Between 2000/1 and 2005/6 the proportion of the Gross Domestic Product spent on education in the whole of the UK had risen from 4.6 per cent to 5.5 per cent [In 2003 comparable international figures were: Denmark 8.3, Sweden 7.5, New Zealand 6.8, USA 5.7, UK 5.4, Netherlands 5.1, Italy 4.9, Australia 4.8, Germany 4.7, Ireland 4.4, Greece 4.3 and Japan 3.8].
The increase in the UK GDP proportion, coupled with steady growth in the GDP itself, was reflected in the increase in Local Authority expenditure on schools from £22.3 billion in 2000/2001 to £32.9 billion in 2005/2006 (in terms of 2006 prices). Expenditure on nursery education increased by 54 per cent, on primary schools by 42 per cent, and on secondary schools by 54 per cent. In the same period central government expenditure on education increased by 66 per cent, from £25 million to £41 million.
While this increase in educational expenditure was welcomed, it became apparent during the year that this increase came at a price. Government moved the goalposts and put more pressure on schools.
CONCERNS ABOUT OFSTED IN 2006
In May reports were coming in about Ofsted’s new ‘light-touch’ inspections. These relied heavily on school self-evaluation and entailed fewer lesson evaluation, but would take place every three years instead of every five and with only a few days’ notice. However, Ofsted had also ‘raised the bar’ of its judgements and it was now clear that the number of schools assessed as ‘good’ was dropping sharply. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers said, It is quite ridiculous. The whole idea that what was good is now average means you really have to question the authenticity of Ofsted’s judgements.
In recent years the DfES has measured school performance in terms of a Value Added measure (VA) for each school. In primary schools each pupil’s results at KS2 (11-year-olds) are compared with those at KS1 (7-year-olds) and the results for a school averaged. This Value Added measure enables the performance of a school to be compared with other schools nationally. But it was seen to be a crude measure which ignores social and other factors which may affect a school and so a new way of measuring school performance known as the Contextual Value Added (CVA) was introduced. This uses the same key stage data as the VA but adjusts the score for social factors such as free school meals, ethnicity, and gender. It was reported in May that CVAs are used by Ofsted inspectors and they will be published for primary schools for the first time in 2007.
By May 2006 head teachers whose schools had been light-touch inspected in the previous term were complaining that many inspectors were using the CVA as the final word on a school’s quality. David Jesson, professor of York University, said too many inspectors were taking a wooden headed approach to the use of CVA, prejudging the performance of a school and not moderating this by their inspection. The inspectors union, Aspect, denied this, but 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 and wrote to the DfES to complain that heads had been told by inspectors that a school’s CVA score prevented them from giving it a good rating. In November 2006 he wrote, What school leaders need is not more pressure and constantly moving goalposts, but an environment that trusts them as professionals to do the job they were employed to do. Ofsted should be part of that supportive improvement process. At present, as a central part of the multi-layered pressure on schools, Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.
Furious letters from teachers appeared in the educational press. One described the work of Ofsted as a form of educational “mugging”. It can inflict real damage to an organisation and then walk away, without providing either support for solving the real problems or any genuine redress where the inspection has been flawed: a true example of real power without responsibility. The letter ended by saying that Ofsted is past its sell-by date.
Critical messages from inspectors to children about standards in their schools again raised professional concerns. As one head put it, Why should an inspection team be allowed to give ammunition to pupils so they can taunt teachers? The Conservative opposition in Parliament took up the issue. David Willetts, the shadow education secretary, said that the post-inspection letters to pupils are damaging school discipline and staff morale.
Baroness Pauline Perry was HMI chief inspector of schools in 1981-8 – several years before Ofsted came into existence. In September, while chairing the Conservative party review of educational policy, she spoke vehemently about Ofsted, saying that it was flawed, overly punitive and dysfunctional. She also noted: 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.
In December 2006, Warwick Mansell, a staff writer of the TES, challenged the basis of Ofsted judgements. Inspectors are placing great weight on CVAs to judge how successful schools are. Schools above the national average are deemed ‘good’ (or better), those around the national average are deemed ‘satisfactory’, and those below the national average are ‘inadequate’. He notes: It is not surprising, in a regime constructed like this, that many schools will be average, and many will be below average, since by definition all schools cannot be above average. Yet Ofsted and the media appears to be saying it is unacceptable that more schools are not above average. Given how this measurement system works, how could it be any other way? No wonder the article is headed: Verdict on inspectors: inadequate.
