Educational press-reports-2008 “It would have been better if the government had done nothing at all” (Cambridge Review)
ARCHIVED on 11 November 2015

The independent-of-government, research-based analysis of the primary school scene – the Cambridge Primary Review - headed by Robin Alexander, emeritus professor of education, published its final report in February. This is how Sarah Cassidy reported it in The Independent on 29 February 2008.

The biggest inquiry into primary education for 40 years concluded yesterday that Labour’s tight, centralized control of England’s primary schools has had a devastating impact on children’s education. Micromanagement, meddling and a succession of ministerial edicts have killed the spontaneity in the nation’s classrooms. Teachers have been stripped of their powers of discretion. And the net result of new Labour “reform” has almost certainly been a decline in the quality of education that the young receive.

It would have been better, concludes the Primary Review, if the government had done nothing at all. The four reports published today follow 18 earlier reports that have painted a devastating picture of government interference in primary schools and laid bare ministers’ obsession with testing and desire to dictate the minutiae of classroom practice. They say government influence in the classroom has increased since 1997 to such an extent that English primary schools are now subject to a “state theory of learning” in which teachers are not only told what to teach but how they should teach it.

The quality of primary education has declined in the past 20 years because of the “narrowing of the curriculum and the intensity of test preparation”, the research warns. The result is that educational standards may actually have fallen in recent years as teachers become expert in coaching children for tests. …

The introduction of high-stakes testing – which sees primary schools ranked in national league tables according to the performance of their 11-year-old pupils in English, maths and science tests – has led to a narrowing of the curriculum as schools focus on literacy and numeracy at the expense of other subjects.

In May, Robin Alexander in the TES described how government sadly did not see the Review as a positive contribution to improving public services in education, but rather a political threat to be neutralized by any possible means. Government perceived it as ‘off message’ and so the careful work of the team of 70 academics was dismissed as ‘a collection of recycled, partial or out-of-date research’ by people ‘out-of-touch with the concerns of parents.’ Generously he mused that the Review may have had some positive results and that the government’s hard line might be softening. But very firmly he wrote: Teachers do, and must, exercise professional judgement on the basis of what only they know about their pupils: a national education system belongs not to ministers and officials, but to all of us.


It became clear in February 2008 that the new ‘light touch’ inspections of schools were focusing on SAT results rather than on teaching performance or provision of a rounded education or the well-being of pupils. A TES analysis of the 6331 primary school inspection reports of 2006-7 found that in 98% of these the overall verdict about a school was the same as for that section of the report commenting on standards achieved in the English, mathematics and science results shown by the SATs. As Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said, If the inspectors are going into schools to confirm what test results tell them, this calls into question the millions of pounds spent on Ofsted. It’s also clear that schools which have been doing well in difficult circumstances are not having that work acknowledged.

In February the chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, put forward proposals to inspect half of the schools in England every year, but leaving the ‘best’ schools to be seen every six years. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, criticized this change. What these schools need is not more inspection but greater support, if they are expected to improve. Currently, there is a complete lack of a strategic approach to doing this. The system is too much about pressure and not enough about support.

Two weeks later Peter Cunningham and Philip Raymond, researchers in the Cambridge Review team, commented that the extent and pace of change in the inspection of primary schools since Ofsted was formed has over-burdened teachers and led to heightened stress within the profession. They had found that the cultural and political expectations of inspectors and politicians had conflicted with ‘the holistic and humanist values’ of teachers. On the positive side these inspections had led teachers to work together and support each other more than before.

On 23 May the TES carried a front page banner headline: Inspections face global criticism. It reported that a draft version of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on school leadership said that Ofsted inspections create additional work and considerable strain on heads and other staff and can turn a school upside down. It also said that a bad report could send a school into a vicious downward spiral. Curiously the OECD report as now published on the internet makes no mention of this problem! Did our government ask for this to be removed?

In June Warwick Mansell, a TES reporter and author of Education by Numbers, in a strident article in the TES entitled Lift this crushing weight of scrutiny, wrote: If Ofsted wants better results from schools, it needs to encourage and support teachers, not frighten them … This country already has one of the most intrusive and punitive systems of accountability in the world.

