Educational press-reports-2004 New Labour Needs to Curb Its Control Freakery
ARCHIVED on 11 November 2015

In the educational press-reports-2004 professional concern about the pressure on children and teachers continued to be forcefully expressed by representatives of a wide range of bodies: subject associations, unions, professional bodies, the General Teaching Council for England, charities and by researchers and parents. They weighed in variously against excessive testing, the development of a two-tier primary curriculum, bureaucratic workload, homework for young children, targets, league tables, value-added measures, central control, and Ofsted inspections.

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.

But if this was a representative of the infantry sniping at the high command, there was also evidence of the field marshals attacking each other and sometimes shooting themselves in the foot. In January 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 and was shocked by the number of overlapping organisations fishing in the same pond funded in part or wholly by public money. Also he was horrified by the deluge of glossy reports on his desk and invitations to conferences whose deliberations led nowhere.


Eamonn O’Kane, in February, shortly before he retired as general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, said: The blame for the rigidity of what is taught in schools cannot be laid at the door of teachers. Performance league tables and the pressure they place on schools to teach to the tests lie at the heart of the problem.

Rona Tutt, National Association of Head Teachers’ president, when opening the association’s annual conference in Cardiff in April, attacked national tests that have nothing to do with assessment for learning and everything to do with assessment for performance tables. What dehumanises schools is turning them into exam factories, using assessment for accountability purposes and sidelining professional judgement and common sense.

In May the Parliamentary Public Accounts select committee called for a radical overhaul of league tables in order to ensure that schools in deprived areas are treated fairly.

In June the QCA announced that children’s education is suffering as schools, desperate to climb the league tables, hothouse 11-year-olds for key stage 2 tests [and] schools are slashing time spent on non-tested subjects such as history and design and technology.

By August the Government had admitted to flaws in the league tables saying that value-added and traditional league tables exaggerate differences between schools and can be an unreliable indicator of their performance.

Professor Peter Tymms and Colin Dean of Durham University, in a study commissioned by the National Association of Head Teachers, claimed that primary value-added measures are misleading, biased against more able pupils, and will never be able to reflect accurately the efforts of most schools. The main problem with the system introduced last year, is the small size of many primaries. Currently value-added data is published for schools with as few as 11 pupils in a year group, which the study says can lead to wild fluctuations in the figures from year to year. It recommends that data should not be published for schools with year groups of fewer than 50 pupils. They estimate this would rule out more than 80 per cent of primaries.

Schools with many able seven-year-olds are also penalised. The top of the scale for KS2 is level 5. The brightest pupils achieve level 3 at KS1. Under the value-added system pupils who move from level 3 at seven to level 5 are judged to have made average progress. They cannot register a better-than-average value-added score. Also high pupil turnover meant that some schools had value-added scores that did not reflect their efforts. But school standards minister David Miliband said that value-added information had been widely welcomed as a significant step forward.

In October when ministers showed reluctance to accept the Tomlinson proposal for a bigger role for teacher assessment, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said this demonstrates a major lack of confidence in the teaching profession.


In May the National Union of Teachers said, Ofsted has contributed to a culture of compliance under which schools and teachers prepare for evaluation out of fear rather than commitment and enthusiasm.

In May Chief Inspector David Bell admitted that changes at the Office for Standards in Education could be responsible for the sharp rise in the number of failing schools. He said: Inspectors may have misinterpreted the inspection framework introduced last September and focused too much on schools’ weaknesses.

Then, in October, the House of Commons Education select committee accused Ofsted of contributing to the problems facing some of the country’s toughest schools. It added that at a cost to taxpayers of £207 million a year, Ofsted must prove that it offers value for money.

Earlier Ofsted had a bad report from its own staff. A report, leaked to the TES in April, said that questionnaires returned by 2000 Ofsted staff revealed high levels of bullying, fear, stress and bad management, with 1 in 3 wanting to leave, 2 in 3 saying that they felt unable to speak freely at work or share ideas about changing the way work was done, and nearly the same number feeling so stressed that it was damaging their work and saying that objectives changed so frequently that they could not get work done.