CONCERNS ABOUT TARGETS AND TESTING IN 2006
In April, Chris Keates, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), was asked by the TES, if she were education secretary for a day, what would she do? I would abolish performance league tables. They encourage competition, discourage collaboration, place schools under pressure, cause teachers to teach to the test and undermine their confidence. They focus on alleged failures rather than the significant achievements of pupils and teachers, and fail to reflect the real achievements of schools in challenging circumstances.
Both Labour and Conservative politicians have said they would not scrap the league tables, but the Liberal Democrats would.
Foundation stage and nappy curriculum targets
In September 2000 the DfES had introduced the Foundation Stage of the National Curriculum for children aged 3 to 5. Children are assessed by their teachers on 13 nine-point scales which track their progress from age three to five towards early learning goals. Since 2003 each October a ‘Profile’ has been released by the DfES showing the percentages of children, across the whole country, who have achieved 6 or more on the 9 point scale for each of the areas of learning at the end of the Foundation Stage. (This is described as working securely within the early learning goals’). The provisional results for 2006 were lower in each area than in 2005 – and the DfES commented that they appear to have been affected by improvements in the way assessment and moderation has been applied.
In January 2006 the TES reported on a survey of 400 reception class teachers carried out by Manchester academics, in these words: Hundreds of reception-class teachers have said that the early learning targets in writing, which expect five-year-olds to start forming simple sentences and use simple punctuation, are too high. Three-quarters of these teachers reported difficulties in providing a broad and balanced curriculum for children. The most common difficulty, faced by half of them, was inadequate outdoor space. A third also mentioned pressures created by targets and assessments and too much time spent on form filling. Post-code seems to be an important variable. The TES reported that in Richmond-upon-Thames 89 per cent of the foundation stage children were considered good at writing, compared to 28 per cent in Barking and Dagenham.
In February 2006 the DfES set new targets for national achievement in the Foundation Stage, for example that half of all the children should reach level 6 in all measures of communication and social development by 2008. The implications of this became clearer in April when it was announced that all of the 150 English authorities must declare how many five-year-olds they expect to reach a good level of development and how they will narrow achievement gaps.
Margaret Eddington, an early years consultant, pointed out that at this age group there is a massive development difference between children who are a year apart and who may be seen as less able when they are actually just younger and have less experience. These targets are just arbitrary, she said. They don’t expect the same things in France, Germany or Finland. She saw a danger in that teachers will put more effort into the areas with targets, such as writing, because they are valued, and at the expense of things which are more important for the child, such as being creative or learning physical skills.
But it became clear that the government had deeper plans. The Foundation stage is to cover all years from birth to five in a new curriculum which is to be compulsory from 2008 for everybody working with under-fives. Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations commented: We’re putting pressure on parents and teachers. We should be using assessment to help, not pressurise. A child isn’t not good just because it doesn’t make the grade the government says it should. Others castigated it as the nappy curriculum.
Doubts over KS2 tests validity
In January 2006 it was reported that one in seven primary schools had appealed against the English test results at KS2 of last summer. A total of 2,850 schools had challenged the marking of 15,509 individual papers and in consequence the marks of 1,082 pupils were raised and 81 lowered. Some 611 schools had appealed against science marks and 444 against mathematics marks. Also there had been 1,953 requests for clerical checks – leading to 500 pupils having their levels improved. David Fann, chair of the National Association of Headteachers’ primary committee said, Sadly, this is par for the course. KS2 markers are unprepared and slapdash. The solution is to get rid of tests and just rely on teacher assessments.
In July 2006 the TES online staffroom forum carried a number of reports by teachers that their schools English SAT results were higher than their own teacher assessments of pupil achievements. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the TES that Test results have assumed a level of importance which is way beyond their statistical accuracy and Jim Knight, schools minister, wrote to him saying I accept that no test or examination is 100 per cent reliable. It is well-known that some pupils will perform better or worse than their ‘true’ level of attainment on any particular day.
Dylan Wiliam, pioneer of assessment for learning, returned to England from America to become professor and deputy director of the London Institute of Education in August 2006. Some of his research has been on the fallibilities of national tests and exams in judging pupil performance. The TES noted that he has published a number of papers suggesting that 30 per cent of pupils may be given the wrong test level – a finding which ministers have never disproved.
Targets missed but nevertheless higher ones planned
Schools unlikely to hit targets was a heading in the TES in June 2006. The Department for Education and Skills had announced that the 2006 school results would probably miss seven of its 11 performance targets. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said You can’t sensibly use aspirational targets for accountability purposes – but that unfortunately is what the government seems to do. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said, This is a sorry tale. If the government sticks with the current high-stakes testing regime, it will not meet its targets.
