This year saw the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) split into two - the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS).
Alan Johnson, who had served for only 13 months as secretary of state at the DfES, when asked about pressures on schools had 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.
It was soon apparent that Ed Balls, the new secretary of state at the DCSF, notwithstanding a professed passion for children getting the best possible education, shared this view.
This was the fifth change of education secretary in six years, which 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, there 192.
CONCERNS ABOUT OFSTED IN 2007
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) and a further 113 primary schools described as inadequate and given notice to improve. A spokeswoman said the results reflected the fact that 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. The committee said that to suggest that satisfactory is a failure was unhelpful and noted Care needs to be taken that the discussion on the quality of provision is constructive rather than accusatory. It was also concerned that the inspection regime was encouraging schools to focus too much on core subjects – English and Mathematics – in order to improve their Ofsted ratings.
A minor furore broke out when Ofsted carried out a survey of pupils in which ten-year-olds were asked how often they had got drunk and whether their parents had paid jobs. My own letter in the TES castigated this question: It is an immoral question because implicitly it suggests that getting drunk may be acceptable. It is unethical because parents’ consent to ask the question has not been obtained and the use of postcode destroys its claimed anonymity. And it is an unsound question because some pupils who have been drunk might deny it while others who haven’t might seek street cred by boasting they have. When the results were published, 5% of 10-11-year-olds had said they had been drunk more than once in the past four weeks.
But most complaints were about inspection reports. Between September 2005 and January 2007 194 primary schools lodged complaints and of these 80 were upheld in part and 16 fully. This amounted to about 5% of inspections but, as a consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders said, There is a nervousness about complaints because people fear they will be identified and subjected to punitive measures.
A lack of sensitivity to teachers was highlighted when Ofsted refused to postpone a short-notice inspection in a primary school on a day when the head’s mother’s funeral was to take place. At this time the National Association of Headteachers called for an urgent review of the new system of inspections, saying that it placed unacceptable pressure on school leaders. Government took no notice.
CONCERNS ABOUT TESTING IN 2007
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 newspaper headlines all referred to representations being made by professional bodies. And how did government respond? A typical response was: ‘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’.
Many of these headlines referred to criticisms of tests which were presented as evidence to the Commons select committee, which published in June the 52 submissions that it had received. The TES reported that 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.
Did anyone reply that in a democracy the public has a right to demand that a government department should react to substantial professional criticism, not simply reject it?
During the year the government started to make two changes in the national assessment system. First, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s regulatory function which oversees the grading of tests was transferred to a new body, to be called the National Assessment Agency, which will report to Parliament rather than to the Department. It will be responsible for ensuring that national test and exam standards are maintained from year to year.
Second, an alternative to SATs was trialled in some 500 schools. Called the Making Good Progress project it entails a test for each level of the national curriculum. Pupils can take each test on two occasions each year, when their teacher considers them ready, and can take the tests as often as necessary to reach the required standard. Ed Balls, secretary of state, said blithely, that more tests will mean less stress. This system may allow both more testing and focus on individual progress and less stress because you space it through the year rather than having one particular test at one particular age point, he said.
TARGETS AND LEAGUE TABLES
If the SATs were abolished then, of course, national target setting and league tables would disappear too.
During 2007 one of the key proponents of league tables, Michael Barber, published a memoir of his time in Downing Street. John Crace of The Guardian interviewed him and noted that: as far as Barber is concerned, league tables have been a total success. They have introduced transparency and accountability; the public can see how their money is being spent and the government can target its initiatives and resources at the failing schools. (Sir Michael Barber was head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit in the Department for Education and Employment 1997 to 2001 and a key figure in the development of New Labour’s education policies.)
By way of contrast, in the same issue of the newspaper, Rebecca Smithers interviewed Shirley Williams and reported her view that: 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.
(Shirley Williams was education secretary 1976-79 in the Callaghan government and is now a Liberal Democrat peer.)
STRESS ON TEACHERS AND HEADS IN 2007
In February 2007 the Nottingham branch of the National Union of Teachers published the results of a questionnaire survey from 139 of its members (40% of Nottingham NUT). Although only a small sample the results suggest that there is a disquieting level of stress among teachers generally. These are some of the findings:
• 8 out of 10 were anxious about Ofsted inspections;
• 8 out of 10 felt the increased frequency of classroom observation and other monitoring was adding significantly to work related stress;
• 7 out of 10 felt their working hours were excessive;
• 7 out of 10 considered they had insufficient time to spend with family and friends;
• 6 out of 10 woke up in the night and couldn’t get back to sleep because they were thinking about work.
John Illingworth, the author of the report, said that as many as a third of all teachers will experience mental health problems during their careers and he attributed this, in part, to a new breed of autocratic headteachers, trained by the National College of School Leadership, for piling pressure on staff.
But headteachers are also under pressure from government. The TES reported in May that heads have had to respond to more than 50 government initiatives over the previous two years and in each case had to report back to government on how they would deliver them.
In October there was a report that Alastair Darling, while increasing the level of national spending on Education, had ratcheted up the pressure on teachers to improve standards by setting a set of tough new national targets for pupil attainment. For example within the next four years the percentage of pupils in primary schools achieving level 4 in both English and Mathematics tests should rise from 71% to 78%. One may wonder why the Chancellor of the Exchequer is empowered to make decisions about schools!
Heads fear for their jobs if targets are not reached, which may explain why in June it was reported that 2147 primary headships were on the market and, during the year, 36% of primary schools failed to appoint a new headteacher on first job advertisement.
STRESS ON CHILDREN
A United Nations study on the well-being of children and adolescents, published in February, put the UK at the bottom of a league table of 21 economically advanced countries. It said that children growing up in the United Kingdom suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex, than those in any other wealthy country in the world.
