Educational press-reports-2003 Central Control Damages Teaching
Archived 11 November 2015


In the educational press-reports-2003 an astonishing number of bodies were seen to be attacking the continuing use of tests for assessing children’s progress, particularly in primary schooling. The list includes teachers and headteachers through their subject associations, their unions and professional bodies, and a new alliance; writers; academics and researchers; parents; and a mental health charity. Some were concerned about stress on children, others on the narrowing of the curriculum to the subjects tested and the way these are being taught - with consequent loss of enthusiasm for learning, loss of creativity in expression, disinterest in reading for pleasure, and loss of opportunity for gaining deep understanding. Overall the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) spent £30 million on tests for seven, 11 and 14-year-olds and base-line assessment for five-year-olds.

No one was against assessment as such, but many campaigners wanted assessment by government tests to be replaced by teacher assessment based on the professional competence of teachers and arising from their over-the-year knowledge of their pupils. A research study of 100,000 students in Worcestershire found that, for two-thirds of the primary school pupils, teachers’ assessments were identical to test results - and more so for 11-year-olds. (Where they differ, who is to say that the stress inducing, snapshot measuring test is a better assessment that that of the teacher over time?)

The media make news out of test statistics to try to show trends in the national performance of schools, and politicians use these to boast about, or attack, government policies. But as Professor Roger Murphy of Nottingham University pointed out, not only are SATs a very crude measure of particular performance, but changes made in the testing instruments (for educational reasons) invalidate year-by-year comparisons. A substantial research investigation by Alf Massey, for the QCA, showed how problematic (if not impossible) is the equitable setting of numerical marks for assessment levels.

With the National Union of Teachers deciding to ballot for strike action over testing, David Miliband, the minister for school standards, set out the government’s case in the The Times Educational Supplement (TES). He listed six ‘NUT myths’: First, that testing adds nothing to the education process. Second that tests limit achievement by confining teaching to pre-set levels. Third that testing and creativity are incompatible. Fourth that tests discriminate against poor children. Fifth that other countries do not test. Sixth is that the Government refuses to listen. In the days when teacher education included theoretical study, responding in depth to this list would have made an excellent student assignment. The minister gave brief (and many thought inadequate) responses to each ‘myth’, but added a comment which must have called forth howls of disbelief by writing: I understand the concern of parents that testing should not overwhelm schooling, but three tests in nine years is not excessive.’

Notwithstanding the formidable opposition to testing, the senior DfES official responsible for schools said in August: ‘the Government is as determined as ever to press on’. Who said the Government listens?


2003 was a year in which ministers for several months continued brazenly to defend the use of targets and league tables. But after a long siege by teachers, unions, and researchers, attack by two select committees and the chief inspector of schools, and the stark statistics that 11-year-olds were not reaching the targets set for English and mathematics, they dropped these 2004 targets, but still expected schools to improve year on year. In January 2003 Stephen Twigg became the minister responsible for primary schools and showed how ‘well informed’ he was by announcing: ‘No one seriously wants to go back to the days when there was no central direction, no setting of targets, no nationwide performance assessment.’

He resolutely defended ‘these necessary goals’ until Charles Clarke, his boss, in May suddenly decided to transfer target setting to schools. There was a pertinent reminder of the perversity of sections of the national press when the Sun described Charles Clarke’s minor changes as ‘a dramatic climbdown as a sop to classroom lefties’.

Diane Hofkins of the TES expressed the opinion of many primary school teachers when she wrote of targets: They are no longer helping to raise standards, but are stifling opportunities for both teachers and children to be creative. ... Bored children and stressed teachers will not create exciting primary schools able to prepare youngsters for this challenging century. Children need to learn to think, to make connections, to work together, to take risks, to discover their own talents. They need to read about all kinds of things and explore different media. They need space and time to have ideas and try them out. Fortunately, all this is the best way to raise English and maths standards, too.

The author Philip Pullman put the same case with a front page headline in the TES saying, ‘Free the caged minds of young teachers’. He said that teachers were not trusted to teach, and were nagged, controlled and harassed: instead they need to be trusted.


Schools had been inspected by HMIs (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) since the 19th century and towards the end of the 20th century most local education authorities had their own teams of local school inspectors. But in 1992 the situation changed with the establishment, by national government, of the Office for Standards in Education – known universally as OFSTED.

Ever since Chris Woodhead was its chief inspector, with his unsubstantiated assertion that there were 15,000 failing teachers in the system, Ofsted has been teachers’ bête noire. HMI visitations had been rare and their reports usually mild, while local inspectors had tended to use the ‘challenge and support’ approach to help teachers improve their work.

By contrast Ofsted inspections are comprehensive in covering the activities of a school, very demanding in requiring a great deal of documentation from schools about their various policies, dismissive of environmental factors which may affect a school's performance, nerve wracking for many teachers in the thoroughness of their classroom observation, and very formal in reporting on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of a school without giving any guidance at all as to how improvements could be made.

On the inspection front, the year 2003 included: a union challenge to the extent of accountability required of schools (21 different accounting bodies); Newcastle University research showing that Ofsted inspections have had no positive effect on GCSE results in the majority of schools; and an announcement by the Parliamentary select committee on education that it will investigate the cost-effectiveness of Ofsted. For its part, Ofsted started on its ‘light touch’ inspections with a topsy-turvy view of what ‘satisfactory’ means. The new inspectors’ handbook said, teaching that is generally satisfactory with little that is better merits a judgement of unsatisfactory owing to the lack of aspiration in teaching. Was this a response to Charles Clarke seeking ‘more rigorous’ inspections? At any rate it seemed to result in more schools than hitherto failing or showing ‘serious weakness’.

No wonder that a group of school leaders called for Ofsted to be scrapped while the DfES began to talk of school self-evaluation.


In December a chilling and bizarre TES front page article carried the headline: Schools without teachers: DfES vision of a brave new world where children are increasingly taught by support staff’. A document written by a DfES official entitled Workforce Reform - Blue Skies had been leaked to the TES. It said: The legal position ... is that a maintained school must have a head with qualified teacher status (QTS), but beyond that the position is very much deregulated. The school need not employ anyone else - other staff need not have QTS and staff could be bought in from agencies or come in on secondment.

A DfES spokesman said the paper had been produced without the authority and knowledge of ministers. But the frightening thought is that there are people in the DfES who must be totally lacking in understanding of what teachers actually do in school and what their roles are in the educational development of their pupils. Some government officials seem to see schools as factories where operatives can be hired on short contracts to deliver the curriculum.


A year of mounting criticism of Government initiatives ended with the second report of the (independent) National Commission on Education asserting that central control damages teaching. Sir John Cassells, director of the commission, said in the TES: 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’

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This page was last edited on 29 July 2009