But curiously the government was actually in the process of having the stakes raised! In February 2006 it was reported that the primary and secondary national strategies, taken over last year by the private services firm Capita – for a five-year contract worth £175 million – will set the test bars higher. The key aim is stated by Capita to be - raising the bar of expectation so that current rates of progress are exceeded for all children and young people. As the National Union of Teachers said, The emphasis on raising standards is predicated on the belief that rates of improvement will rise year on year for ever.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that while all schools wanted to raise results, targets and data on individual pupils were being used by government as a ‘big stick’ to punish schools with low scores.
When the results for KS2 were announced in August 2006, the percentage of pupils reaching level 4 in English was 80, compared to 79 the year before – but less than government’s target of 85 per cent. Teachers’ leaders said that the targets were unrealistic and this summer’s results should be celebrated. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said, We have always said that these arbitrary targets distract from genuine and real success. Schools were always going to find it difficult to get the last 15 to 20 per cent of pupils to level 4.
In a debate in the TES in September 2006, Patrick Diamond, a former special adviser in the Prime Minister’s policy unit, arguing in favour of education targets nevertheless admitted that future governments will need to recognise that top-down targets have their limits. … Targets should be few … They should not crowd out the enrichment that comes from learning for its own sake.
Anastasia de Waal, of the independent think-tank Civitas put the opposite case. She identified two fundamental problems with government targets in primary schools. First, they necessitate quantifiable performance measures which require an enormous emphasis on testing. Second, the targets set have been over-optimistic, putting huge pressure on schools, as well as political pressure on civil servants and ministers. The result has been an obsessive target-chasing which has distorted activity in many primary schools. Instead of being a useful tool to measure pupils’ achievements, standardised tests have become the raison d’être of teaching, the benchmark of whether a school succeeds or fails. She said, We should not be worried that the government has missed its targets again: we should worry that it came so close to reaching them.
Just before Christmas 2006 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.
Time to stop testing?
In April the TES reported that last year all six main teachers’ unions had signed a joint statement calling for the abolition of KS2 league tables and for tests for 11-year-olds to be reviewed. Margaret Morrisey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said that parents would be delighted if the KS2 tests were abolished. She added, You only need to look at Wales where the pupils seem happier but there is no evidence that standards have dropped.
Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), suggested in May 2006 that national tests for 11- and 14-year-olds could, in the long run, be replaced by standardised assessments carried out by teachers. Teachers would use nationally devised tests, mark them and have them moderated by independent assessors. This is similar to what has happened since 2004 at KS1.
During the year 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.
In November 2006, 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.
Notwithstanding these statements by its key quangoes, the Department for Education and Skills remained adamant, saying there was absolutely no question of moving away from externally marked tests.
CONCERNS ABOUT CURRICULUM IN 2006
In February 2006, 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.
Decline in primary maths and science 1976 -2003
The primary curriculum received a jolt in January 2006 when the results of research by Michael Shayer, professor of King’s College London, and his colleagues were published. It compared the performance of 11-year-olds in 1976 with year 7 pupils in 2000-2003 and found a dramatic drop in the proportion of pupils able to master basic maths and science concepts. He said that while some of the decline might be due to pupils playing more computer games and watching television rather than experimenting with things, recent government initiatives such as the numeracy and literacy strategies take up valuable time and leave fewer opportunities for practical work and learning through play. Peter Tymms, professor of Durham University, commenting on this research, said, [Shayer’s] tests get at the fundamental cognitive development levels and our understanding of the physical world and all that it entails. This is something that we should sit up and take notice of, and it makes me worry about the impact of league tables, Ofsted and teaching to the test.
Challenge to the three-part lesson
The three-part lesson used in primary schools since the late 1990s to teach literacy and numeracy, was criticised by the Royal Society’s Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) in June 2006. The Committee argued that teachers should feel free to decide what works best and tailor their teaching to pupils’ needs, rather than be restricted by government guidelines. Margaret Brown, professor of King’s College London and an ACME member, said that some tasks, for example investigative work or revision, worked better spread out over a series of lessons. In these cases, it was not helpful to have ‘starters’ and ‘plenaries’. Yet teachers often feared to depart from the standard format. In 2002, Ofsted had been forced to warn inspectors not to insist on the three-part structure, following complaints that some had marked teachers down when their starter was ‘five minutes too long’.
