Yes, easily,” was her reply. He as good at football, she had seen: the boys liked him and he was already learning to speak from them. The girls liked him – he was different, not shy, laughed easily. They were glad to talk to him, explain patiently. At the end of ONE year he was completely bi-lingual. At home he spoke with an Italian accent like his parents, at school he sounded as Welsh as the rest of the class. “Easily” the teacher had said. She knew. In one year! Children learn from children naturally. We pray with people like Malala to see the right of a good education for everyone.
God bless us,
(15th August 2021)