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One long Sats test

In this emotional indictment of our education system, the writer and teacher Francis Gilbert explain

The decision by the Children’s Secretary, Ed Balls, to kill off the Sats exams for 14-year-olds is arguably the most momentous decision taken by a politician since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Dramatic as it may sound, I believe the scrapping of these wretched exams will have far greater long-term repercussions than the bailing out of the banks.

As a middle-aged teacher who has taught for nearly two decades in state schools, I have had my life transformed. For 16 years, I have been penned up in sweaty classrooms drilling bored teenagers through the pointless complexities of the English Sats papers. I have watched some pupils bow their heads and scribble dutifully over them, while others turn them into paper aeroplanes. I have gone home every day worrying about how I might improve my results in this year's test. In my most depressed moments, my life itself has felt like one long, sad Sats test.

When the Education Act of 1988 introduced the concept of Standard Attainment Tests - Sats, also known as Key Stage tests - I, as a young teacher, cheered. In common with most of my colleagues, I support the notion of testing our children in a regular and organised way. In theory, Sats appeared eminently sensible: Key Stage 1 and 2 tests would assess seven- and 11-year-olds mainly in reading, writing and arithmetic, while Key Stage 3 tests would have equal components of testing in English, maths and science. Children would be assigned levels from 1-7, which were standardised across the whole age range, and therefore parents, pupils and teachers could see clearly whether students were progressing at the expected rate; if a pupil did not move up at least one or two levels between each stage then alarm bells would ring.

In practice, however, these tests have proved to be nightmarish failures. The Sats have not only led to a marked decline in standards, they have broken children's zeal for learning. They have alienated pupils, teachers and parents alike without making schools properly accountable. The root of the problem is this: the Sats have made children better at passing abstruse exams but in so doing have bludgeoned out all enthusiasm for learning, leaving them lacking in initiative, floundering when confronted with unexpected challenges, unable to construct sustained arguments and powerless to think imaginatively. At a stage in their education when pupils could be reading great literature in English, exploring the wonder of numbers in maths, understanding the forces of the universe in science, they have instead been plodding through tedious practice papers and learning the wording of the relevant mark schemes. They have not been educated; they have been trained simply to jump through the hoops of the exams.

How differently I felt in 1991. During that first dawn of Sats I was pleased, because previously there hadn't been any clear targets to work towards and no way of knowing what pupils had achieved before they came to you.

But as the Key Stage tests were phased in, it became increasingly obvious that they were failing to assess the essentials and, more disturbingly, were putting children off school. The KS1 and 2 tests were supposed to give accurate information about pupils' proficiency in the three Rs. However, as an English teacher who was expected to use the KS1 and 2 English scores to inform his teaching, I soon noticed that the levels the pupils were arriving with from their primary schools were inaccurate. More worryingly, the method of "teaching to the test" seemed to have sapped the confidence and passion of children as young as 11. I can vividly remember, five years ago, my new Year 7 pupils groaning when they saw that they would be reading a novel with me at the beginning of the year. "Do we have to read books?" a blond-haired boy named Liam asked me during the first week of term. I had never encountered such resistance to learning before. But then I reflected that he was one of the first pupils who had known nothing but Sats teaching since he was six years old. The effect was shocking: 11-year-old children, who had in previous years been full of eagerness, were now jaded and moaning about the work, fighting and giggling in class, writing only short answers and struggling to read anything that wasn't on a test paper. It was only when I set them a mock test that they shut up and got on with some work: it was the only form of education they understood.

Having been drilled to answer questions on little bites of text, too many children were unable to read longer books independently. Moreover, they seemed utterly disillusioned by the prospect of studying English. Liam sneered at everything put before him until he brought in his own crime novel from home. In desperation, I allowed him to read it even though it wasn’t on the syllabus. Although he was articulate, he was not cut out for taking these exams and achieved a shockingly low level in his KS3 test; in fact, he had regressed academically since primary school. The effect of the tests on him had been hugely damaging, demoralising him to such an extent that he felt there was no point ever trying at school. If they had been better structured, the story would have been very different; he could have written reviews of his beloved crime novels.

I felt I had failed: I had managed to foster a love of reading but this had been at the cost of his failing exams. Ultimately, Liam perceived that his new-found love of reading was disconnected from everything he did in school. Maths teachers report more or less the same problem: overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before the tests were introduced.

The Key Stage 1 and 2 tests are to be retained. Yet most teachers know that this is where the rot starts: primary schools are obliged to brainwash their charges with test papers in order to keep their school's position high on the league tables.

This is not to say that schoolteachers have an easy life, handing out test papers and asking the pupils to get on with the work in silence. Teaching to the Sats can be extremely difficult. Recently, the tests at all levels have become even more fiddly - and boring.

