The pressures created by a high-performance culture made it difficult for the children at one primary school to learn and collaborate. Tamara Bibby, a lecturer at the Institute of Education in London, explains

The school

Our research was carried out at a two-form entry, five to 11 primary school in central London. The school does well against national performance data and consistently finds itself at or near the top of league tables in its local authority, which is one of the most deprived in the country.

One class of children were followed from their recruitment to the project while they were in Year 4 through Year 5, until data collection stopped at the end of the autumn term when they were in Year 6.

Split groups

At the school, mathematics and literacy are taught in ‘split groups’. This means that the two classes are reconfigured for these two lessons, to form three groups that are taught by the two class teachers and the support teacher. This challenges the ‘traditional’ image of the isolated primary teacher with a class who form a coherent and stable group.

The children repeatedly expressed their dislike for these classroom ‘splits’ (most usually through pleasure when they were cancelled) and disappointment at their lack of control over who they could sit with.

Relationships

Like the rest of us, children learn inside relationships. The quality of the relationship will dictate the quality of the learning. The children taking part in our research were constantly seeking to understand their place within the relationships they had in school.

They were highly aware of the nature of the relationships they were enabled (and constrained) to develop. These included play and work relationships with peers, and learning relationships with adults. The poor quality of many of these relationships was felt acutely by the children and often led to them feeling frustrated, resentful and guilty.

Since all classroom ‘talk’ that was not routed through the teacher was assumed to be off task,the children felt that they could not easily undertake work involved in understanding their place in relationships.

Their desire to understand the relationships of school was not only a social concern. Rather, the children were clear that they wanted opportunities to share and explore ideas among themselves and also with their teachers. Learning relationships were central to their desire to understand themselves and their learning processes.

Social awareness

Children demonstrated a high degree of awareness of the groups within which they existed and operated. Understanding the nature of these groups, and their places within them, was an important focus for both boys and girls. This awareness was very difficult for some children to reconcile with the ways of being that were privileged by the adults.

They constantly explored the boundaries between groups in the classroom, asking questions such as:

  • Who am I?
  • How are we the same and different?
  • How does my teacher see me or you?
  • What aspects of me or you are valued?

Small emotions

While adults were prepared to accept the emotional turbulence of classroom life, they seemed only to consider the ‘big’ emotions coming from outside the school as legitimately impacting on learning. So, for example, a child who had suffered a significant family bereavement was felt to need extra support.

By contrast, the small upsets of the playground were felt to be something the children should be able to put to one side. The anxiety that naturally accompanies significant learning was often dismissed, or even chastised as bad behaviour.

Positive emotions were little explored; so a child might legitimately feel ‘proud’ of a piece of writing during the literacy lesson. However, that pride could not carry across to the maths lesson. So, the excitement had to be contained and suppressed.

The lack of time, space and acknowledgement of the more ‘mundane’ emotions of everyday life generated high levels of resentment among the children. This interfered with learning as the children struggled, in isolation, to process and make sense of their experiences.

Control

The teachers justified this tight control over learning in the language of collaboration and learning.

For the children, however, being let out from under this control (often by supply teachers), meant they were more able to explore collaborative working. While the noise level undoubtedly increased, the talk was task-focused.

The children generally showed a real lack of ability to work collaboratively; so opportunities presented by thematic or cross-curricular work were often lost. Teachers behaved as if collaboration should occur ‘naturally’ and did not spend time helping children to develop the necessary skills.

We found that this focus on individual academic attainment, at the expense of the sharing and development of ideas, increased the children’s sense of:

  • fragility
  • insecurity
  • lack of preparedness to learn.

Impact of labels

Teachers tended to organise their thinking about the class around ‘ability’ or the ‘attainment’ of individuals or teaching groups in the context of lessons.

Being seen as a ‘level’ became increasingly uncomfortable for the children as they moved through the closing phase of Year 5 and into Year 6. They increasingly struggled to understand what such labels meant, and particularly what they meant for their relationships and place within the class.

