A shopping centre near me uses a sonic device to discourage certain people from entering. Its whistle is painfully shrill to children and young adults, but as good as inaudible to those in their late twenties and upwards. Given the events at my school this week, I’m tempted to believe that something similar has been installed there.
Over the course of four days, our Year 6 students have been taking the SATs exams that help to determine the school’s position in league tables. These days, such results are also used to identify schools ripe for academisation. Thus, like religious idols, they mark the direction in which all must face. Now that the tests are over, there’s little visible evidence of what passed. The desks have been rearranged, and the stationery that marked places the way cutlery does in restaurants has been returned to drawers and pots. Only the flecks on the carpet remain – sheddings from erasers, dotted across the maroon pile.
There should be no need for rubbers: the exam regulations instruct students to cross out any answers they want disregarded. Still, one was placed on every desk, ‘in case’. In case an adult – a headteacher, say – needed to use one. With unaccustomed punctuality, he appeared in the main exam room on Monday morning, as tautly menacing as an over-coiled spring. Once confident that no external observer had been sent by the DfE, he began to pace and prowl between exam rooms. Invigilator after invigilator was directed unequivocally to ensure that every candidate submitted a completed test paper.
Dealing, as we do, with students whose abilities are diverse, who work at different paces and manage time with variable effect, how was this to be achieved? By telling them the answers. And pointing to correct options on multiple choice questions. And giving students additional time – hours, in some cases – to which they were not entitled. As the last child left the exam room on the first day, the head instructed her to fetch an eraser, while the class teacher was directed to block any sightlines into the room. And so began the removal of wrong answers. Shocked into confusion, the teacher complied for a few seconds before walking away, unwilling to be any more of an accessory.
Thereafter, the erasing took place during the exams. Students, bewildered to find adults at their elbows, scrubbing away at their answer booklets, were summoned to the head’s office to substitute dictated answers. The distress of the invigilators who’d been coerced into acting against their beliefs, was hard to witness; that of the children, even more so. Instead of relief and larks, there was anger that they’d been deprived of the chance to find out what they could do independently; guilt and sadness at having been made to deceive their parents. Some described deliberately messing up answers, to compensate for the unrequested ‘support’.Repeatedly and rightly, they asked me how an institution preaching honesty as a core value, could direct its members to practise the opposite. Though I tried to cobble together an answer in the moment, I admitted defeat on that score. Instead, I emphasised that, as burdensome as guilt is, I was proud of them for feeling it and proving that they still knew right from wrong.
I got away with conducting the exam by the rule-book, by taking my allocated group into my room straight away and ignoring the head glaring at me like Mad-Eye Moody through the window. He didn’t come in, but I’d like to think that, had he told me to cheat, I’d have stood up to him. Having seen and heard my colleagues’ fearful acquiescence, I don’t know for sure that I’d have had the guts to do so, even though I told him otherwise when I met with him to express my anger.
So, to return to my opening scenario, children heard the piercing squeal of wrongdoing while one deafened adult told everyone else to insert earplugs against the noise. Maybe that’s just life, one of those things that we rationalise by telling others to grow a pair and stop being so naive. But it’s also what happens when schools are held to ransom by floor targets, league tables and the prospect of enforced status conversion. And it’s what happens when we fail to stand up to thugs: politicians who distort our professional priorities in the interests of their own (re)electability; local authorities that invite schools to ‘adjust’ their exam results; or headteachers who think their schools exist to service their ambitions, and are not averse to a spot of mutual backscratching with our supposed channels of accountability.
Perhaps there is a place for shrill whistles after all.