The education war

Oh gosh, the education secretary has declared ‘war on illiteracy and innumeracy’ and wants to introduce yet another test for Year 6 primary school children. This new test will include things such as a separate section about times tables up to x12 and writing a story with correct punctuation. But how does knowing times tables off by heart make children numerate? And wasn’t the SPaG test (spelling, punctuation and grammar) added not so long ago? And when that was introduced in 2013 the NUT general secretary said that it would ‘narrow the curriculum still further and cause needless stress for children’. Let’s face it, wars on things, such as the war on drugs and the war on terror, don’t work anyway, do they? And is all this actually necessary?

Last year the education secretary claimed, not once (to her party’s conference), but twice (to the Commons) that under the last government one in three eleven-year-olds couldn’t read or write. This provoked a strong letter to her from the UK Statistics Authority saying that there was no evidence at all for what she had said and including May 2010 figures (level 3 and above at Key Stage 2 for reading and writing with success levels up in the 90%s) which utterly refuted it. Yet here she is still banging on about the need for a war. The depressing thing is that politicians seem to think that if they bandy about any old figures often enough, people will believe them. Politicians eh? Oh yes, there’s an election coming up so they think they have to talk tough. But using our children and grandchildren to score dubious political points seems to me a cheap and unacceptable way forward.

In primary schools there’s SATS in Years 2 and 6 with many, concerned with league tables, doing informal tests in between. These tests have always been controversial and as long ago as 2007 after a ten-month enquiry, the National Association of Headteachers, (NAHT) described our education system as being an ‘examinations factory’ and wrote that ‘pupils in England [have] become the world’s most tested children’ which is ‘putting huge pressure on children’. Yes – I know a bit about this – e.g. granddaughter 1 (now 15) who used to get really anxious about SATs in primary school in spite of her parents saying that it was the school being tested, not her. The NAHT know their stuff and alternatives have been suggested, such as a less formal assessment of children’s performance over a broader range of capabilities over time – but the powers that be obviously haven’t been listening, have they?

The education secretary also said that we should be ‘ambitious for our children’ as if she thinks this is something new. Of course, parents want the best education for their children and most teachers have studied for four years to learn the knowledge and skills of their profession so you can’t tell me that the vast majority of them are not motivated, committed to, and ambitious for, the children in their care. As one commentator said recently: ‘The government’s intention is to convey that teachers do not care about the future and can’t be trusted – politicians do and can.’ But politicians are not trained teachers, are they? They haven’t worked with children and they certainly haven’t done so well in the trust stakes recently, have they?

And now they’re intending to get rid of a headteacher should any child in their school fail to reach the standards two years running. They would also force that school to become an academy – well, this smacks of threats and bullying to me – and this on top of a school having to worry about Ofsted inspections, league tables, SATs results and cope with the changes that have been brought in over the past five years. An ex-headteacher who had succeeded in turning around a failing primary school wrote in a recent newpaper article: ‘The environment for headteachers has become dominated by political bullying and fear… Politicians from all sides use the education system to score points. Heads are bullied into accepting ever-changing new inititives, often based on ideology.’ And of course this pressure can get passed on to teachers who in some schools feel they have to ‘teach to the exam’, something that the NAHT said has ‘a disastrous effect on the curriculum and on children’. Perish the thought that grandson’s zest for life and learning should be stultified by reciting times tables in a sing-songy voice and being anxious about tests. Shouldn’t learning about the big wide world at primary school be fun, not Dickensian grind and stress?

And apparently there’s masses of evidence (including a report last week from the House of Commons Education Committee) showing that simply becoming an academy doesn’t raise standards. What it does is to take the school out of local authority control who, as many people believe, are well-placed to understand the issues affecting local schools. If standards did need raising, I read that the most effective way to do so would be to invest in on-the-job training for teachers who might want or need it. As you’d think, this is expensive. And guess what? Although the education secretary recently implied that school funding would be ringfenced, surprise, surprise, next year it will actually fall by 10% in real terms. Yes, they’ve been playing with the figures again.

And in amongst all of this comes another test and a completely unnecessary war. Do we really want to view primary school as a battleground? I’ve an idea – let’s not use war metaphors in relation to our schools – with the way the world is kicking off at the moment it’s hardly an inspiring image, is it? In December, the general secretary of the TUC said that ‘many children feel utterly anxious and worried throughout their last year in primary school as they build up to the test’. And remember, these children are only 10 or 11 years old. I can only hope that granddaughter 3, who is in Year 5 at the moment, doesn’t feel like that next year.

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