Martin Rowson drew this cartoon of Michael Gove when he became secretary of state for Education in May 2010. The unfinished building (opened by his Labour predecessor Ed Balls) accurately predicted his demolition of Labour's Building Schools for the Future programme. The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, lurks in the background. (Grateful thanks to Martin for permission to use this).
Michael Bassey, author of this website urges parents to give voice to concerns for the education of their children by writing to their Member of Parliament.
WORRIES ABOUT THE POLITICS OF SCHOOLING
Schools are very different from thirty years ago, when many of today’s parents were being taught. Teachers and children work much harder and the expectations on them are high. Government has put more money (still not enough in many eyes) into education and schools are better equipped. But it has come at the price of politicians instead of teachers controlling schools.
The current secretary of state for Education, Mr Gove, coming into office in 2010, slashed the Building Schools for the Future programme of the previous government causing 715 shabby schools to lose the promised rebuilding and refurbishment desperately needed. He cut funding of the Sure Start Centres by a fifth (124 have closed as a result) depriving many parents of valued support for their toddlers. He abolished the education maintenance allowance which had enabled young people of low income families to stay in education after age 16. All was justified on grounds of the economic crisis.
But another aim for Mr Gove was to ‘raise standards’ – which politicians have been bleating about since 1988. To this end he is taking schools away from the local authorities, calling them academies with new governing bodies and sharing among them monies that the local authorities would have used for local support services for schools. How renaming schools academies will improve education is not clear: and now they are allowed to employ untrained teachers.
Restless Mr Gove has introduced another national curriculum for primary schools in order ‘to restore rigour in what primary schoolchildren are taught’. Three of four academic advisers resigned when it was published, one saying, ‘The approach is fatally flawed’ and that ‘the proposed curriculum is too narrowly prescriptive for the “real world of classrooms”’.
Now he is to abolish GCSEs in 'core subjects' and replace them with tougher 'Baccalaureate' syllabuses and examinations.
Mr Gove may be attracting more criticism than his predecessors, but the judgement is that none of the recent ones has made a success of the office. Of the 12 secretaries of state for education since 1988, only two had had any experience as school teachers. Ten, including Mr Gove, never discovered how demanding, difficult and ultimately satisfying, teaching is. At present (autumn 2012) Mr Gove is supported by five ministers of state: of these six people in charge of the education of England, five were educated at independent (fee-paying) schools and studied at either Oxford or Cambridge. Before entering Parliament they were: journalist, barrister, banker, economists and business executive. Hardly a suitable team for making decisions about the future of all the nation’s children, but, as many commentators suspect, a strong one for trying to privatise schools and educational services, enabling commercial companies to profit from state funding!
Politicians of all parties want ‘to raise standards’. But what does that mean? Many of our schools achieve high standards of success at GCSE and A-level examinations. Sadly some schools do not and these are usually in deprived areas where unemployment is rife and poverty widespread. Unfairly the present government blames teachers – who are in truth working extremely hard to give a good education to all in their schools. It is an economic problem – due to the huge gap in our society between rich and poor – not an educational one.
‘Raising standards’ is about exam results and although these are important for getting a job or a place at university, they are but a small part of a good education.
‘Raising all-round education’ is a much better aim.
Schools are about young people learning to live worthwhile lives. They learn the skills of reading, writing, speaking, listening, thinking. They learn mathematical skills. They learn how to develop their natural talents for creative art embracing perhaps drawing, painting, dancing, making music and other art forms. They learn of the cultural wealth that they can spend their lives exploring – in terms of science, history, geography, literature, art, music. They learn to speak in other languages. They learn to be moral persons with personal ethical standards. They learn how to work co-operatively and respectfully with other people. They begin to learn what the world looks like - from the security of school. They learn how to go on learning for the rest of their lives – and they find the pleasure of it.
That is if the demand of ‘raising standards’ through the pressures of examinations doesn’t prevent all that happening.
This essay aims to alert parents to some of the dangers that lie ahead for their children. In common with many people, I believe, passionately, that school education should be funded by the state. But how it is conducted should be in the hands of teachers – the professionals who by experience, commitment and training understand best the educational needs of the young in their classrooms. They are the people that are trying to raise all-round education but who are often frustrated by politician’s obsession with raising ‘standards’.