New primary framework
In October 2006 a new primary ‘framework’ was launched – to replace the literacy and numeracy strategies which had been introduced in 1998 and 1999. The TES reported that 800 advisers will go into schools to train teachers in the new national primary strategy. One very significant change was that younger pupils should be taught to read using synthetic phonics. The framework document has 1,600 pages. Nigel Bufton, maths programme director, told the TES, Teachers tend to take objectives and race through them rather than focus on what progress has been made and addressing things children don’t understand. (Isn’t that because government requirements and perceived Ofsted enforcement have caused them to work this way?) Our new cycle is plan, teach, assess, plan, teach, assess. Teachers should be thinking what kind of approach will help children best. (Isn’t this what good teachers used to do before the government interfered in classroom pedagogy and told teachers what to think?)
Maths – traditional methods only
Back in May 2006, when proposals for the mathematics framework were made public, there was outrage. The government proposals were that pupils should henceforth use only traditional approaches to calculation by the time they reach the age of 11. A statement from five leading members of the Mathematical Association said that the strategy’s proposals marked a return to the dark ages. They added, Don’t let us go back to the bad old days, with books full of pages of vertical sums, when only a minute percentage of pupils understood what they were doing.
The Association of Teachers of Mathematics said, The methods suggested are outdated and have been superseded by more “understandable methods” that help pupils to move forward with confidence.
In March 2006 a government report by former HMI Jim Rose said that most children should begin reading using synthetic phonic work by age five. The government announced in December that this would be mandatory from September 2007 and David Willetts, shadow education secretary confirmed that under the Conservatives, Ofsted would ensure that synthetic phonics became the norm in all primaries. But while many teachers welcomed this decision, others challenged it as an unacceptable political prescription. Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers argued that the curriculum should be determined by the consensus of professional educators. While he agreed that the synthetic phonics method was a valuable part of the teacher’s toolkit, he argued that it is not the only method of teaching reading. He said, Professionals recognise that children learn in different ways and that different approaches to the teaching of reading can enhance children’s learning.
A similar view was expressed by the United Kingdom Literacy Association: We are not opposed to synthetic phonics; we are against developing a national policy which suggests that one approach to the teaching of phonics is the solution for all children.
CONCERNS ABOUT STRESS: HEADS, TEACHERS AND CHILDREN IN 2006
In a remarkable meeting with the Commons education select committee in July, Alan Johnson, who had replaced Ruth Kelly as Secretary of State for Education in May, told teachers to expect more stress. He said he accepted the pressure that league tables put on heads and the extra intensity they put on teachers, but: 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. Later he said that further pressure could be placed on teachers because the government wants pupils to get more education in teamwork and other social skills, which have been demanded by employers.
When it was complained that ministers changed their jobs too often, he replied that when he worked as a postman in Slough there had been an 80% turnover of postal workers!
In April 2006, at the National Union of Teachers annual conference, John Illingworth, a former president of the Union drew a standing ovation for a brave and harrowing speech. My name is John. I have a mental illness. My illness was caused by the cumulative stress of many years which became beyond my capacity to manage. I tried as a primary head to lead my school in a way consistent with NUT principles, but I always felt bullied by government. In the end the only way to deal with unmanageable stress is to remove the cause of it. I’m removing the cause by leaving teaching.
In the same month, at the National Association of Head Teachers annual conference, Mick Brookes, general secretary, said that the growing pressure on heads from the government and from inspectors was discouraging teachers from applying for senior posts, leaving up to half a million children in schools without a permanent leader.
In August 2006, he reported that research by the Schools Advisory Service, with a data-base of over 1,500 schools, showed that 38 per cent of headteachers off sick were absent through stress-related illness. He said, Without doubt, the ceaseless reform agenda that has been promulgated with almost evangelical zeal by this government is one of the key factors in driving school leaders to the wall.
A parliamentary question by the Liberal Democrats in September 2006 revealed the extent of this ‘evangelical zeal’. Headteachers received, between 1997 and 2004, a new piece of government guidance every two-and-a-half working days. Although the paper trail had been cut since then heads still had to trawl through a mass of electronic information to decide what to download: the government continued to micro-manage schools!
Although classroom teachers feel the stress of government initiatives, a poll by the TES, and reported in January 2006, found that two-thirds are committed to the job and happy at work, despite mounting concerns over workload. The poll revealed that 70 per cent of staff said they found themselves under greater pressure than in the same period in 2002. This was despite the introduction of government reforms last September which aimed to give them at least one half-day a week outside the classroom to mark and prepare work.
