Secret Teacher our obsession with targets is hurting vulnerable pupils

A lot of the people I know became teachers because they loved school – I became a teacher for the opposite reason. I have dyspraxia, a developmental coordination disorder, as well as a genetic disorder that affects my joints. At school, I was considered to have special needs. I didn’t realise that I was different until I started primary school and things that the other children seemed to find easy – such as getting dressed after sports – were mystifyingly hard for me.

I have always loved working with kids and my degree is in childhood studies, but I resisted the advice of people telling me to join the profession. I’d hated school myself, so why would I want to work in one?

Working with teenagers who had learning difficulties showed me that teaching can make a difference. That’s when I chose to study a PGCE with a focus on inclusion.

But four years into my teaching career, I worry about how little impact I’m having. I feel most like a failure when I’m working with special educational needs (SEN) students. The things I do to help them are only softening the blow. Attitudes have changed a great deal since I was at school – a teacher once accused me of being lazy and having nothing wrong with me – but policy has failed to keep up.

Schools are supposed to be inclusive, but pressure from government to focus on testing makes it difficult for this to happen. The focus is on meeting rigid targets, regardless of individual needs.

Secret Teacher our obsession with targets is hurting vulnerable pupils

Take one of my reception students, Michael. He’s a bright and lovely child. He knows the names of all of the dinosaurs and can talk at length about his favourite Mr Men characters. But it is becoming increasingly clear that he is “different”. I know that, whatever I do, Michael will not meet the majority of the early learning goals he is supposed to reach by the end of the year.

He struggles most with writing. He finds it hard to hold a pencil and has only just managed to form the “M” in his name after building up strength in his hands by making letters out of playdough. But by the end of the year he is supposed to be able to write a sentence.

It’s not just students with special needs who suffer as a result of this system. Late developers and those who are talented in areas outside of English and maths also lose out. No matter how hard teachers try to hide the emphasis on targets, the message inevitably filters down to the children.

I was told by a year 2 student, Yasmin, aged 6: “I am really bad at reading. I am only on the red books”. She now misses our weekly art lesson – her favourite subject – to attend phonics intervention classes. In many other countries (including those with higher levels of educational achievement than the UK, such as Finland) she wouldn’t even have started formal education. Here, she already feels like a failure.

Yasmin and Michael will face many more tests. In the four years that I’ve been teaching, the government has introduced the phonics check for year 1, baseline tests for reception students and the spelling, punctuation and grammar test for year 6. There is also a new times table test for year 6 students.

There were hopes that the removal of national curriculum levels might reduce the pressure on students to be at the same stage at the same time, but this hasn’t happened. Levels have been replaced by expectations of what children are supposed to have achieved. This means that it’s hard to show progress in students who are slower to develop or who have special needs – every year they’re simply classed as “working towards the expected level”.

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