Seven dangers to the educational future of your children are described here in order to show how serious the situation is.
So, what should be done? The time is ripe for a major enquiry on raising all-round education. This should include parents, young people, teachers, academics, business leaders, eminent writers and artists, social leaders - and politicians. It should ask this question:
What should worthwhile all-round education look like in the 21st century ?
When you have read of the following dangers perhaps you will decide to contact your Member of Parliament.
Danger 1 THE GOALPOSTS WERE MOVED DURING THE GAME
In July 2012 the boundary between grades C and D in English GCSE was raised above where it had been in January. As a result thousands of young people failed to get a ‘C’ or above and so had their hopes for higher education dashed.
Joan McVittie, president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said:
There is huge anger out there. The whole thing is so unfair on pupils whose lives will be affected by these results.
There was no warning to schools that this would happen.
It was moved because of a fear that standards were slipping so that too many young people were gaining good grades. But perhaps good grades were gained because the students had worked hard and were taught well? No one knows, but shouldn’t pass marks be based on achieving success (criterion referencing) rather than on limiting the numbers who succeed (norm referencing)?
What boundaries will be shifted in other subjects next year – and what will be the consequences for your children?
Wake Up Parents!
Danger 2 GCSEs ARE BEING MADE MORE DEMANDING
On 17 September 2012, Mr Gove, secretary of state, suddenly told Parliament that the GCSE would be replaced in 2017 by new examinations leading to English Baccalaureate Certificates in English, mathematics and science and two years later geography, history and a language would be included. In the event this idea was abandoned but instead new and more demanding syllabuses for GCSE subjects were prepared plus a change in the grading system replacing literal grades with numerical ones.
Everyone will take these examinations, which will be more demanding than the existing GCSE assessments in order to raise the standard. There will be no opportunities as now for course work to contribute to the results, nor modules nor resits. Nearly everything will depend upon two or three hour exam papers which, as critics point out, is what journalists need to be good at, but hardly anybody else. There was little consultation of teachers, academics or even most politicians before this was announced. If you have adolescent children they may feel they are guinea pigs in an untried and over-demanding system.
Wake Up Parents!
Danger 3 UNEMPLOYMENT LOOMS IN TODAY’S WORLD
Your children will continue in education or training until they are 18. (As decided by the previous government: 'Raising the Participation Age' it's called)
But what then?
This is no problem for the those taking A-levels and getting a university degree, but what about the others? What will they do? Where are the jobs for 18 year old school leavers? What training for work will they receive?
This is what the Daily Telegraph said in January 2012 about one of the largest government-funded apprenticeship schemes:
During the 39-week course run by Zenos, students spent 18 weeks learning basic IT skills in a classroom with just 21 weeks assigned to an employer, after which they were turfed out into the jobs market to find work.
Our Government’s apprenticeship schemes are short and feeble compared to those in Germany where vocational education is valued by young people, their parents and industry. There are 342 trades where an apprenticeship can be completed: it takes between 2 and 3 years and two-thirds of young people start on this route.
Wake Up Parents!
Danger 4 CHILDREN ARE OVER-TESTED YEAR AFTER YEAR
Parents know how stressful examination times are for most children. Some take them in their stride but for others it is a nightmare.
They now start at six with a test on phonics. At eleven there are the key stage tests in literacy and numeracy: at fifteen GCSEs.
Because the results are used by the Government in published league tables there is great pressure on schools to achieve high results and so there is much ‘teaching to the test’.
The Independent in January 2012 reported Mick Waters (a former director of the national curriculum) saying to the North of England education conference:
Too many teachers are looking over their shoulders to the next set of measurements demanded by the government. One of my main worries is that many youngsters aren’t experiencing the richness, depth and joy of learning because schools feel they need to achieve some imposed and questionable targets.
Yes, the all-round education of your children – ‘learning how to live worthwhile lives’ - may be neglected.
Wake Up Parents!