There was much concern about the development of a “two-tier curriculum” in primary schools. QCA statistics published in March showed that key stage 2 pupils were now spending half their lesson time learning English and maths, this having steadily increased over the last six years. The other subjects in the curriculum were all getting less time.

David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said that geography had been seriously marginalised and Roy Hughes, chair of the Historical Association Primary Committee noted that the same had happened to history, adding Politicians claim they wish pupils to become engaged citizens, to access culture and to appreciate rights and responsibilities. History is likely to be a central element in access to any such rich curriculum. The Government needs, for a change, to take the long view and realise the importance of children accessing “the big ideas”.

But if English and maths were getting the lion’s share of time there was disquiet about their achievements. Stephen Twigg, the minister responsible for primary education, said in March that the Government’s message of ‘literacy, literacy, literacy’ was a mistake since for the four past years KS2 results have remained static with 75 per cent of pupils gaining level 4 in English. (In August the 2004 results were announced: English up to 77 per cent).

In October Paul Andrews, chair of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics council, said that children must be helped to see maths as a creative, imaginative and problem-solving set of challenges. He added that it is not only taught because it is useful but should be a source of delight and wonder, offering intellectual excitement and appreciation of its essential creativity. But the testing regime, he argued, acts as a barrier to this – and so should be abolished.

But was Government listening to concerns that their testing regime was also putting restrictions on the time available for other subjects than maths and English? It seems not since, in July, there were strong rumours that soon primary schools should be spending an hour a week learning a foreign language. Education minister Charles Clarke was reported as saying that he would consider making this mandatory if schools were seen to be dragging their feet.


Schools continued to be inundated with documents despite attempts to reduce bureaucracy. A TES report in May 2004 showed that in the previous 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.


As in the previous year there was an element of the bizarre in one strand of Government thinking. In February, Sir Peter Gershon (a former chief operating officer for BAE Systems and now heading the Office of Government Commerce) produced a draft efficiency review which was leaked to the Financial Times. He suggested that good teachers could teach “very large” classes if new high-level classroom assistants were to come from the ranks of 80,000 civil servants who would lose their jobs if ministers followed his recommendations. He said that up to £2.2 billion worth of productivity gains could be made in schools through more use of support staff and technology. It is not clear what ministers thought of that idea. Meanwhile they were busy making speeches about personalised learning.


This seemed to be New Labour’s big idea in education for a third term of office. Curiously a conference organised by the Institute for Public Policy Research in March, attended by academics, representatives of unions, think-tanks, the DfES, the Cabinet Office and Downing Street, concluded that the concept remained unclear! Martin Johnson, an IPPR research fellow, pointed out that the concept has not been generated by research or by practitioners explaining new practice. Rather, it has been introduced almost entirely via ministerial speeches. In essence, it is political.

However research has cast doubt on the validity of work on different learning styles that forms one of the main planks of the drive towards personalised learning. The argument is that students learn in a variety of ways and therefore teaching methods should vary accordingly. But a study commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (and led by Professor Frank Coffield of London University’s Institute of Education) reported in May that many of the methods, or instruments, used to identify pupils’ individual learning styles were unreliable, and had a negligible impact on teaching and learning.


Other substantial research studies underpinned concerns about current schooling. Mary Jane Drummond, formerly of Cambridge University, and Professor Janet Moyles of the Anglia Polytechnic University found that techniques used to educate three and four-year-olds had not been extended to four and five-year-olds in the second year of the foundation stage. Instead teachers were being pressured by key stage 1 colleagues to prioritise achievements such as numeracy, literacy, and familiarity with routines such as lining up in the playground.

This reflects what a TES editorial described as the disconnection between the play-based foundation stage and the subject-based national curriculum of KS1. A survey of 500 teachers by researchers Sue Palmer and Pie Corbett expressed similar concerns: We’re pushing young children too soon into the manipulation of pencils instead of the manipulation of language. Too much pressure from further up the school on reception and Year 1 classes – expecting too much formal work too soon.

