The Primary Issue: Our secret teacher's report - What it's like to tell parents their six-year-old is failing

Thousands of children begin secondary school each year without the reading, writing or maths skills needed to make it through. In our series 'The Primary Issue' we look at what more can be done to raise achievement for all Kiwi kids.
Some teachers place less emphasis on National Standards and more on a child's individual progress. Photo / iStock
Some teachers place less emphasis on National Standards and more on a child's individual progress. Photo / iStock

Earlier this week, the Herald reported on the impact of National Standards. Dozens of responses have flowed in from around the country. In this piece, a teacher writes about what it's really like to tell parents their child is failing.

High expectations can be a positive thing. At primary school, however, they can also be a burden if all children are supposed to be the same regardless of their background. At my school students arrive at age 5 with widely varying skills and experiences. It's a decile one and while some children have had early childhood education, some haven't. Most of our families don't speak English as a first language. Yet there's an expectation all the children will be at a certain standard by a certain time and that can create a fair amount of pressure.

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For example, some children can do basic addition, while others struggle to count to five. Some can write their name, while others can't hold a pencil yet. But they will have other skills, for example they might be able to speak Tongan or Samoan and that's amazing - but it's not recognised in our system.

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Because it can be so varied, we tend to get to know children first, do some assessments and develop expectations from there. It's about being really open to what students can do and valuing their diversity. For me, the biggest thing is making a connection with the child, make sure they're settling in well and getting to know their family. To do that, we hold reading workshops, and have afternoon teas to meet the parents, where we discuss our programmes and celebrate the children's successes.

And then you have National Standards, which can be very disconnected from that.

Firstly, National Standards is a fair bit of work. It's a huge amount of administration, assessment, and collecting evidence from lots of sources to support your decision making -- in addition to your usual planning. Before I became a teacher I didn't realise how much preparation was involved, which was naive.

On top of the extra work, it feels like you're constantly questioning yourself as a professional. I think, "What more can I do? What more can the parents do to help this child?" It does cause me a bit of angst, and when I sit back to do the reporting against the standards I find it stressful. And that's largely because the standards don't have the ability to recognise the progress the child has made within the standard. You can have a conversation with a parent and say, "Your child is doing fantastically!" but then they're still below the standard. For example, last week I had a child who recognised "the" and that was a really big moment, but you can't record that small increment when you're reporting. I'd have to say "they're below".

When you tell the parents that, there is disappointment there. For a child to be trying their hardest, for a teacher to be trying their hardest, for a parent to be working really hard and to be told "they're below" it can be upsetting. For parents to be told that again and again is deflating, and I think it has an impact on a child, of turning them off learning. Parents begin to think, "what's the point? My child is still below the standard" and they can become less engaged in their child's learning. So if we're trying to get children to have a lifelong love of learning and to be connected socially and do great things ... there's a disconnect there.

For that reason, when we report to parents, we try to de-emphasise the National Standards stuff. We try to talk instead about the progress they've made and what the next steps are. But because you have to include the standards in the report their eyes are naturally drawn to that.

If there's a goal there, even if it's not valid, you want to achieve it. Of course I'd like all my children to be at or above the National Standard. But it's actually not realistic. We don't say that all children have to be at a certain height or weight after 40 weeks at school so why do they have to be at the same level for reading, writing and maths? How much would we need to focus on those three areas in the school day? What other parts of the curriculum would be sacrificed? What additional support can we access?

If children aren't making progress, and they have special learning needs, then all you want is for those needs to be met. But it can be really hard to get support and when you do get it, it's often for a short time and the expected progress can be unrealistic.

If we really value all our children, we'd be reporting on their progress and celebrating what they've achieved. We'd support those who need extra help, when they need it and for as long as they need it. We wouldn't be reporting against arbitrary standards and making children and families feel like they've failed, right at the start of their learning journey.

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
The trouble with NZ's primary schools
Is the $250m policy working?
Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'

• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
Have kids got the skills they need to start school?

• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
Teaching - the 'Plan B' degree

• Day 4: The problem with maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading

- NZ Herald

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