Sunday, February 22, 2009

Layer 125 Primary Review, Private Tutoring and Adult Education.

Labour came to power in 1997, on that glorious sunny Mayday, with a nifty little catchphrase, Education, Education, Education, which seemed pretty stupid at the time, as a programme for progressive government, and looks completely hollow and meaningless now. Personally I’d have settled for something like Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but no - it was all about education. That was all Tony could think of.

Well, we’ve learnt a lot since then, alright. They weren’t kidding when they said they’d come to power as New Labour and they’d govern as NuLabour, whose translation into NuSpeak turned out to be ‘Neo-Conservatism’ - from the Greek ‘neos’, meaning ‘new’, and ‘conservatism’, meaning . . . Conservatism. Meaning, ‘what we have we keep, we preserve, we maintain’.

We’d had the Thatcher and Reagan revolution - the overthrow of the post-war social democratic or vaguely liberal consensus - and by golly (Tony), or by God (George & Tony), we were going to keep it.

As for Liberty - don’t make me laugh. A surveillance society, detention without trial, Guantanamo, torture and rendition.

Equality - you are definitely joking. Tony and Peter were ‘intensely relaxed’ about the filthy rich, meaning, they were up their arses, and were getting on with joining their ranks.

And Fraternity - well buddy, can you spare a dime? We became a mean-spirited, violent, tax-cutting, tax-dodging, beggar-thy-neighbour society under Thatch, and, well, let’s just say - things can only get better.

The only example of fraternity I can think of since ’97 is George and Jeb Bush working together to steal the election in Florida, steal the presidency, and instigate the rule of George Cheney, the neo-con gang bang, the Project for the New American Century, and all that’s followed since 2001. Some Odyssey.

Tony, of course, was a great follower, and acted like George’s gormless, hick cousin from across the water. A great believer in trickle-down economics, deregulation, casino capitalism, privatisation, globalisation and might is right foreign policy. You could almost believe he’d done a post graduate correspondence course for a Chicago School masters degree in the Shock Doctrine, but it’s more likely he had a personal tutor assigned to him by the White House, with daily swot sessions in his study at Number 10. It’s the Oxbridge way.

I certainly can’t remember seeing anything in the ’97 manifesto about maintaining and promoting casino capitalism, tax havens, a housing bubble, financial meltdown, further privatisations, or billions squandered on illegal wars under the banner of a ‘war on terror’. I’m not sure I’d have voted for that. I’m not sure anyone voted for that.

So what’s happened to education, in the meantime - meaning schools, colleges, teachers and pupils? The Guardian’s headline on Friday pretty much summed it up.

“Tests blamed for blighting children's lives.”

Children's lives are being impoverished by the government's insistence that schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of creative teaching, the biggest review of the primary school curriculum in 40 years finds today.

Labour has failed to tackle decades of over-prescription in the curriculum and added to it with its own strategies in literacy and numeracy.

Children are leaving school lacking knowledge about the arts and humanities having spent too many years "tied to a desk" learning times tables, the head of the review, Robin Alexander, said.
"Our argument is that their education, and to some degree their lives, are impoverished if they have received an education that is so fundamentally deficient," he said.

The report says schools should be freed of Sats and league tables to allow them to make more decisions about what and how they teach.

The compulsory daily act of worship should be reviewed and a curriculum that values knowledge and understanding as well as basic skills should be brought in, it says.

Teaching unions, headteachers and major educational bodies all backed the plans, setting the government on a collision course with schools if it fails to consider the proposals.

So there we have it. It’s not so much on a collision course though - this appalling government of shysters and traitors has already hit the buffers in every single direction it’s taken the country. From landslide to train-wreck. There’s been a staggering arrogance, an ability to listen only to the neo-cons and their right-wing allies in the press and the City, and they’ve learnt precisely nothing.

They admit nothing, and they apologise for nothing. They’ve tried to position themselves in what they imagine is the ‘middle ground’, but assumed it was pretty much where Thatch was standing. Even the Tories and the Libdems are well to the left of them now.

So much for education and learning. So much for enlightenment.

The review finds:

• Children are losing out on a broad, balanced and rich curriculum with art, music, drama, history and geography the biggest casualties.

• The curriculum, and crucially English and maths, have been "politicised".

• The focus on literacy and numeracy in the run-up to national tests has "squeezed out" other areas of learning.

• The Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which sets the curriculum, have been excessively prescriptive, "micro-managing" schools.

The review accuses the government of attempting to control what happens in every classroom in England, leading to an excessive focus on literacy and numeracy in an "overt politicisation" of children's lives. Despite this too many children still leave primary school having failed to master the 3Rs.

Sats have also narrowed the scope of what is taught in schools, it claims, concluding: "The problem of the curriculum is inseparable from the problem of assessment and testing."