In August it seemed that Ofsted would backtrack on the proposals of its chief inspector to conduct unannounced inspections. Recognising that senior management staff might not be available for ‘cold call’ meetings with inspectors, Aspect, the union that represents most inspectors, counseled against them. The National Association of Headteachers also commented that unannounced inspections would mean that schools would be constantly checking that they were ready for inspectors rather than concentrating on high-quality teaching.

Also in August 2008 the issue of Ofsted letters to children again surfaced, focusing on a letter to primary children which said: You are not well prepared for your next stage of education, nor your adult lives. … We think the school doesn’t do enough to help you to do your best and so you don’t learn as much as you could, especially in reading, mathematics and science.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: The letters in effect give license to pupils to question the professionalism of the school and its staff. There is no evidence to show that they serve any useful purpose. They should be scrapped.

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said families did not see why they needed the letters. They are unhelpful and can just make some precocious children even more precocious. A 10-year-old might switch off because they no longer respect their teacher.

Ofsted’s annual report, published in November, said that too much teaching is dull, lacking challenge and failing to engage pupils. It added that teachers feel pressure to put too much time into preparing children for tests, which restricts time available for other activities to interest and challenge pupils.



In March came a fierce attack by Keith Bartley, chief executive of the General Teaching Council (the regulatory body for teachers), on what he called the ‘over-cluttered’ national curriculum and high-stakes testing. The research indicates that everything in year six drives towards the test, but in year seven they have forgotten what they learnt because the only purpose of learning was to pass the test’.

In April a particularly damning report commissioned by the Wellcome Trust came from researchers of the London Institute of Education. They had interviewed by telephone 300 primary teachers in England and 300 in Wales and found that practical work was often marginalized in the spring term in England: the sole purpose in science teaching became to equip pupils with sufficient factual knowledge and scientific terminology to answer written questions on the test papers. The Trust, one of the largest scientific charities in the world, considered that because of this, pupils in England were being turned off science.

In May the National Association of Headteachers annual conference expressed strong opposition to the current testing regime in schools and the associated league tables. One speaker referred to the unholy trinity of targets, tables and tests.

BBC Panorama compared the English testing system unfavourably with arrangements in Wales, where national tests were abandoned in 2004, in a programme entitled Testing to destruction.

Research carried out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found that pupils spent an average of 10 hours per week on test preparation in the four months before key stage 2 tests in May.

Then, also in May, the House of Common’s select committee for Children, Schools and Families called for national tests in their current form to be scrapped. The main findings of this Committee, based on submissions made to it and witness interviews, were that, while the principle of having a national testing system is ‘sound’, the drive to meet government test targets has often become the goal of education, and high-stakes testing is distorting the educational experience of many learners. Further they had found that some schools had deployed ‘inappropriate methods’ to improve results. The Committee considered that test data do not necessarily provide an accurate picture of school and teacher performance, or of pupils’ deeper understanding. They argued that a small sample of pupils should be tested each year to monitor national standards.

In July it was Ofsted’s turn. Responding to the select committee’s report, Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector for schools, said that in some schools the quality of education is suffering as a direct result of the testing system, while some other schools are able to prepare for the tests without sacrificing the wider curriculum. Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, commented: If Ofsted are saying that the nature of testing is affecting children’s education, when is this government going to admit that the game is up? My colleagues are saying almost universally that the emphasis has to be put back on teaching, instead of this fixation with targets and tests.

Also in July it became clear that ETS Europe, the US company who in the previous February had won the £156 million, five year contract, to run the marking of SATs, was making a mess of it. First, markers complained of confusion over training, delayed contracts and jammed helplines, then senior markers said that there were inaccuracies in marking because quality control was weaker than before and scripts were arriving late, and then it emerged that schools, on receiving the results for 11-year-olds a week late, were finding serious errors. Mayhem and meltdown said some headlines. Who was to blame for this fiasco?

The TES reported that ETS Europe did not accept full responsibility but laid the blame at the door of the National Assessment Agency, which is an off-shoot of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and hence the government which delegates duties to this Authority. For all its denial of responsibility, the government did set up an inquiry under a former chief inspector, Lord Sutherland.

In October, Ed Balls, secretary of state, announced that SATs at key stage 3 (for 14-year-olds) were being scrapped immediately. The TES reckoned that this would save half of the £156 million spent annually on SATs marking. Hopes that Balls would also abolish key stage 2 tests were dashed: they are needed for school accountability, he said.

