Thursday, October 22, 2009

Layer 208 . . . Imagination, Education Policy, Truants, Bullies and the Recession

I'm working my way towards writing about the Primary Review in some detail, but in the meantime here are some letters from Monday's Guardian on the subject of the Alexander report -

Lack of imagination in education policy

Michael Rosen wrote -
The Cambridge review is absolutely right about calling for the abolition of Sats (Too much too young: start school at six says key report, 16 October), and I support this summer's boycott. Sats have turned the primary curriculum into a desert of work sheets, short extracts and a fear of failure.
In the English Sats, examiners have unleashed an abuse of the empirical method by making the reading of literature into a tedious and stunting exercise in fact-spotting, even as children themselves have been reduced to percentages and scores. I have been a school parent continuously for 30 years and visited hundreds of schools. In all that time it has never been any use to me that any child, mine included, be talked of as a number or a level.
The government's education policies were devised without a public debate about how children and teachers learn. You can only do this through the four processes of observation, investigation, discovery and discussion. In fact, finding out about learning has to be at the heart of every teacher's and every school's practice. Children's work itself should be built upon the four processes, with imagination and play as part of the mix.
In the very first key stage 2 Sats paper, the candidates were asked to say what was in a matchbox in a story by Jan Mark. The only correct answer was "nothing", and yet the fun of the story is that the children "fill" the matchbox with their fantasies and ideas. "The children's imagination" would have been a wrong answer. Sats have turned many classrooms into places where children's imagination is always the wrong answer.

Fiona Campbell

The danger that we face in sending our children to school at four is that by the time their brains are ready for reading and writing they are utterly alienated from the school environment. And yet ministers are only echoing what so many middle-class parents believe, that we must get our children reading and writing as quickly as possible so that they can keep up in a competitive world. It is a tragedy, because in reality their brains have other things that they need to be learning through play, as the Cambridge report highlights. We need to stop this endless haste to make our children grow up, and allow them to enjoy their short childhood with play-based learning in nursery-style settings, but until society as a whole understands that, ministers will not be able to back the Cambridge report.

Chris McDonnell
Little Haywood, Staffordshire

Robin Alexander is to be congratulated. The business of young children is play – play that informs and secures a platform for later, more formal learning.
The current pressure on four- and five-year-old children to meet a target-based curriculum not only inhibits their own development but adds to the stress at home, where parents feel the need for their child to achieve against the background of the larger school group. My own experience over many years as headteacher of a primary school convinced me that getting it right in the early years was the touchstone to later success. Now seeing my grandchildren in the primary years, I am even more certain that we are asking too much, too soon.
Ministers have been quick to dismiss this report as "disappointing". I would suggest that it is disappointing that a report of this significance is so easily dismissed.

Tim Nichols

Through play, children follow naturally evolved learning instincts, which stimulate the endocrine system and activate biochemical pathways that promote neurone growth. Neuronal networks become established for basic skills and the architecture of the brain is gradually prepared for learning higher skills.
Push children into formal learning before the basic architecture is ready and they will learn slowly, without enjoyment and enthusiasm, developing negative attitudes towards education. The poorest children – without a private nursery education or a lavishly equipped playroom to stimulate them – are less likely to be ready for formal education at four or five years. So disadvantage becomes entrenched and they fall behind.
The government's dismissal of the Cambridge review and dogged commitment to early formal education is a naive attempt to appear serious about literacy standards. Sadly it is ministers' own lack of scientific literacy that will result in failure and damage to children.

On the Guardian website today is a column under the heading -

Truants, bullies and the recession  
We must help families torn apart by truancy, not criminalise them – but the services that help troubled children are under threat

This is in the education section of the website, and presumably in the paper itself. It's not a particularly inspiring piece of work, by Francis Gilbert.
The news that truancy rates are soaring won't surprise many teachers like me. Figures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families show that children skipped more than 8m days of school last year. The reasons for the rising numbers of skivers are manifold, but I think there is one big underlying reason: the recession is really beginning to bite in many households.
In the UK, 4 million children live below the poverty line and the situation is getting worse: charities such as Save the Children are seeing families of four trying to feed themselves on £20 to £25 a week. That means that lots of children are living in households under severe stress, frequently working illegally or carrying out household chores for parents who need them at home.
It concludes -
A survey by Beatbullying suggests that as many as one in three children truant because of bullying, with 20,000 bunking off school for the same reason. This survey was carried out nearly four years ago now when times were good; the new official statistics suggest that the problem has become a lot worse. Proper investment in public services was never more needed more than in these recession-hit times.
This is Oxzen's response on CiF:

As is obvious from all these [CiF] contributions the causes of poor school attendance can be complex and hard to tackle. Unesco reported that British children are the unhappiest in the developed countries, and yet we've seen no government acknowledgment of that appalling assessment, let alone any sign of being concerned about it, or any ideas about how to improve the state of childhood in this country. Ed Balls won't even accept the recent criticisms of our Primary school system as outlined in last week's Cambridge review.

All that this government has ever talked about is improving test and exam scores and 'cracking down on bullies'. Everything else has lip service paid to it. This very week The Guardian published a Peter Preston column 'In Praise of Targets' repeating the same old rubbish in favour of the targets and league tables culture that has done nothing to improve the wellbeing of children or their enjoyment of school, let alone produce better educated and more enthusiastic learners.

If even the Guardian can't stop repeating the idiotic mantras of those who can't see that cramming pupils for tests is not the same as providing a better education, then what hope do we have, short of expecting the Conservatives, who at least have pledged themselves to get rid of the politically motivated targets and the micromanagement of the system, to do better.

Parents must demand, for the sake of all our children, that the system is changed, starting with the recommendations of Professor Alexander's Primary Review, in order to make our schools places of genuine learning which pupils of all abilities, interests and aptitudes are eager to attend, and where all their intelligences, and not just IQ, are developed by every teacher every day.

Learning to be socially and emotionally intelligent, learning to be non-violent, learning about anger management, and learning to be creative and imaginative, as well becoming academically able, are fully on the agendas of all schools in high-performing countries like Finland and Denmark, and they could and should be in Britain as well. Some of our schools are already doing very well in this regard, in spite of a system that barely supports it or encourages it, but sadly not nearly enough. Hence the high rates of truancy and exclusion.


Did I Hear You Write?

I'm a huge admirer of Michael Rosen, for his contributions to the education debates as much as his work as a writer, performer, broadcaster and artist. Here are more of his pieces from the Guardian's pages -

See also -

Here's where you can buy this excellent book for 60p -

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