We found that, while all the children struggled in some way with this and many girls put a lot of time and energy into resolving these difficulties, those boys who were most focused on playing football, and who were highly competitive with each other, found making sense of these changes most problematic.

Teachers repeatedly suggested that ‘hard work’ led to ‘doing well’ and that ‘working hard’ was a characteristic of ‘good’ children. We found evidence of children having to think very hard about what it meant if one was doing better than the other – did this mean that one was ‘good’ and the other … ‘not good’, ‘less good’, or ‘bad’?

And if a friend was felt to be ‘good’, how was it that he or she was not getting the same high scores? Could they still be friends in the classroom? In the playground? And how about out of school? As teachers were not spending time helping children to process their thinking about such questions, many struggled with them. For boys more accustomed to playing football at playtime, this was experienced as particularly difficult territory.

Also problematic was the creation of a ‘clever’ sub-group in the top maths set. These children had already enjoyed high status within the class. However, this extra separation caused the children to retest the boundaries of what was acceptable with their maths teacher and their peers – a process the teacher and peers found irritating and inexplicable. Again, this was never talked about. While the majority of the group were boys, and seemed to draw strength from their new status and notoriety, the one girl in this group had a more difficult time. Her ‘tomboy’ status was heightened by the other girls and, while not fully accepted by the boys, she also became increasingly isolated from the girls.

The price of compliance

While teachers clearly felt concern for the children and their learning, it was impossible to maintain this concern against external pressures. Meeting both sets of expectations was impossible. In response to this tension, adult concerns about the children’s agenda became superficial and lost out to the demands for ever higher levels of performance.

A narrow focus on the school’s KS2 SATs results showed these children to be doing ‘better than expected’. A superficial look at individual lessons might also suggest there are plenty of ‘good’, ‘focused’ and ‘well-paced’ lessons. However, the children’s sense of alienation from their peers, their own interests, their teachers and their learning raise significant concerns for their connection to their future education.

Most of the children we observed were relatively compliant and socially secure enough to continue to engage with potentially bruising learning encounters and to absorb their (and their peers’) frustrations and anxieties. In the longer term, it would be unreasonable to take such high levels of compliance for granted.

If children are adapting to an emotionally and intellectually impoverished classroom environment by seeking gratification in ‘pleasing’ behaviours (working fast, being good, scoring highly) rather than through engagement with challenge, then this may deplete their learning resources and, in the long term, reduce their capacity to engage with education.

This emphasis on targets and league tables contributed to the development of a culture in which no effort was ever good enough and everyone was in a perpetual state of deficit. This raised the levels of anxiety, self-doubt and fear. The lack of trust to experiment and make mistakes clearly restricts the creativity of schools, teachers and children.

Teaching and learning

Children’s perceptions of themselves as learners and their capacities to learn in any particular moment are both fragile and unstable.

The children felt a strong need to be liked and valued by their teachers. Low marks and negative feedback were internalised and understood as judgements of their worthiness, or otherwise, for success, attention, praise.

A child’s learning could be disrupted for a considerable period within a lesson and beyond as a result of their feeling overlooked, ignored or left out. In a classroom where learning for its own sake and collaborative learning had been lost, all validation came through the teacher. As a result of this and the ‘fast-paced’ lessons, there were few opportunities to receive praise or encouragement.

The children felt the need to compete for the attention and affirmation of adults. To some teachers this behaviour came across as ‘neediness’ and lack of independence, causing them to retreat further and become even less accessible to the children.

Questions

This raises a number of further questions:

  • How aware are adults of the effects of working in a performance-driven culture?
  • How might the institutional practices of a school be changed so as to enable teachers to think about the fragility of children’s learner identities?
  • What are the medium- and long-term impacts on the children of not having their difficult internal states recognised, and even having them?

This article is based on Dr Bibby’s submission to the Primary Review (www.primaryreview.org.uk) and emerged from a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

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