I'm struggling to keep up with what's been happening in the whacky world of education, what with announcements from the Tories about scrapping KS2 SATs so that Primary children can start enjoying school again, New Labour announcing they're scrapping the national literacy strategy, and everybody seeming to agree that education should be handed back to the professionals to ensure that children receive a relevant and appropriate education. Surely 2009 is becoming the glad new dawn we've been hoping for?
Last week Jenni Russell published an excellent article pointing out how and why more and more children are being forced into private tutoring and coaching for tests, which is creating ever greater inequality – at least in terms of test results. The only way to deal with this is through getting away from the idea that tests tell us anything other than how well children cope with tests. In my view, what's needed are proper systems for assessing and tracking pupil progress through appropriate sets of learning targets. Good schools already do this, whilst recognising that children are all different and progress at different rates.
See Jenni's column at http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/jun/20/private-tuition-education .
Out of nursery, into the rat race.
“Private tuition distorts exam results, disadvantages poorer families and obscures the real problems in our schools.
It's the naked competitiveness and target obsession of our education system that has pushed people into tutoring in such large numbers.
Now that pupils are being graded from the age of five, children who might have been allowed to develop at their own pace in the past are being told they're falling behind, and because they're being made to panic by anxious teachers, parents feel they have to respond too.
Parents believe that teachers are trying their best, but fear that staff are worn out and over-burdened by the ceaseless flow of bureaucracy and government initiatives.
First, the prevalence of tutoring means that the government's league tables tell parents very little about the teaching at a school. High scores indicate only one thing with certainty; that this school has a parent body who will give their children whatever support they need to do well in their exams. It isn't an assurance that the school itself will deliver those results.
Secondly, it means that poorer or less knowledgeable parents will fall behind in the competition, because they are unable to afford to do the same thing, or are unaware that it is an option. A fifth of parents from professional backgrounds have had their children tutored, while 5% of working-class parents have done the same. And thirdly, it successfully prevents a national discussion about real failings in the education system, because they are not being publicly recognised.
The question of what's been bought, what's fair, and what deserves reward is at the heart of our anguished debate about our education system. On the one hand, skills and education are undoubtedly good for the individual and for the country. On the other, they are also chips in an increasingly intense competition. Many parents are in a constant and uneasy debate with themselves and one another about the advantages they are buying or forgoing. Parents who condemn private education as securing privilege may think nothing of moving house, tutoring in five subjects, and doing their children's coursework for them.
Tiny differences in exam results can determine lives. When others start raising the stakes by engaging tutors then everyone else feels intense pressure to follow suit.
Schools happily collude in it, because it gets them what they want; better grades without the effort of it.
Only a fundamental reform to the system - less cramming, smaller classes, an education based on less testing and more on learning to think - is going to make any difference to this trend. If I had to make another forecast, it would be this - in five years, the proportion of tutored children is going to be sharply up again.”
Please read the whole article, and then ask yourself how you feel about having it followed on the Guardian website by three advertisements for personal tutors. You certainly can't fault the Guardian for its business acumen, at least. The ads people obviously believed that Jenni's piece, by drawing attention to private tutors, might add a few more runners to the educational rat race, as do the advertisers themselves, of course.
I guess egalitarians are just voices in the wilderness. Very few Brits, at least, seem to give a damn about social justice or the long-term destructive effects on our children (and teachers) of so-called 'driving up standards'. Nobody wants to consider the fact that time spent on cramming for tests is time lost on developing creativity, imagination and a love of learning for its own sake. Our children are forcefully prevented from following their own learning agendas and discovering the things that matter to them as individuals. Imagine how we'd feel if someone did that to us? There's no stopping this juggernaut, though, is there?
I guess the thing we need to turn our attention to is what more we can do to provide good things and more opportunities for the children whose parents can't afford to, or choose not to, employ personal tutors. I'm now more certain than ever that every school ought to resource an extra hour or two at the end of the day for all the children who wish to to come together in rooms, libraries, etc, equipped with books and with wireless laptops on which they can enthusiastically follow up their own interests with the support of trained adults (possibly volunteer or paid teachers, and paid learning assistants).