Danger 5 SCHOOL SPORTS FIELDS ARE BEING SOLD
Between May and July 2012 Lord Hill, on behalf of Mr Gove, approved the sale of 30 school playing fields. This seems incredible at a time when Olympic successes have inspired many young people. JoJo Moyes said this in the Daily Mail:
There is no policy that more defies common sense than the sale of school playing fields. Urban spaces where earlier generations once played are increasingly plugged by property developers. Fears about traffic and stranger danger mean fewer children walk to school or play outside. Many live on estates where ball games are barred, or congregate in privately owned precincts where roller skates and bicycles are not allowed. School is one of the few places left where they should be guaranteed some physical activity. So what madness is this? Because with each playing field sold, it’s not just potential sporting prowess we lose, but children’s mental and physical health itself.
Also this Government scrapped the valuable network of local partnerships which linked schools to local sports clubs.
Wake Up- Parents!
Danger 6 MANY CHILDREN ARE WEAK READERS
The Confederation of British Industry finds many employers complaining about the literacy skills of their less qualified employees.
We can’t blame Mr Gove, but his insisting on young children learning to ‘decode’ writing by the prime use of synthetic phonics is utterly misguided.
Most experts say synthetic phonics should be one of several approaches used in a balanced approach to reading for understanding and pleasure.
If six-year-olds do not pass the phonics screening check their parents are to be told they have failed.
In July 2012 Mark Brown in the Guardian reported that:
More than 90 of Britain’s best-known children’s authors and illustrators have called on the government to abandon its plans to introduce early-year reading tests, warning that they pose a threat to reading for pleasure in primary schools. … The letter calls on the government to abandon plans for reading tests, specifically the phonics screening check at the end of year one and the spelling, punctuation and grammar test at the end of year six.
Wake Up Parents!
Danger 7 ‘RAISING STANDARDS’ WEAKENS ALL-ROUND EDUCATION
All three major political parties claim they want to ‘raise standards’ in schools but they see this only in terms of more young people getting good examination results. Yes, good results are important, but they are not the be-all and end-all of education. All-round education is about children learning cognitive skills, learning to be moral people, developing worthwhile values, learning how to relate emotionally to others, learning how to communicate effectively, developing such creative talents in the arts as they are blessed with, experiencing our heritage so that they continue to explore cultural wealth throughout their lives, enjoying their schooldays, and in the final years of school, learning how to make a living. All-round education embraces every aspect of learning how to lead worthwhile lives.
Most of this cannot be tested in examinations.
More so than ever before today’s teachers are hard-working, highly skilled, dedicated people profoundly concerned to do their very best for the young people they teach in the terms expressed above: but we also know that they are stressed and too often distressed by the demands to ‘raise standards’ put on them by politicians.
Wake Up Parents!
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO ?
It isn’t easy to see how individuals can act. First, decide whether you agree with some, or perhaps all, of the points made in this pamphlet. Talk to your children (discretely of course), to your neighbours and friends with children at school, and if possible to local teachers.
Second, focus on one or two of the issues and consider how these may affect your children’s education. If you find yourself seriously worried then it is time to exercise your democratic right to contact your MP.
Go to www.writetothem.com From your post-code the website will tell who your MP is and give you a space to send her or him a message. MPs are your representatives and need to know what you think.
Explain your concern and show why you feel it will affect your child’s/children’s education. Perhaps tell your MP that the politicians chant of ‘raising exam standards’ should be replaced by a recognition that raising the quality of all-round education is what really matters for all of our young people.
Urge your MP to pass on your concern to the secretary of state for education and ask your MP to let you know how the secretary of state replies.
You might also want to say that the time seems ripe for a major enquiry into state education – perhaps a commission consisting of parents, teachers’ representatives, young people, academics, business leaders, eminent writers and artists, social leaders - and politicians. It could ask:
What should worthwhile all-round education look like in the 21st century and how can it be achieved for all our young people ?
Postscript. Who am I who dares tell parents ‘to wake up’? First I am a parent and grandfather. Second a retired academic who worries about the education of our children and who has been thinking, arguing and writing about educational issues for over fifty years. Third, a widower whose wife was head of a primary school and who added much to my own experience of schools as a teacher trainer.
This page was first posted on 20 September 2012
and last amended on 11 November 2015