Extensive coverage of educational news is published every week in The Times Educational Supplement and, to a lesser extent, Guardian Education. They are able to do this because of the large advertising revenue that comes from vacancies in schools and colleges; indeed cynics say it is only job advertisements that get read! This is unfair, of course. These papers display high quality journalism with balanced reports on educational news, insightful and sometimes incisive opinion articles, correspondence columns where teachers and others can voice their concerns, and a leavening measure of humour.
Inevitably, this kind of material rarely features in the tabloids – which are the newspapers read by most of the paper-reading population. Tabloid editors do not find educational issues sufficiently sensational and sexy for their readership – unless there is a major scandal to report. This is perfectly understandable, but the disturbing consequence is that the general public learns very little about the worries and disquiet of the teaching profession on the issues discussed here. Yet it is the future lives of the nation’s children that are at stake.
The evidence on this website, in Press Reports from 2003, is culled mainly from the columns of The Times Educational Supplement – abbreviated here as TES. Here are reports of government initiatives and actions of its educational agencies, findings of teachers’ professional associations/unions and comments of their general secretaries, reports of academic research into school issues, and opinions of distinguished educationalists. Also there are some of the rebuffs made by government spokespersons.
The focus is on SAT testing, Ofsted inspection and national curriculum. Some other aspects of government decisions affecting schools have been included, like the problems of stress on pupils, teachers and heads, which are related to these three issues. Year by year there is a strong sense not only that the issues raised are perennial but that their impact becomes increasingly serious.
I believe anyone reflecting on these reports will conclude that the heading given them - Concerns at Damage to the Nation’s Children - is sadly apt. Would that the Labour and Conservative parties would recognise that education should not be a political battlefield and could come to the view of the Liberal Democrats, that teachers know best what pupils need.
The following extracts from these press reports give a flavour of professional concerns and government intransigience. But I do urge you to read the full reports.
2003 Secretary of State: Charles Clarke Education-press-reports-2003 This year the Department for Education and Skills, the Office for Standards in Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority between them sent 1855 pages of documents to secondary schools and 1213 to primary schools.
Sir John Cassells, director of the (independent) National Commission on Education, said If there is one over-arching message that keeps coming through, it is this: the concentration of educational decision-making at the centre has led to a situation where ‘command and control’ dominates, and this has now reached a point where it is seriously counter productive.
The senior DfES official responsible for schools said: the Government is as determined as ever to press on.
2004 Secretaries of State: Charles Clarke/Ruth Kelly Education-press-reports-2004 Sir Anthony Greener, chairman of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said he condemned the disjointed initiatives and lack of vision of the Department for Education and Skills’.
At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference in Bournemouth in April, Mary Bousted, general secretary, said: New Labour needs to curb its ‘control freakery’ and obsession with charging ahead with policy without consulting those who have to implement it.
2005 Secretary of State: Ruth Kelly Education-press-reports-2005 Ruth Kelly: The education world can sometimes cloud the debate and give the wrong impression
Peter Hyman had coined the phrase bog-standard comprehensive when a speech writer for Tony Blair. Subsequently he worked for a year as a teaching assistant and wrote a book on his experiences, 1 out of 10: From Downing Street Vision to Classroom Reality. The TES reported that he calls on his old government colleagues to stop trying to micro-manage schools, and asks: Why can’t politicians acknowledge that those on the front line might know more?
Criticism of the English testing/league table system came from an international report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It said that pressure on schools to boost league-table performance risks undermining pupils’ learning and teachers often feel compelled to “teach to the test” at the expense of children’s long-term education.
2006 Secretaries of State: Ruth Kelly/Alan Johnson Education-press-reports-2006 Alan Johnson, on being asked about pressures on schools, said, It’s absolutely the right thing to do – the whole kit and caboodle from Ofsted to tests. And, if anything, we need to intensify that rather than relax.
England’s General Teaching Council recommended that national testing should be scrapped and replaced by a sampling system (1 pupil in 50) in order to end teaching to the test while giving ministers effective information on how school standards are changing.
The Ofsted annual report said that the testing culture in schools is having a negative impact on children’s education. Teachers in some schools focus too rigidly on preparing pupils for exams, which makes lessons boring and hinders pupils’ development.
Dylan Wiliam, pioneer of assessment for learning, became professor and deputy director of the London Institute of Education. His research on the fallibilities of national tests and exams suggests that 30 per cent of pupils may be given the wrong test level.