Sutherland reported in December, putting the blame squarely onto ETS, saying that it was not fit for purpose. He also blamed the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) for failing to prevent the marking process spiraling into chaos and the Department for Children, School and Family (DCSF) for failing to react quickly when the problem came to light. The QCA’s chief executive, Ken Boston, resigned and the DCSF terminated ETS’s contract.

In August, the think tank Civitas reported on a survey by Anastasia de Waal of 107 secondary schools in which 79 per cent of Year 7 teachers found that up to a third of the children who had just moved up from primary school were less able than their key stage two test results indicated. Most of them blamed teaching to the test in the primary school, which gave pupils an unnatural boost on the day.

But, of course, the government was expecting to replace the present SATs with the Making Good Progress tests which pupils take when their teachers think they are ready – and are set at single levels of the national curriculum. However in February it was reported that pupils in the extensive trials had not performed as well as expected. Then it was announced that the pass marks on these tests were to be lowered: they had been set at marks which demonstrated working securely at a level, now they would be set at marks indicating just reached the level – which is how SAT levels operate.

By June, Lord Adonis, one of the schools ministers, gave his view publicly that these new tests are not a certainty and he reckoned that they could add to the assessment burden on pupils! (He was moved out of the DCSF in October). In September, Chris Whetton, assistant director of the National Foundation for Educational Research, who had helped develop these new single-level tests, said that they would narrow the curriculum further, demotivate pupils and be less reliable than current tests. He considered that they are based on the false assumption that children’s learning is an ordered progression and that movement is always forward.

In December a survey by Manchester University of 465 teachers and heads found that 60 per cent of primary schools begin test preparation in the second half of the autumn term and in the second half of the spring term two-thirds of schools spent three or more hours a week drilling 10/11 year olds for the English, mathematics and science tests.

Targets and league tables

In July the TES revealed that many local authorities are setting key stage 2 targets for each ethnic group in their primary schools. For example, in 2008 in mathematics, averaging across all the authorities that produce these ethnic targets, it was expected that 86% Chinese, 83% White, 80% Asian, and 74% Black children will gain level 4 at KS2. An obvious difficulty with such target setting is that giving different targets for different ethnic groups can lead to teachers having different and unfair expectations for these groups.

Also in July government announced that schools are to be held accountable for their contribution to child well-being. Data is to be collected on a range of indicators such as children’s social skills and how safe and how healthy they feel. This information is to be published in September 2009 and will enable comparisons to be made between similar schools. It will clearly mean extra work for schools although no financial support to do it will be forthcoming. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers described it as just more boxes to tick. Since no existing indicators are being scrapped, this will mean that there will be 10 major ways of ranking schools at KS2.

In September a TES editorial brought together three reports showing that the age of targets failed.

First, a National Audit Office report concludes that there is no evidence that publishing league tables, or threatening struggling schools with “special measures” has any effect on school performance.

Second, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concludes that England’s pioneering use of benchmarking and target-setting has had little effect on school performance compared with other countries. …

A third example of the inadequacies of the approach is revealed in figures that show some local authorities “outperformed” their foundation stage profile benchmarks by huge margins. … The decision to set, in effect, 69 targets to measure the progress of five-year-olds is a perfect example of poor benchmarking which the auditor’s report says hinders professional effort. The target approach can only work, it concludes, if those expected to meet them believe they can affect the outcome being measured.

Listening to the Prime Minister and his schools chief Ed Balls this week, there is little sign that these criticisms will lead to change. The message for schools appears to be “more of the same”. …

There is now a powerful consensus that our school system is being held back by testing, targets and sanctions. A new approach is needed which gives teachers and school leaders the freedom and support to make the improvements everybody wants. The worry is that this government is not listening.


William Stewart, a senior reporter of the TES, wrote in February: Teachers probably choked on their cornflakes when they heard the news that a group of politicians will consider arguments for scrapping the national curriculum.

This referred to the announcement of the select committee for Children, Schools and Families, that it is to conduct an inquiry into the national curriculum – exploring whether it should exist, its purpose and how best to balance central prescription with flexibility at classroom level. This committee, consisting of 14 MPs from different political parties, is responsible for scrutinising government’s schools policy and recommending changes. But how much power can it exercise? Its recent call for reform of SAT testing was rejected by government.