Christine Blower, acting general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the proposals "have depth, credibility and, above all, respond to the realities of the primary classroom".

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Rather than continue to tinker around the edges of primary education we would like the government to heed the proposals and reopen the debate about the purposes of primary education."

Mary, dear, you’re being too polite. The “debate” has been going on since Plowden, since the last time anyone took a good look at Primary education, and concluded that it should operate in the interests of children and not teachers or anyone else, least of all the government, who have ruthlessly politicised education ever since Sunny Jim Callaghan (re)started the “great debate” back in the seventies. The needs of children are paramount - that’s it. There’s no debate. That’s it.

The needs of children are for a broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum that motivates all children to want to learn and to enjoy learning for its own sake, enabling them to develop social, emotional and spiritual intelligence as well as intellectual and creative abilities and critical thinking skills. There’s NO fucking debate. Why should we debate these things? The Cambridge Primary Review is right - the government, this government pledged to education, education, education - got it all wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That's the way it is”, said the headline above yesterday’s Guardian lead editorial.

The literacy and numeracy strategies, admirable though they were in intent and even achievement, have spawned a target-dominated primary school culture which distorts the balance of early-years learning and which locks schools into a politically determined agenda rather than one that is centred, as originally intended and as any such policy should be, on the needs of the child.

The Alexander team have gone back to first principles. They have also delivered a shattering verdict.

At the core of the report is the conclusion that the government's preoccupation with tests and standards has become the cuckoo in the primary school nest. The report is positively in favour of the national curriculum. It is not hostile in principle to the focus on literacy and numeracy. But it is insistent that the prioritisation of measured standards in these fields, which Mr Rose's terms of reference do not allow him to question, creates pressures - particularly intense at the start and finish of the primary phase - which "increasingly but needlessly" compromise children's right to a broad and balanced primary education. The most prominent casualties of this distortion - which is driven by Whitehall's conviction that breadth is incompatible with "the basics" - are the arts, humanities and, in some cases, science.

The Cambridge report is one of those rare documents which one reads and then says: yes, that's exactly how it is, that's what is wrong with the way things are being done and, yes, that's the way a better system ought to be run. In the past, reports of this authority and quality were often commissioned by governments which were genuinely concerned to obtain the full facts and best advice for dealing with difficult problems - and respectful of politically inconvenient conclusions too.

Mr Alexander has written a report that ought to define the collective approach to primary education for a generation. When Rose is published too, there will be a huge opportunity to put the system right. New Labour rarely listens to advice it does not script or control. But this is an issue and a moment that should not be sacrificed to political dogma.

Rarely? How about never? Political dogma? Blimey - that’s all NuLabour understands. Being ‘on message’ is all that’s ever counted. The Bible according to Tony, Gordie and Peter. NuLabour’s fundamentalism is more like religious, rather than political, dogma, since it’s based on a message passed down by father, son and holy ghost, rather than anything scientific or testable.

Tony, of course, was the first PM for donkey’s years to father a child whilst ensconced in No 10. Gordie is the son of the manse, as well as the inheritor of the NuLabour leadership and legacy. I quite like the idea of Peter M as wholly ghost. The animating spirit of New Labour.

And as for Tony’s - “I did what I thought was right.” You thought? You fucking thought? So did Hitler, Stalin, and all the other power freaks and dictators, do what they thought was right. I don’t really think you can use that as a justification, Tone. That’s not a good line. What you should have said was - “I did some very bad things because I was convinced of my own unique brilliance. Sorry.”

Blair and Mandleson. Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. According to Wikipedia, “The Tweedle brothers never contradict each other, even when one of them, according to the rhyme, "agrees to have a battle". Rather, they complement each other's words.”

Do any of the NuLabour leadership ever contradict each other, or show any capacity for independent thinking? Robin Cook, the most intelligent and honourable of the Tweedle brotherhood, was the only one to resign over a point of principle - the invasion of Iraq. Could you ever imagine Tweedle-blears or Tweedle-brown or Tweedle-straw doing such a thing? Maybe there was fraternity after all.

Oxzen said this in Comment Is Free:

It's to the Guardians great credit that it made this piece today's lead editorial, and also made the Primary Review the lead story on the front page yesterday - "Tests blamed for blighting childrens lives".

This wretched government has indeed blighted the lives of a generation of children and teachers by continuing and making even worse the policies begun under Thatcher and Major. It has slavishly followed the prescriptions of the neo-conservatives in education - just as it did in finance and economics, in industrial policy, in the invasion of Iraq, and in justice and civil liberties.

It's time the more enlightened members of the present Cabinet spoke out and welcomed the Primary Review's work, instead of branding it as insulting to teachers and children, as reported by the BBC yesterday. The DCSF's instant denial that primary pupils are getting inadequate schooling does them no credit whatsoever.