The Department for Education and Skills remained adamant about testing, saying there was absolutely no question of moving away from externally marked tests.
John Dunford, general secretary of the (newly named) Association of School and College Leaders, reckoned that up to 1 in 5 schools may be being misjudged by Ofsted. He said, At present, as a central part of the multi-layered pressure on schools, Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.
Baroness Pauline Perry, HMI chief inspector of schools in 1981-8 (before Ofsted) said that Ofsted was flawed, overly punitive and dysfunctional. She added: There is a huge crisis of teacher morale. We can’t improve education unless you have confidence and trust in teachers and treat them in a way which improves their morale.
Another Baroness, Shirley Williams, who was education secretary 1976-79 in the Callaghan government and is now a Liberal Democrat peer, said the testing and targets regime introduced under Labour has had a hugely negative impact. Some of the joy has gone out of education: the actual fun of learning has been increasingly overtaken by examinations and a focus on league tables. Kids are quite stressed out by the age of eight. I’m sorry to sound so sentimental, but joy and fun are absolutely central to education.
In contrast, the Ofsted acting chief inspector, Maurice Smith said that schools are not fun palaces.
The National Audit Office criticised the Department for Education and Skills, saying that it was fit for purpose on only two of 14 key targets by which the department should be judged. Sir John Bourne, head of the NAO said, Without good data, monitoring against targets becomes highly devalued.
Mick Waters, director of curriculum at the Qualifications and Assessment Authority, suggested that the schools’ curriculum could be a turn off for many pupils. He said, For too many young people, the last thing the curriculum does is inspire and challenge. That’s why so many young people walk away from school.
A parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrats revealed that headteachers received, between 1997 and 2004, a new piece of government guidance every two-and-a-half working days.
2007 Secretary of State: Alan Johnson/Ed Balls Education-press-reports-2007 The fifth change of education secretary in six years led Barry Sherman MP, chair of the Commons select committee on education, to say, A school ... that was changing its leadership as regularly and that had a total churn in terms of the middle managers would be put in special measures immediately.
Like his predecessors Ed Balls was soon seen by teachers to have initiativitis. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, had counted 242 press releases trumpeting new initiatives for schools in 2007 under Johnson and Balls, and the year before, under Kelly and Johnson, 192.
In February 2007 Ofsted announced that so far in the school year there were 171 primary schools in special measures - a rise of 25% since the end of the summer term. A spokeswoman said the bar had been raised in September 2005: What was considered good 10 years ago is not considered good any longer.
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: Schools now find themselves in an Alice in Wonderland situation where what was once considered satisfactory is now unsatisfactory. Inspections are in urgent need of review. Accusations of blame and failure are not the best ways to achieve school improvements.
In July the House of Commons select committee on education cast its probing eye onto Ofsted and said: We cannot disguise our concern as to the fitness for purpose of the organisation at the present time.
Throughout the year the educational press carried many headlines expressing concern about over-assessment, like: Pressure builds over tests, Inquiry demanded into stressful high-stakes testing, Call to ban all school exams for under-16s, Tests “stifle creativity of best teachers”, Pressure to reform tests – mass protest to Parliament calls for “fairer, more humane” assessment system, Backlash against testing regime, New demand to scrap testing system, and Is this the end of SATs? These all referred to representations being made by professional bodies. And how did government respond? We have always made it clear that national testing provides useful information for parents and schools, helps drive up standards and helps the public to hold the system to account.
The Commons select committee published the 52 submissions that it had received. According to the only one of these submissions paints the testing regime in a favourable light – the one from the Department for Children, Schools and Families!
Opposition to the current testing regime came from five teacher unions, the General Teaching Council, the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the Association for Science Education, the Mathematical Association, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Institute of Educational Assessors and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority among other bodies.
Yet the newly reconstituted government department, named the Department for Children, Schools and Families, maintained its old position: The benefits of a national system of assessment have been immense. The aspirations of pupils and their teachers have been raised. The public has a right to demand such transparency.
2008 Secretary of State: Ed Balls Education-press-reports-2008 A formidable body of research criticism of contemporary policies on primary education was published. The Primary Review was directed by Robin Alexander, fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and emeritus professor of education at Warwick University. His team consisted of 70 researchers.