Phil Willis MP, who was on the committee for three years, said to the TES: Schools policy was always written by Andrew Adonis (junior minister for schools) and the No 10 policy unit and imposed on the department. The agenda was centrally driven, without looking at the evidence, so the influence of the committee was minimal, to put it mildly.

Primary curriculum

In May the government, probably feeling threatened by the research-based Cambridge Review of primary education and the Parliament-based select committee review of the national curriculum, announced its own enquiry, to be led by Sir Jim Rose. He was asked, with support from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to advise on how the primary curriculum needs to change in order to:

• ensure all children gain a good grounding in reading, writing, speaking, listening and numeracy;

• offer schools greater flexibility to tailor teaching and learning for their pupils;

• allow time for primary school children to learn a modern foreign language;

• place greater emphasis on children’s personal development;

• support a smoother transition from play-based learning in the early years into primary school;

• encourage creativity and inspire a commitment to learning that will last a lifetime.

The government’s aim is to create a new primary curriculum that will raise standards further and help schools achieve the ambitions of the Children’s Plan and the outcomes of Every Child Matters. An interim report was called for in October 2008, final report in March 2009, and the new curriculum to be taught in primary schools from September 2011. His interim report proposed a reduction in the curriculum and reorganization of the 14 subjects in the erstwhile curriculum into six major areas of learning.

Robin Alexander, the Cambridge professor leading the non-governmental enquiry into primary education, was asked by the Commons select committee on education what impact he thought the Rose review would have. He said that in view of the very firm steer that government had given to Sir Jim there was skepticism about his review’s independence and its potential impact on the curriculum. Professor Alexander also said: Curriculum overload has been a problem for primaries since the national curriculum was first introduced in 1988. The problem, though, appears to have been greatly exacerbated by policies and initiatives introduced since 1997.

A professor of public sector management at King’s College London, Alison Wolf, pitched stridently into the debate in July, claiming that policy-makers have not questioned the purpose and content of the curriculum since the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988. She said: Since then, we have given remarkably and terrifyingly little thought to what education should actually be about. We spend huge amounts of time discussing and worrying away at delivery, management and assessment. But if you compare our discussions with those of the early 20th century, or the 19th, or indeed the Renaissance, what is missing is any consideration of what it means to be an educated human being.

Nappy curriculum

In August the TES carried out a survey of 1480 teachers asking about the new curriculum that the government is introducing in September for the under-fives. Almost 9 out of 10 teachers supported the proposals in general although many agreed with critics that certain foundation stage goals were too high, particularly those that said children should be able to form simple sentences by the age of five and use phonics to try writing. Two-thirds of the teachers surveyed felt that it would improve pupils’ overall experience and many commented that it might lead to more play-based and outdoor activities for children in nursery and reception classes. But there was concern about the workload that will arise from the demand for assessment of these pupils: teachers have to assess children’s progress against 117 statements using classroom observation.

Secondary curriculum

Curriculum change, giving schools more flexibility than before, started this year with the launch of the new 14-19 diplomas.


Stress on children in 2008

Every Child Matters was a government initiative, introduced in 2005, to get the various services providing for children – schools, hospitals, police and voluntary bodies – to co-operate in support of five aims for every child: be healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. In March 2008 the TES reported on its survey of 2,109 teachers which found that more than three-quarters of the teachers believe that pupils’ enjoyment of education is being damaged by the government’s methods for measuring and raising achievements – its tests and examinations.

Thank goodness that the same proportion reckoned that their pupils generally liked school, notwithstanding the test pressures.

Teachers call for a ban on primary homework was a TES headline in March summarizing a survey carried out by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL). It found that an overwhelming number of teachers say that their pupils get upset or stressed by homework, even though school policy and parental pressure demand it. Government guidelines say that 4/5-year-olds should be set one hour of homework each week – increasing to two-and-a-half hours for 10/11-year-olds.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of ATL said that much of pupils’ homework was a waste of time. She said that children from poorer homes were worst affected because they did not have access to books, computers or assistance from well-educated parents. She added: We have to tell parents that their children work extremely hard in school and come home tired. What they want from parents is some relaxation and fun. Parents should stop trying to be teachers.

