Sunday, 18 October 2009


I have received the following excellent article from Nick Grant,an executive member of the National Union of Teachers who lives in Wembley. Although not a member of the Green Party, Nick was a major force in getting the NUT Executive to unanimously agree a resolution supporting the greening of the economy and mobilisation for the UN  Copenhagen Climate Talks.

Spare The Child

The 2009 Trade Union Congress in Liverpool approved a motion entitled ‘Democratic Deficit’ from the top civil servants’ union the First Division Association (FDA). Their job is to process the decisions of Parliament, making legislation workable for us citizens. But they are fed up with trying to implement unworkable, fanciful, highly ideological but mostly illogical laws.

Thus their first demand was that politicians of all democratic parties should “ensure that government policy decisions are supported by objective analysis and consultation.” What an illuminating indictment of the UK constitution this is, to suggest for those with ears to listen that our laws arise otherwise.

Such elemental roots of governmental purpose and methodology have clearly withered in the mother of all parliaments. There is seemingly little grasp of reality or engagement with relevant stakeholders by lawmakers.

Of no sphere is this more true than education, and no greater proof of the FDA’s pertinence is needed than last week’s Ministerial responses to the Cambridge Primary Review.

There simply has not been a more exhaustive analysis of primary schools in England and Wales since the Plowden Report of 1967. It has been edited by Robin Alexander, a former assistant to Chris Woodhead at OFSTED, now Professor at Cambridge University’s School of Education, and chaired by Dame Gillian Pugh. The book’s title is, “Children: Their World, Their Education”.

The Cambridge Primary Review in numbers
20 on its advisory group
14 authors
66 consultants
28 research surveys
250 focus groups
1,052 written submissions
3 years to complete
608 pages in final report
75 recommendations for change

Yet because it does not fully endorse current practices or suggest changes that suit current prejudices it has been either disregarded or trashed by politicians. They know best.

Labour Minister Vernon Coaker complained that it is already out-dated and that their own review by Sir Jim Rose is superior. He disparaged the review’s findings as “a backward step”. Tories have rejected the calls for a postponement of formalized learning by a year and a changed curriculum.

In contrast National Union of Teachers leader Christine Blower spoke for thousands of school workers, parents and kids when she said that; "It is absolutely extraordinary that the Government has decided to ignore the Cambridge Review recommendations. Any government worth its salt, particularly in front of an impending General Election, would have embraced this immensely rich report as a source of policy ideas.”

The government commissioned its own primary review under Sir Jim Rose, to head off the impact of the likely Cambridge recommendations. Central to Rose’s brief was an instruction not to research the SATs. Yet it is impossible to find one educational professional who believes that SATs are either fit for purpose or beneficial. Some parents may support them because they think that without SATs they would not know how their child is progressing. But no teacher opposes assessment per se. It is both an intuitive and formal component of learning.

The Cambridge Review rightly distinguishes between assessment for accountability, and assessment for learning.

What anti-SATs campaigners have railed against since 1992 has been their non-educational purpose. Author Alan Gibbons wrote in the Times Education Supplement of August 8 2008: “ At best, they have proved largely irrelevant to the task of raising standards in literacy. At worst, they have been an expensive distraction. Endless stale rehearsals for snap shot tests will not improve the situation. We urgently need to change course and concentrate on reading and writing for pleasure. In education engagement is everything. Nothing disengages children more effectively than the current SATs regime.”

Instead the core purpose of SATs has been to provide the crudest of currencies by which a school can be measured in a competitive marketplace. They are narcissistic proof to jobsworth politicians that they are ensuring value for money when committing funds to these particular public services.

SATs are the central cog in the neoliberalisation of schooling. SATs produce the League Tables, which create the demand for places, which puts bums on seats, which determines school budgets, which determine school human and other resources which produce…well, what is produced?

Sir Robin Alexander’s team has now conclusively catalogued the government’s Emperor’s New Clothes deceit that thousands of school-workers, parents and children have known only too well for 17 years.

SATs produce stressed-out kids and staff, with minimal value as a guide to past or future learning. SATs-related work has overtaken the curriculum time previously available for more creative work, languages and sport. The concept and practices of play have been more or less eradicated.

The classical Marxist concept of alienation has not been explicitly cited by the Cambridge Review, but it has recorded all the symptoms of it. Like cars or chocolate bars coming off a conveyor-belt, children have been commodified, reduced to a relation between things not people, reified not even by name but as National Curriculum Level this or that. The teacher-learner relationship has been prostituted.

One consequence for those staff who have not fled this lunacy, bullying has become the default educational management mode because, as the FDA insist, consent is hard to win when the statutory obligations fit so poorly with reality. Madness is a sane response, the inarticulate speech of so many broken hearts.

One of Lady Bridget Plowden’s recommendations forty-two years ago was to outlaw corporal punishment of kids by teachers. We now need to outlaw the mental torture of teachers and students by government.

In particular we need to reverse the push to start formalised learning earlier and earlier in the face of overwhelming evidence from the rest of Europe to the contrary. Finland is the world’s most eminent national educational system. Kids there have a kindergarten education until their seventh year. Yet even normally sharp journalists like The Observer’s Barbara Ellen have completely misunderstood the report’s recommendation to delay formal schooling by a year, believing that it is a middle-class yearning for mothers to stay home with their growing kids. It isn’t. It is a plea for a more humane and socialised sense of child development within a school context.

This is especially crucial for the most needy of families. Alexander puts great emphasis on Labour’s failure, despite all sorts of rhetoric and spin, to relieve the plight of the poor. The last thing that malnourished, hopeless infants need is an OFSTED-policed Early Years skills test.

An additional contradiction of government clap-trap concerns the space given by Alexander’s report to children’s views. They are shown as articulate and aspirational in a full and well-rounded sense, whereas the institutionalised notion of ‘Student Voice’ promulgated by Ministers is a consumerist, restricted version that abhors criticism and celebrates conformism. Thus students are often encouraged to evaluate the success or failure of teachers, but not of testing, funding or curricula.

Another aspect of children’s testimony in the report concerns a sense of worry about the planet’s future. The ecological catastrophe looming before us if ignored by world governments, should have already taught us that there is a fundamental urban estrangement from nature that distorts the general quality of human life. The Woodcraft Folk have known this for eighty years.

The ‘Sense of Wonder’ that US scientist Rachael Carson wrote about in 1964, and what contemporary educationalist Richard Louw systemises as a ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book ‘The Last Child In The Woods’, are implicit in the Cambridge Review even though its recommendations about greater access to outdoor space are modest.

What is being done to teachers and schools is also happening to social workers and other childcare professionals. Reactionary witch-hunts in the wake of Baby P - type cases obscure the penny-pinching carelessness of government-imposed systems. Its anti-scientific methods only value research which confirm Ministers’ a priori beliefs, and exclude practitioners from their design because of what is derogatively called “producer interest”.

So let’s re-build the battered confidence of everyone connected to child development. Let’s thank both the FDA and the Cambridge Review for trying to put the brakes on the runaway train of government, crushing the life out of its most innocent citizens. The fact that both voices emanate from deep inside the establishment makes their whistle-blowing that much more shrill.

October 2009

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