A poll by the TES in March of 700 parents found that three quarters of them would like national tests for infants to be abolished.

The Evidence Informed Policy and Practice Centre (EPPI) gave the TES in October a preview of its systematic review of research on the impact of the numeracy hour and the Government’s numeracy strategy on KS1. It found that whole-class teaching can shatter the confidence of low-attaining five to seven-year-olds and act as a brake on their achievement. Pupils at the top of the class lose out as teachers struggle to engage children of differing abilities. It also found that improvements in the maths test scores of seven-year-olds are a result of teachers teaching to the test rather than any increase in pupils’ understanding.


A study by Leeds University researchers of 115 Year 2 teachers who were able to change this year’s key stage 1 test timetable and base their final assessment of their seven-year-old pupils on their own judgement, found that most turned down the chance. This led Professor Ted Wragg to say: Teachers’ confidence has been shot to pieces. This is what happens when you browbeat a profession for a long time. The high stakes of league tables and inspections have created a cowed profession when people for formal purposes follow everything to the letter, terrified of putting a foot wrong. It’s like Brave New World where the people become defenders of the system that oppressed them. It is a 21st century tragedy. The profession has to stand up and say to politicians to go and boil their collective heads.

Nevertheless the outcome of this ‘Government experiment’ (trialled by a large number of KS1 schools) was that Stephen Twigg, education minister, announced that the existing regime of KS1 national tests would make way for teacher assessment. We are putting all our faith and trust in teachers. The trials have shown that teacher assessment is robust and we have confidence in the profession. Under the changes, seven-year-olds will still be expected to complete the national tests in English and maths. However, teachers can decide when and how to administer them and the results will no longer be published separately from an overall teacher assessment of the pupil’s progress. The changes were welcomed by teaching unions and educationists.


It was not as substantial a change as that happening in Wales, where there are no tests for seven-year-olds (nor league tables) and a system of moderated teacher assessment at 11 and 14 is to be introduced, with a skills test in Year 5 mapped against national curriculum subjects to help teachers pinpoint children’s learning needs and improve transition to secondary school. This is a result of a review group chaired by researcher Richard Daugherty whose conclusions were endorsed by the Welsh curriculum authority. The TES editor commended Welsh education minister Jane Davison for tackling questions that dare not even be posed in Westminster. The editorial said that essentially we have a Victorian elementary education system in England and fifteen years into the reign of the national curriculum, it’s time for a major inquiry asking fundamental questions about how to prepare 21st-century citizens.


It was, of course, the Tomlinson enquiry that asked fundamental questions in terms of 14-19 year olds. Under the proposals, GCSEs and A-levels would be replaced by a four-level diploma qualification by 2014. The highest A-level equivalent would be assessed mainly by external exams. But lower levels, including that taken by 16-year-olds, would predominantly be graded by teachers based on pupils’ work during the course. Almost as soon as the report was published in October, Government ministers were rejecting its most radical aspects.

The TES reported this as follows: Ministers are extremely nervous about the bigger role for teacher assessment in the new diploma system, which would be implemented by 2014. The prime minister said that the diploma would not replace GCSEs and A-levels, while David Miliband, school standards minister, said the titles of current qualifications would be retained. Charles Clarke, the education secretary, said that any new system would be based on traditional, externally-assessed exams, though the report suggests that teacher assessment would dominate.

The TES went on to say: The Government risks a confrontation with much of the education world if it vetoes the teacher assessment plan. Organisations ranging from England’s General Teaching Council to universities, private schools and headteachers’ leaders have backed the move.


One shining feature of the year demonstrating public confidence in the teaching profession was the result of a MORI opinion poll in March. 2004 adults were asked which of a list of people they generally trust to tell the truth. Nine in every ten trusted teachers and doctors; only two in ten trusted politicians and Government ministers!

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This page was last edited on 29 July 2009