So what was the government’s reaction? The Department for Children, Schools and Families defended the importance of homework, saying it helped young people to develop the skills and attitudes needed for successful, independent, life-long learning.

A month later the TES reported on a review of 16 years of academic research on homework which concluded that there is little link between how well primary pupils do in national tests and the amount of homework they are set.

Stress on teachers

A report from researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in April said that primary schools had been bedevilled by policy hysteria. It said that there had been too many initiatives, too many short-term responses to media scares, involving ever shortening cycles of reform, multiple innovations and frequent policy shifts. After analyzing many published research studies it was clear that many primary school teachers felt deskilled. They felt undermined and demoralized by the national curriculum and the national literacy and numeracy strategies.

In May a report of a survey carried out the year before by the Teacher Support Network said that more than two-thirds of teachers questioned had seen their physical health, professional performance and personal life suffer from stress, with more than a third taking time off to cope.

Stress on heads

But there was little doubt that the pressure on headteachers was greater. A survey commissioned by the General Teaching Council was summarized in a February TES headline as 10,000 heads to leave the red tape behind.

The survey also found that few young teachers are willing to replace the departing heads – because of the administrative workload. John Peck, 59, retiring after 20 years as head of a Nottinghamshire primary school, said The league tables and high-stakes accountability really do get you down. I don’t feel I could keep up this pace for much longer. So many of my colleagues are going at 55 now. Not many people stick it out to 60. I see too many of my colleagues going out through stress or forced out by the pressure.

Are heads really as vulnerable as football managers? asked a TES report in February. It said: Hundreds of heads have been forced out of their jobs in the past two years. Even “coasting” schools are under pressure. … More than ever, figures suggest, heads are falling victim to what has been called “football manager syndrome”. Greater accountability, inspections that increasingly target leadership and a drive on results are being blamed for a rash of premature departures at the top level. … Mick Brookes said the “witch-hunts” of the years when Chris Woodhead was chief inspector were “back with a vengeance” .

Evidence of this was that the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) had negotiated more than 150 compromise agreements for primary heads forced to resign from state schools between September 2007 and February 2008. John Dunsford, general secretary of the Association of College and School Leaders, said Too often, our members are only one poor inspection grade away from their P45.

The TES noted that the Education and Inspection Act of 2006 already meant no head was safe: it allows local authorities to intervene in ‘coasting’ schools, which do not have good value-added scores. Even if a school’s results are fine the head’s head could be on the block. It went onto say that heads and unions are also increasingly concerned that inspectors and school improvement teams are not taking schools’ social circumstances into account and setting unrealistic targets and deadlines that ultimately prove destructive. Pointedly, it added: We cannot continue to ignore the human face of education and allow highly skilled people to be thrown on to the scrap heap in order for local authorities to appear tough.

A measure of the stress put on headteachers by government was the disclosure by the House of Lords Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee that in 2006-7 the Department for Education and Skills (as it was then called) introduced 135 changes to laws for headteachers to act on. In the month of July in 2008, the new Department (DCSF) produced 30 regulations for schools!

Are primary headteachers an endangered species, asked Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers in an angry article in the TES in February. He said we must ask why increasing number of heads are being hounded out of office, or simply giving up through sheer despair.

There is an increasing anxiety among my colleagues about malevolent inspection teams (local and national) arriving armed with contextual value-added (CVA) data and making judgements about schools from afar. The analysis of the situation is correct: people are not applying for headships because they see it as bound by bureaucracy and they feel vulnerable. Why would a young deputy apply for a headship in a challenging area with all the risks that entails when they have a family and a mortgage?

We have been waiting for 11 years and we have the same outmoded inspection system, the same depressing assessment systems and the same naming, blaming and shaming culture. And standards are stuck. If we are to progress, things must be done differently. …

We are at a crucial point in the direction of travel, and we must ask whether this government is at last going to be brave enough to re-think its approach to school leadership.

Demonstrating his primary-school-teacher ability to find a creative and apt metaphor, Brookes ends his polemic with this thought for government:

Turning up the heat still further will simply boil the frogs already in the water, and dissuade those on the outside from jumping in.

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This page was last edited on 29 July 2009