Overtested and demotivated children are not ready for secondary maths in the way they were before Sats were introduced

The English Key Stage 3 test, for which I have prepared pupils, follows a very set format: a reading paper, a writing paper and a Shakespeare paper. In maths and science, there is a similarly rigid rubric. At a glance, the English Key Stage 3 test looks quite easy to teach. With Shakespeare, for instance, it benefits the teacher not to read the whole play, because only two scenes are tested; it is far more effective to show pupils the film and then drill them into understanding the two scenes set for the exam.

“I’ve spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot. Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that”

But the truth is that, while the examined texts are facile and unrewarding, the actual teaching is a complicated affair. This is because guidelines require that teachers teach every lesson to "learning objectives". At the beginning of each lesson the teacher writes at least one learning objective on the board, requiring pupils to copy it down in their books and focus on that particular concept throughout the lesson. The response of one of my recent pupils, Leroy, sums up the attitude of many children. "I've spent years copying this off the board and it makes me feel like a robot," he told me. "Copy this, copy that. Do this, do that. When are we ever going to do something we want to do?"

Leroy was a clever boy, but he messed around a lot during my Year 9 classes. In consequence, he achieved only an average Level 5 Sat, setting him up to achieve similarly undistinguished GCSEs. He should have gone on to do A-levels but didn't because he disliked school so much. The exam system was entirely to blame for his dropping out.

Another pupil, Nicole, who was aged 13, once looked up at me at the end of the lesson and said that her hand was hurting from so much writing. "This is all I do in every lesson, just fill in worksheets, but I never quite know what's important about any of this. Will I need any of this when I go to work?" she asked with sad resignation.

Nicole was a dutiful student and attained top marks in her Sats, but told me that she forgot everything she had learned a few weeks after the tests. It was an exaggeration, but it illustrated another problem with the tests: pupils didn't see that any of the skills they learned could be transferred to any other sphere. The Sats foster the belief among our students that school is abstracted from the world beyond the classroom, existing in its own tortuous bubble.

Why then, if I hate them so much, do I feel apprehensive about the demise of the Key Stage 3 tests? In truth, these tests are all I’ve known since I started teaching in the 1990s; they have provided a structure, a crutch, an easy if very mundane regime to impose on my pupils. Like many teachers, I perceive that we need a way of assessing schools’ performances so that failing institutions are identified. But this should be done separately from assessing pupils’ individual performances.

Needless to say, the scrapping of the Sats for 14-year-olds does not mean the scrapping of league tables or the measures that make teachers accountable for their pupils' results. While much is uncertain, it may be that teachers are scrutinised even more closely. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is piloting "stage not age" tests, which are rather like music exams - tests that are taken when the pupil is ready to take them. It seems certain that these exams will assess pupils' knowledge and understanding of the new National Curriculum, which, worryingly, looks even worse than its predecessor in its use of ambiguous jargon. Will the government never learn? What pupils and teachers need are clear, concise guidelines that give them freedom to teach as well as definite goals to work towards.

The government's refusal to countenance chang ing the format of the remaining Sats suggests that the system will continue to fail our children. All the Sats should be abolished now and replaced with simple, sensible tests. If something isn't done, and soon, we will produce another generation of dispirited and ill-educated children.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99)

A short history of British examinations

The Higher School Certificate was introduced in 1918 for school leavers, and was usually taken at the age of 18.

The eleven-plus was created as part of the Butler Education Act 1944; it tests verbal and non-verbal reasoning, mathematics and writing in order to see which 11-year-olds should go to grammar school.

O-levels (Ordinary levels) were introduced in the 1950s as subject-based qualifications under a General Certificate of Education, testing 16-year-olds on academic knowledge. The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was the school-leaving qualification awarded between 1965 and 1987 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to the majority of pupils who did not take GCE O-levels. O-levels and CSEs were replaced in 1986 by GCSEs (the General Certificate of Secondary Education).

A-levels were introduced in 1951, replacing the Higher School Certificate, testing students in academic subjects at the end of the sixth form. In 2000, A-levels were reformed and AS-levels were created, testing students at the end of their first year in the sixth form. A2-levels tested pupils at the end of the sixth form. All A-levels became "modular": each A-level consisted of six modules, tested either by coursework or by examination, enabling pupils to retake modules if necessary. A-levels were reformed again this year, the number of modules being cut from six to four.

Key Stage tests and school league tables based on their results were introduced in the 1990s. KS1 tests for seven-year-olds are in reading, writing and maths, and also offer teacher assessments in science. KS2 tests (11-year-olds) cover English, maths and science, as did the old tests for 14-year-olds. In October, the government announced the end of testing for 14-year-olds, to be replaced by teacher assessments.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile