Not so happy new year

Granny on the frontline


On New Year’s Eve we were standing around in the kitchen at my daughter’s munching tasty tapas made by her partner. Yes, things seemed calm – well, relatively – the four grandchildren were cavorting about in front of Just Dance on the Wii and with only the usual whoops from grandson and minor spats over whose turn it was, which song to play etc, peace and quiet sort of reigned. Yes, all those seasonal extras working mums and dads had coped with were now a blur – remember them? – school concerts, costume creation, getting in all the food and presents, Christmas work do’s and getting work up to date before the break etc etc and etc – oh and just for good measure for those with kids in year 11 at secondary and year 6 at primary, the stress of both GCSE mocks and impending SATs thrown into the mix – lovely.

But for now all of this was hopefully in the past. A couple of my daughter and her partner’s friends were there too – one’s a district nurse and the other a secondary school teacher. I starting chatting to the teacher friend about the grandchildren and, oh dear, maybe inevitably, mentioned the stress that granddaughter 1 had been under during her GCSE mocks and granddaughter 3’s anxiety about year 6 SATs in spite of their parents’ efforts in trying to stop them worrying. She said that the thing is that these days every child is expected to follow the same arbitrary level of progress in every subject throughout their school life. What? I was thinking, every subject for every single child? That doesn’t sound very child-centred to me and seems to be somewhat unrealistic since each child’s background and development can be quite different from that of their peers. And isn’t this what teachers are trained to understand – to pick up where each child is at and react accordingly so that every child is encouraged according to their needs? But it seems that these arbitrary levels have to be monitored and tested constantly by teachers which is very stressful for children and for teachers too since it adds considerably to their workload. She told me about a young teacher who was suffering from depression finding that the very reasons he’d gone into teaching, ie inspiring kids to learn and think for themselves and wanting to pass on to them the passion he had for learning and for his subject had been ground down by tests, targets and performance tables. Sorry – not too cheerful a topic for the beginning of the New Year.

However, I have to say that all this echoes the findings of research commissioned by the NUT, out last June, called ‘Exam factories: the impact of accountability factors on young children and young people’ and led by an emeritus professor no less, across a variety of schools which involved nearly eight thousand teachers and many case studies involving teachers and groups of children. The study indicates that if these arbitrary targets are not reached, for teachers there are punitive threats of job losses, public disgrace and of forcing the school to become an academy – and not all schools want to join this government initiative. This puts huge pressure on teachers and leads to them teaching to the test, ie only what the children will be tested on and the techniques of passing the test, all of which means that results do not show children’s overall understanding or what they actually know about a subject. The report went on to say that teachers also end up having little time left for creative activities or encouraging children to be curious and ask questions and some children are pushed to learn things before they are ready, or feel they have failed which can have a negative effect on their self esteem.

And I’m afraid there’s worse to come. The research project points to the increasing numbers of children and young people who have school-related anxiety, stress and mental health problems. Well, I’ve actually heard about young people who are self-harming or have anorexia at granddaughter 1’s school and at schools that teenage grandchildren of friends of mine go to. And seeing my grandchildren stressed and anxious about SATS or GCSEs in spite of their parents supporting them and talking to them trying to alleviate the stress makes my blood boil. Children’s lives shouldn’t be like this, should they? Granddaughter 3 told me how worried she was about year 6 SATs. ‘But, remember,’ I said, taking her mum’s line to help her to stop fretting, ‘they’re testing the school not you.’ ‘But, gran,’ she replied, ‘they send your SATs on to secondary so the teachers there know about you.’ And just after midnight on New Year’s Day, I noticed granddaughter 1 had disappeared. I found her sitting on the floor in her bedroom, gazing blankly at the screen of her laptop. ‘I’m having an existential crisis,’ she said on the verge of tears. Yes, with the dawn of 2016 came the dread of more pressure leading up to actual GCSEs. ‘What if I only get a C in physics?’ she said.

In this kind of climate is it any surprise that teachers are leaving the profession, people are not going into teaching and vacancies at secondary are causing concern with a high turnover of supply teachers. And now comes the news that the government may have been presenting the situation in schools in a somewhat rosier light than what it actually is. No surprise there then. And, when it comes to a choice between nearly eight thousand teachers or a few power-hungry politicians, I know who I believe.

Back to New Year’s Eve and I went to chat to the district nurse friend. No, we didn’t talk shop, I’d already been told that he was exhausted and down about work. Well, I can understand why – apparently the numbers of district nurses have almost halved over the last decade due to cuts in health budgets and, while around 35% are heading towards retirement, recruitment is difficult in a climate of cuts to nurse training bursaries deterring people from training and nurse’s pay being capped. All this while district nurses’ workloads are soaring due to the increase in conditions such as diabetes and, of course, us oldies, the ageing population. And who do you suppose will pick up the caring aspect of all of this, including for us elderly grandparents? Their sons and daughters (and it’s mostly the daughters) of course, and that includes working mums and dads, many of whom are already stretched to the limit. There’s a lot to ponder on as 2016 stretches out in front of us. Happy New Year.

*Granny on the frontline is Jill Garner, grandmother of six.

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