'Catch-up' maths and literacy could also be individually and sensitively taught where there is agreement with the child (and his/her parents). During those sessions the children, even at Primary level, can have a lot of fun learning how to edit digital photos and video, how to create slide shows and Powerpoints, how to carry out more efficient web searches, how to copy and paste text from websites, etc, etc.
What parents can do, of course, is to encourage their children to read regularly – the best picture books and literature available. They need to read to their children very regularly from an early age. They need to encourage their children to write regularly, and for their own enjoyment. They also need to act as scribes for children who have things to say (which is all of them) but can't be bothered to struggle with composition. Use digital voice recorders whenever possible. This also implies that parents should talk and discuss everything under the sun with their children, letting them realise that they have individual voices, and thoughts and opinions worth listening to.
On Friday Jenni had another excellent column in the Guardian:
On education, Labour failed our children.
The government has finally acknowledged that its centralised control of schools doesn't work – but for many, it's too late.
There comes a point, it seems, when even the most obstinately blinkered of ministers and departments can no longer avoid the facts. One by one the totems of Labour's disastrous education policies are being dismantled.
Today's Guardian reports that the government is to abandon its national strategies for schools when it announces its white paper on education next week. That means that the much-loathed literacy and numeracy hours in primaries, with their rigid, minute-by-minute dictation of how every teacher must structure and deliver their lesson, will stop being compulsory from 2011. Instead schools will be able to make their own choices about what their children need and how they should teach.
This, coming from a department whose controlling and centralising instincts would have been applauded in a Soviet state, is truly revolutionary. It is a (very) belated recognition that treating children and classrooms as if they were car parts and assembly lines is a strategy that simply doesn't produce skilled, or educated, or motivated pupils.
The strategies don't work at any level other than the most superficial.
Teachers feel helpless when they are in front of classes that aren't grasping the points at the speed the national timetable lays down. There is no flexibility. The national plan compels a teacher to move on, no matter how many children are being left behind. Frantic booster classes at ages seven and 11 teach children the short-term tricks they must know to get them through Sats tests.
Even those who can keep up find the lessons stultifying. Some years ago English teachers in secondaries started reporting that 11-year-old children were arriving saying they hated the subject.
Should we be pleased that the government has finally recognised this truth?
I don't think so. I think the appropriate reaction is fury about the wasted years.
Oxzen posted this response:
Good article, Jenni, and I agree with your conclusion - “the appropriate reaction is fury about the wasted years”.
Throughout these years you've been a very consistent voice criticising the government for the policies which they've now belatedly abandoned - although, as Onthespot points out, the national literacy and numeracy strategies were never compulsory, even though most schools and most LAs acted as though they were.
I think it's also fair to point out that the national numeracy strategy was never considered, by most Primary teachers, as particularly bad or inappropriate. It's the English strategy that was a total disaster. Its methodology was never researched or trialled to any significant degree, and never proven superior to the successful approaches researched and promoted by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, amongst other places, as well as respected educationalists like Prof Harold Rosen.
Ofsted's own research (“Yes He Can - Schools Where Boys Write Well”) produced a set of conclusions and recommendations that are totally at odds with the NLS approach. You can read them on Page 9 of the downloadable PDF: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/Ofsted-home/Forms-and-guidance/Browse-all-by/Other/General/Yes-he-can-Schools-where-boys-write-well . I would strongly recommend schools that now wish to reconsider their adherence to the literacy strategy (as all schools should) to start with this document as a focus for their discussions. And don't wait till 2011, for the sake of the pupils.
More than ever we need young people who read widely for pleasure and information, who write capably and enthusiastically for a variety of purposes, including their own self-expression, who love learning for its own sake, who have a thirst for knowledge, who have a well-developed imagination and an ability to work creatively, and who have a well-developed set of life skills and thinking skills whose development has been enhanced and promoted by the study and sharing of great literature.
All of these outcomes of real education have been retarded and often negated by the arrogance and stupidity of politicians of all parties, plus their Whitehall & LA flunkeys, who have willfully and uncritically been flogging the culture of didacticism, target-setting, endless testing, league tables and punitive inspections these many years. Schools must now band together to develop their own best practices, to offer real education, and resolve never to forget the fury they felt for this regime and all that it did to pupils, teachers and schools. Never, ever, let it happen again.