Al Aynsley Green, the children’s commissioner for England (appointed in March 2005, he is independent of government), acknowledged the UN’s criticisms and said: There is a crisis at the heart of our society and we must not continue to ignore the impact of our attitudes towards children and young people and the effect that this has on their well-being. I hope this report will prompt us all to look beyond the statistics and to the underlying causes of our failure to nurture happy and healthy children in the UK. These children represent the future of our country and from the findings of this report they are in poor health, unable to maintain loving and successful relationships, feel unsafe and insecure, have low aspirations and put themselves at risk.
A week later Ofsted countered the UN findings by saying Pupils are happy. During the past school year 31,758 children aged 9 to 15 had completed an online questionnaire as part of an Ofsted investigation into how effective local authorities are in contributing to children’s well-being. More than half had said that their lives were ‘very enjoyable’ – with only 1 in 20 saying ‘unhappy’. When asked what would make their lives more enjoyable, most said having more money to buy the things I want
So, this confirms that our children are growing up to be acquisitive beings driven by consumerism.
In October the Cambridge University Primary Review published an interim report entitled Community Soundings. [More of this below] It said that primary schools are increasingly valued as havens in a world where children’s lives are dominated by the breakdown of family life in a materialist, celebrity-obsessed society.
The report said that children are anxious not only about global poverty and climate change, but also about threats closer to home such as traffic, rubbish, graffiti and gangs of older children with knives and guns.
Robin Alexander and his team had interviewed parents, teachers, children and community representatives. He said: There was a remarkable consensus. On the big issues to do with the curriculum, testing, the state of society and the wider world, there was deep anxiety. There was also a sense that primary schools are doing a good job, but what is beyond them, the future for children, is disturbing.
He noted that there was widespread concern that children were being over-tested and that the school curriculum is too narrow and rigid, but, nevertheless, the report says: Primary schools themselves provide unfailing positive and dynamic settings for children’s development and learning.
CONCERNS ABOUT CURRICULUM IN 2007
More time on English and mathematics
During the year it was reported that in primary schools the proportion of time spent on teaching English and maths had risen since 1997 – now amounting to nearly half of each week, at the expense of other subjects in the curriculum. One consequence is that secondary style subject lessons are being replaced by cross-curricular theme lessons because they fit better into a limited time schedule. A spokesman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said, The shift is a sign that schools want to organise their curriculum in a way that appeals to pupils. A cynic might add, like they used to before government insisted on subject teaching!
The so-called ‘nappy curriculum’ (staffroom, not government terminology) was published in March. It set out what the government expects of children from birth to age five, activities for adults to do with children at different ages, and 13 nine-point scales for their assessment.
A powerful letter signed by Tim Brighouse, Margaret Edgington, Richard House, Penelope Leach, Bel Mooney, Lynne Oldfield, Sue Palmer - all well-known educationists - was published in the TES in November expressing grave concern about the new legislation.
We share a profound concern about England’s early years foundation stage (EYFS) legislation, which becomes law next autumn. We believe it is fundamentally flawed in conception, with net harm to be done to children due to the framework’s contestable assumptions and unintended consequences.
Young children learn most naturally and effectively through a subtle balance of free play, movement, rhythm, repetition and imitation. An overly formal, academic and/or cognitively based curriculum, however carefully camouflaged, distorts this learning experience; and an early head start in literacy is now known to precipitate unforeseen difficulties later on, sometimes including unpredictable emotional and behavioural problems.
Legally enshrining a model of child development allows no space for very different but equally plausible developmental frameworks. The age bands and associated age-related goals in the EYFS are also quite arbitrary, with little if any coherent developmental rationale; and to impose a compulsory legal framework on what are pre-compulsory school-age children may well have profound civil rights implications.
Caring for babies and toddlers is deeply personal, involving immeasurable qualities such as attunement and responsiveness. A one-size-fits–all framework that needs copious record-keeping risks substituting bureaucracy for care. So we call on the government to commission an urgent independent review of EYFS, allowing diverse conceptions of child development to flourish without undue compromise, and to reduce the status of EYFS to professional guidelines, free of legal compulsion, so safeguarding the professionalism and freedom of practitioners who have principled objections to the framework.
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman responded by saying: The early years foundation stage is a broad framework which does not prescribe any particular teaching approach and as such has the flexibility to accommodate a range of philosophies and practices.
More evidence of a self-styled ‘listening government’ that doesn’t hear criticism!
Later in the year 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 and in October and November 2007 published interim reports from several of its projects.
The team had prepared 63 research papers investigating pupils’ experiences of primary school. Drawing the threads together it was concluded that many primary pupils think they go to school in order to pass tests and secure a good future job. While generally the children are happy in primary schools they feel under pressure to work through the curriculum in preparation for key stage two tests, believing that these constitute an official judgement of them and their abilities. It was also found that children see a direct correlation between working hard at school and finding a good job in later life and so they place greater emphasis on completing their work than they do on understanding it. They prefer teachers who tell them what they need to do rather than allowing them to exercise choice. And they think their teachers are more concerned with whether questions are answered correctly than with advancing learning for its own sake.
One conclusion is that today’s children are growing up too soon and the prospects for the society and the world they will inherit look increasingly perilous.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, commenting on these findings, said: This confirms what everyone in the known universe says about the testing regimes in primaries: it’s having a devastating effect on the breadth and enjoyment of the curriculum. If you’re going to test narrow areas, then that’s what schools are going to teach.
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.
For later press reports click on the buttons at the top of this page.
This page was last edited on 29 July 2009