More enlightened countries use continuous pupil tracking against clear learning targets, as well as formative assessment, to monitor how well pupils are progressing - not timed tests at the age of 11. Pupils have an absolute right to develop a love of learning for its own sake, and to develop their powers of creativity, as well as their personal, social and emotional intelligences, instead of being processed through results factories for the greater glory of politicians and bureaucrats who equate only test and exam passes with educational achievement, and actually believe the main purpose of primary schools is to begin grooming children for the world of work.

This flies in the face of what the more enlightened employers have been calling for, which is young people who have well-developed thinking skills, creative capacity, high levels of social and emotional intelligence and team working skills, and so on. If these aspects of achievement are not developed from the nursery stage onward then they are either stunted or not developed at all. The Primary review has rightly concluded that the current DCSF and Ofsted regimes have impoverished the learning that goes on in far too many of our schools.

Far too many of our children are suffering from stress, boredom and alienation. Thanks to government policy and its efforts to micromanage learning and teaching, what's been happening to many of our children, who, in too many schools, have been denied access to the sheer pleasure of learning skills and knowledge within the context of a broad, balanced and stimulating curriculum, has been tantamount to abuse.

‘GreatGrandDad’ posted this:

The historians of the future will look back on the National Curriculum as having been institutionalised child-abuse.

The teachers of the future (if the teaching profession resumes) will look back on the late twentieth century as the time when the teaching profession was destroyed and a misguided attempt was made to replace it with corps of curriculum-delivery operatives.

We bang up kids in schools for half their waking hours on half the days of the year. They deserve something less dreary than being 'drilled for the test'.

‘martinusher’ said,

Testing regimes in schools are just another example of a management culture that rejects the notion of workers as partners, they're merely production units that have to be monitored 24/7 to make sure they don't slack off. The process in schools has been interesting to watch. It starts with a tightening of budgets which leads to a decline in the environment ("Deferred Maintenance"), increase in class sizes and the dropping of subjects and activities that aren't part of the core curriculum. Gradually, over time, this leads to erosions in standards, a problem which is pinned squarely on the teachers so obviously they need monitoring (and constant retraining).

Anyone with half a brain can see what's wrong with this process, how corrosive it is, but it pervades all aspects of life, not just schools. Its part of a realignment of society, a realignment that fits with the idea of schools and universities being primarily training units for employers, turning out docile work units with appropriate skillsets.

‘ArseneKnows’ said,

As the farmer said

' T'pig don' get no fatter cos en keeps on weighin' en. '

The testing regime exists for political reasons only and the biggest reason for its failure is that it tests the children not the teachers and/or the system.

Give me a test, its marking scheme and a few examples of what a good answer looks like. Tell me my job is on the line if I don't produce a certain % of passes.

I can give you a class that has been coached in taking the test for 2 years, the required number of passes (very possibly involving a few strategic absences on the day of exams and a few well-timed exclusions) and a classful of students who have been cheated of an education and who are in many cases unable to operate without being spoon-fed.


The Rose Red Empire?

I forgot to write some more last week about the Book of the Week, “Hackney: The Rose Red Empire”, - to remind readers not to listen to listen to it on Radio 4, and definitely not to buy it. Unless you’re into pompous twaddle passing itself off as poetic reflections. God, it’s bad.

It’s surely a sign of a crap writer when he uses idioms incorrectly; and a sign of a crap publisher when the bad usage doesn’t get spotted and subbed. What’s tolerable in an amateur blogger and self-publisher, for example, is completely unacceptable in a book that you’re asking people to buy.

He writes about Jayne Mansfield, many years ago, coming to the East End, to Haggerston, to open the annual show of the Hackney budgerigar society, and describes her as being ‘at the end of her tether’, when he clearly means she was at the end of her career, and past her sell-by date, reduced to making money from personal appearances at budgie shows.

There was nothing about her that spoke of being at the end of her tether, since she was described as being cheerful, smiling, still ‘glamorous’ and able to ‘perform’ well for a smattering of her few remaining admirers.

Being at the end of one’s tether, at the other hand, is like someone gritting his teeth and continuing to listen to over-written, supposedly ‘poetic’ bullshit that you’d really much rather distance yourself from, simply in order to perform his bloggerly duties, as it were.

Just for a laugh, though, do have a listen to some of it on the Radio 4 website. Do it quickly before it gets deleted.


Springwatch 3

It’s now light before 7.00am, not dark till nearly 6.00pm, and some of the daffodil shoots already have the beginnings of heads. At the weekend I saw some delightful clumps of snowdrops in a local nature reserve. There’s a mature camellia in my street partly in blossom. Friends tell me there are crocuses out in the churchyard. Temperatures back above 10 - 12 degrees.

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