Tim Brighouse, commenting on this poll, wrote of the complexity of teachers’ lives. The present generation of teachers may operate in a more mistrustful atmosphere. And they may in consequence face more bureaucracy, regulation and accountability than ever before. Nevertheless, they include – to a greater degree, I would argue, than in times past – the same core of generous committed professionals prepared to walk the extra mile. They are not in teaching simply for the money. They are in it, as they might privately admit, to make a difference to their pupils’ life chances. They care not just about their pupils but about the adults they will become. Such teachers are learners themselves who believe in the limitless potential of their pupils. … If the motivation of such teachers to pass on the knowledge, general human skills and values that will develop so many of their pupils into adults committed to social justice as well as their own fulfilment sounds hopelessly romantic and old-fashioned, then they are stubbornly antique. If teachers also act to change the world in so doing, then they dwell in the future as shamelessly successful social engineers. … Ministers and politicians may huff and puff as much as they like about their latest policies, practices and protocols, but they aren’t worth a row of beans without the teachers I have described here. It is they who make the difference.
(Tim Brighouse, at this time aged 66, was London schools’ commissioner, or ‘tsar’. Previously he had been chief education officer for Birmingham. He has been described as ‘charismatic, visionary and inspirational’)
So how do ministers react to these sentiments? In September 2006 they announced a new performance-management regime which is designed to bolster the link between pay and performance and in December came a report, from a review led by the head of Ofsted, Christine Gilbert, suggesting that by 2020 teachers will be replaced by leaders of learning! It was good to be reminded, in a special TES tribute to Ted Wragg, of his view of teachers: There is no higher calling. Without teachers, society would slide back into primitive squalor.
(Ted Wragg (1938-2005) was another ‘charismatic, visionary and inspirational’ teacher and researcher. From 1978 he was professor of education at Exeter University. His satirical column in the TES – wicked humour often based on sound research – for 25 years brought laughter and sanity into school staffrooms.)
Ultimately the education system is about children growing cognitively, socially, morally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, creatively, culturally and holistically into adults. So, what did the researchers and professionals say about young people in 2006?
Data about children from across the 25 member states of the European Union were studied by researchers from York and Stirling universities and the findings reported in the Social Indicators journal. The TES gave the report the heading, British pupils among the least happy in Europe. It noted that British pupils have among the most difficult lives in Europe and compare poorly with other countries in a range of measures including happiness in school. These were some of the figures contributing to the sad picture of the UK: 44% of pupils have been in a fight in the past year (7th highest rating); 43% find their peers kind and helpful (25th rating – the lowest); 17% live in jobless households (1st rating – the highest); 38% had used cannabis (3rd highest rating); 27% had been drunk 20 times or more (3rd highest rating); 38% of 15 year-olds had had sex (1st rating – the highest). Figures for well-being at school were based on a World Health Organisation survey in 2001/2002 which asked whether young people felt pressured by school work and whether they liked school a lot. When the two measures were combined the UK came 21st.
Sue Palmer, author and literary consultant, in March 2006 drew attention to her three years of research in which she surveyed about 1,000 teachers. She told the TES: For some time teachers have been pointing out that children are becoming more difficult to teach: that they find it more difficult to pay attention, their listening is getting worse and they are more distractible, impulsive and self-centred. Technological and cultural changes have transformed the lifestyle of people in the developed world – largely for the better. But it has all happened so fast that we haven’t noticed that changes which benefit adults are not always so good for children. … The increasingly competitive ethos in schools had contributed to children’s poor social and behavioural skills. The testing and target culture in schools, fuelled by parents’ attempts to accelerate their child’s performance – meant that other skills were neglected.
In May 2006, when her book Toxic Childhood was published, Sue Palmer commented further: The change in children’s play habits has emerged over a single generation, helped by two side effects of contemporary culture. First, the growth of technological (and entirely indoor) screen-based activities has provided a seductive alternative. Second, a huge increase in parental anxiety has led to restrictions on children’s physical activity and their freedom to play outdoors. … Research at Lancaster University has found that, compared to the 1990s, today’s 10 and 11-year-olds are given a smaller and more clearly specified area in which they can play freely, are monitored much more closely by their parents, and have their play curtailed at the first hint of danger. Younger children often scarcely venture out at all, but remain cooped up like battery chickens with their technological toys for company, perhaps the most inactive generation in human history.
Many of the issues which Palmer raises are not ones which schools can address directly. But teachers are often acutely aware of these issues and, if they were not so occupied with a demanding curriculum and preparing children for tests, might be talking with parents and trying to give children more freedom to be themselves in creative play in the great outdoors. They might be able to refute the dour statement of the acting chief inspector, that schools are not fun palaces, and ensure that there is enjoyment in the school lives of children. They might have more time to discuss with young people the ethical and emotional issues that constitute a great gulf between generations. It is the kind of social engineering that Tim Brighouse commended, as noted above.
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This page was last edited on 29 July 2009