This is how Sarah Cassidy reported it in The Independent on 29 February. The biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concluded yesterday that Labour’s tight, centralized control of England’s primary schools has had a devastating impact on children’s education. Micromanagement, meddling and a succession of ministerial edicts have killed the spontaneity in the nation’s classrooms. Teachers have been stripped of their powers of discretion. And the net result of new Labour “reform” has almost certainly been a decline in the quality of education that the young receive. It would have been better, concludes the Primary Review, if the government had done nothing at all.
So what did the Department for Children, Schools and Families say? These reports use tunnel vision to look at education. Primary standards are at their highest ever levels. ... Robust national tests taken by all children on a consistent basis allow parents to see how accurately their school performs.
In May, Robin Alexander in the TES described how government sadly did not see the Review as a positive contribution to improving public services in education but rather a political threat to be neutralized by any possible means. He wrote: Teachers do, and must, exercise professional judgement on the basis of what only they know about their pupils: a national education system belongs not to ministers and officials, but to all of us.
Keith Bartley, chief executive of the General Teaching Council (the regulatory body for teachers), made a fierce attack on what he called the over-cluttered national curriculum and high-stakes testing. The research indicates that everything in year six drives towards the test, but in year seven they have forgotten what they learnt because the only purpose of learning was to pass the test.
The House of Common’s select committee for Children, Schools and Families called for national tests in their current form to be scrapped. They considered that test data do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of school and teacher performance, or of pupils’ deeper understanding. They argued that a small sample of pupils should be tested each year to monitor national standards.
In July it was Ofsted’s turn. Responding to the select committee’s report, Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector for schools, said that in some schools the quality of education is suffering as a direct result of the testing system, while some other schools are able to prepare for the tests without sacrificing the wider curriculum. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, commented: If Ofsted are saying that the nature of testing is affecting children’s education, when is this government going to admit that the game is up? My colleagues are saying almost universally that the emphasis has to be put back on teaching, instead of this fixation with targets and tests.
A TES editorial commented that the age of targets failed. It said: Listening to the Prime Minister and his schools chief Ed Balls this week, there is little sign that these criticisms will lead to change. The message for schools appears to be “more of the same”. … [But} there is now a powerful consensus that our school system is being held back by testing, targets and sanctions. A new approach is needed which gives teachers and school leaders the freedom and support to make the improvements everybody wants. The worry is that this government is not listening.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, spoke out strongly in a TES article: Mr Balls, throw away your big stick. She said of his attack on the “excuses” culture, It’s not an excuse to say that schools in socially deprived areas face bigger challenges. … The case is clear; the research has been done. Children in poor, inner-city areas do not fail because of the school they go to, but because of their social class. … Schools do what they can to counter the impact of deprivation and social exclusion. Staff wrestle daily with the problems poverty brings. She went on to say that these staff need neither performance league tables nor the army of advisers and inspectors who turn up, destroy their confidence and morale, tell them to do things differently, and then disappear, leaving them bruised and battered to carry on teaching.
In June the Nuffield Review of 14-19 education was published: a substantial review lead by Prof Pring of Oxford University with strong recommendations and the major concern that government vision of learning was too narrow. It seemed, like the Cambridge Review of Primary Education, to be ignored by Government.
On 16 October the final report and recommendations of the Cambridge Primary Review was published in one volume of 586 pages. The Department received copies the day before, but within hours of publication schools minister Vernon Coaker had dismissed it as a "backward" step. As Alexander said, "There is absolutely no way he could have read it". Significantly the last of 153 concluding statements addressed this very issue:
The politicisation of primary education has gone too far. Discussion has been blocked by derision, truth has been supplanted by myth and spin, and alternatives to current arrangements have been reduced to crude dichotomy. It is time to advance to a discourse which exemplifies rather than negates what education should be about.
This year a lot was written about Ofsted, SATs, and the national curriculum.
2010 to May Secretary of State: Ed Balls
Educational-press-reports-2010 Run up to the general election. "The classroom is no place for politicians" - letter from 14 professors of Education
May 2010- Secretary of State: Michael Gove
Educational-press-reports-2010-Jun-Dec A new GOVErnment bring in doubtful educational freedoms
• To read the detailed Press Reports click on the underlined words.
This page was last edited on 1 March 2014 but no news items have been posted since 2010 It was archived on 11 November 2015/em>