Friday 31 March 2023

Nearly 50 years on, time for a new 'Great Debate' on education? Ofsted, high stakes testing, narrowed curriculum and a devalued profession all features of the current crisis


I was in my first year of teaching, as a mature entrant, almost 50 years ago in 1976 when the Prime Minister James Callaghan launched the 'Great Debate' on education in a speech at Ruskin College. LINK

That speech was the launchpad for the many changes that followed implemented by both Labour and Conservative governments, some good, some bad and often with unexpected consequences.

Today government attitudes towards teachers exemplified by the derisory pay offer are clear and contribute to low morale, demotivation and a recruitment and retention crisis. The role of Ofsted is under scrutiny as never before following the tragic death of a headteacher in the wake of an expected poor Ofsted judgement on the school that she cherished. Ofsted itself, despite claims of its independence is linked to Government policies including the high stakes testing found in primary schools, which in turn contributes to a narrowing of the curriculum and the loss of arts  subjects.  This is compounded by a school funding crisis that means such subjects are a low priority when it comes to allocating the school budget.

It is worth quoting Callaghan:

Everyone is allowed to put his oar in on how to overcome our economic problems, how to put the balance of payments right, how to secure more exports and so on and so on. Very important too. But I venture to say not as important in the long run as preparing future generations for life. RH Tawney, from whom I derived a great deal of my thinking years ago, wrote that the endowment of our children is the most precious of the natural resources of this community. So I do not hesitate to discuss how these endowments should be nurtured.


Let me answer that question 'what do we want from the education of our children and young people?' with Tawney's words once more. He said: 'What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.'

The campaign group 'More Than a Score' has undertaken research to see what parents wish for in terms of their children's education and their report concludes LINK:

It is wrong to use SATs results as shorthand for high standards in primary education. While test data may generate easy headlines, parents and school leaders understand that an 11-year-old’s tests results cannot provide an accurate picture of their overall academic abilities and should not be used as a blunt tool to measure standards.

These views — held by an overwhelming majority — are not reflected in current policy. Everyone who values children’s education believes in high standards, but it is time to change the language and shift the debate so that children’s learning, not data, is prioritised.

The report is extremely important at a time when government ministers justify their education policy, including Ofsted and SATs with the mantra 'we know this is what parents want' backed up with very little evidence. Callaghan called for a 'rational debate based on the facts' - More Than a Score's effort to intruduce some evidence into the discussion is very welcome.

Reacting to the report Rosamund McNeil, assistant general secretary off the National Education Union, said;  

The views of education staff and parents have been made clear in More Than a Score’s research – primary school SATs are not an indicator of educational standards, or whether a child is ready for secondary school.

Both parents and educators feel standards should be measured in better ways, such as engagement with a broad and rich curriculum, not limited to English and Maths. This is a standard our high-stakes system is failing to meet. Schools face incredible pressure from government to prioritise tested subjects which mean the arts, humanities, and sciences are being squeezed from the school week.

Children’s mental health should also be an indicator of standards. Engagement with, and excitement about learning is not well served by SATs preparation or the SATs pressure. Children deserve a fairer system which captures more of what they achieve and they contribute. Children should be looking forward to another day of primary school, where they feel inspired and happy to learn.

The NEU wants to see an assessment system that supports children's learning and gives meaningful information to parents and educators. The system needs to be redesigned to meet those standards, not the ones set by government to hold schools to account.

High Stakes Testing is just one aspect of the current crisis and the report (below) perhaps will start a process of evidence gathering that will contribute to a new debate.

No comments: