Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Layer 206 . . . More Damned Targets

Peter Preston, ex-editor of the Guardian, wrote another loathsome column in the paper on Monday, headed In Praise of Targets.

The sheer ignorance expressed in this article is beyond belief, and beyond a joke. Every time 'Presto' writes one of these reactionary columns he gets a deluge of correspondence explaining why and how the targets culture messes up education, health, etc, - but does he pay any attention? Of course not. Why on earth would he pay attention to the views of those who advocate a wholly different approach which focuses on the needs of children, sick people, etc, rather than the needs of politicians & their pals to "show results"?

The reason he should pay some attention and show some respect to professional opinion (eg the Primary Review) is that the least we should expect of Guardian writers is the ability to consider & to present both sides of an argument, with a reasoned refutation of one side if they disagree with it. Preston clearly hasn't read the Cambridge Review with an unprejudiced eye, and clearly hasn't understood it. Just like the tabloid writers he's maintaining that the Review says children shouldn't start school till aged 6, whereas Alexander & co have said no such thing. Why on earth would "working mums" be unhappy with the report, as he suggests, when no-one's advocated closing down early years classes or reducing the length of the school day?

It's not a question of "putting teachers back in charge of what's taught". It's about putting professional educators back in positions of responsibility for policy and practice (rather than politicians and professional bureaucrats) and determining through reasoned argument & developing practice which approaches produce properly educated young people and which ones do not - as happens in the countries at the top of the international performance comparisons. In countries like Finland there is continuing debate & challenge within the profession, not top-down political dictat & arbitrary targets that measure only what is measurable, with no proper assessment of children's progress towards being positive, self-motivated & independent learners who enjoy learning, literature & literacy.

Government targets, in this respect, do not "work", as Preston continues to maintain. They have the opposite effect, if anything, although most teachers do their best to retain their pupils' enjoyment of and interest in learning, within what has become a soviet-style factory system of performance quotas & targets, used as a basis for "performance management".

Mr Preston really has to stop dismissing pupils who "only" achieve a high Level 3 (3A) at age 11 as "fundamentally illiterate". He clearly has no idea what a high Level 3 consists of, and no idea how much progress has been made by many children with learning difficulties and other disadvantages when they are able to score a Level 3 in English and maths in a formal timed test. Most adults are for the most part "only" operating at Level 4 in their daily reading and writing, and the supposedly failing and illiterate children (according to Peter Preston) who have reached Level 3 in English by the end of Primary school have almost achieved that level. If they don't then go on and reach Levels 4 and 5 at secondary school it can only be because insufficent support and inadequate focus on literacy is on offer there.

The "force of a centrally imposed quasi-market economy" has NOT "transformed the situation", and neither has centrally-dictated methodology & pedagogy, if what we mean by "transformed" is "turned more children into better learners, more capable thinkers, more imaginative and more motivated seekers of knowledge, etc". The only thing that's improved under the last two governments is teachers' competence in teaching to the tests. Enough.

The Guardian should send 'Presto' packing in the same direction as Melanie Phillips, and tell him that as of now his views should be repeated ad nauseam where they belong, thereby freeing up space in the Guardian for more enlightened opinion. It's outrageous that Preston should be given space in the Guardian to smear those of us who agree with the Primary Review's authors as people who are motivated by "dogma and professional self-interest". These are Stalinist smear tactics. If anyone's dogmatic in this argument it's Preston & his ilk. For goodness' sake, even the Conservatives have become enlightened to the point of pledging to scrap both government-set targets and the micro-management of pedagogy & the curriculum in schools.

As for Mr Preston's conclusion that we should "make knowledge your target, and value those who can tell you on the frontline of information" - here's final evidence that he has no understanding of the issues and still believes that improved test and exam scores, obtained by whatever means, including paid cramming, are the same thing as a high standard of education that develops all of a child's intelligences, aptitudes and abilities, including their creativity and imagination.

The schools that are failing their pupils are mainly those that are abusing them by treating them as mere instruments in the achievement of production targets, thereby depriving them of a real education. Preston clearly knows nothing about the sorts of achievement that can't be measured by timed pen & paper tests, and neither does he care.

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