Secret Teacher: my students know all about exams but little of the wider world

Do I need a passport to get to Liverpool? What’s a postcard? Is Cornwall real? These are all questions I’ve been asked by (often bright) GCSE students that wouldn’t be out of place in a “10 hilarious questions asked by kids” listicle. For me, though, they reveal pupils’ lack of exposure to activities and concepts outside their everyday lives. The Secret Teacher in The Guardian reports.

I teach in a town with high levels of poverty and disadvantage. School trips are not only prohibitively expensive (for the school and for parents) but take time away from the core curriculum. With teachers under enormous pressure to deliver on test results, spending hours organising learning experiences that can’t easily be measured isn’t an appealing prospect. You can’t shoehorn in three assessment for learning episodes if students are running around a farm.

You might expect this lack of experience to affect subjects like geography, but even in English the impact is huge. Poems, especially, often rely on natural imagery to which my students haven’t been exposed. Take the line from a GCSE set poem that describes a son becoming independent from his father “like a winged seed loosened from its parent stem”. I had to bring in plants to demonstrate what a stem was. Another poem depicts a frightened woman “flying like a hare”. My students (quite reasonably, they thought) pointed out that hair doesn’t fly.

What they are familiar with is the pressure to pass exams. But without a broad range of experiences, there are barriers here too. Exams often discriminate against working class students through the texts chosen for comprehension tasks. Students can be thrown by extracts on kayaking or mountaineering – middle class entrants, who may have been on adventure holidays with their families, will be in their element. Students who lack those reference points can be put off further study. They come to believe it’s not for them.

Schools should be tasked with playing some part in closing this experience gap but are hamstrung by other pressing measures of accountability. We’re so focused on getting through the whole of Macbeth in six weeks that music lessons and trips seem frivolous. The irony is that this attitude puts the neediest children on the back foot academically.

I believe that children should, from a young age, have experience of farms, gardens, concerts, football matches and universities. They should visit cities, woodlands and the beach. The need is greater after years of austerity that has led to parents (saddled with the bedroom tax or having their universal credit cut) choosing between heating and food. For them, a theatre trip isn’t an option. Schools should have the resources – in money and time – to step in.

Read the full article Secret Teacher: my students know all about exams but little of the wider world

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: Budgets, Exams, Learning, Primary, and Secondary.


  1. “Schools should have the resources – in money and time – to step in.” If parents are lacking due to ‘austerity’, where on earth do you think the ‘resources’ are going to come from for schools? Once again, it is nothing to do with money – it costs nothing to take a toddler to the park to see a swan and a plant, or to go to the library to borrow a book about hares. It is purely about parental attitudes – and it is the state that encourages and allows single parenthood and working mothers, so it’s no wonder that fewer and fewer children have a proper childhood visiting farms and gardens. Time to get judgmental about non-traditional family life, for the sake of the children. Adults should put themselves last for once.

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