Ever since New Labour was elected, they have sought to dictate to schools what to teach and even how to teach it. Policed by the threatening machinery of OFSTED inspections and league tables of SATS and GCSE results, schools have been bullied into following each new instruction imposed by Ministers and Whitehall officials.
But these central directives have been set with little or no reference to the views of classroom teachers and their unions. The growing evidence of the distorting effect of SATS, forcing schools to ‘teach-to-the-test’ to boost their league table position, has been ignored by the Government. A generation of pupils has been brought up in schools where overworked teachers too often have to sacrifice the enjoyment of learning, and the careful building of real understanding and self-confidence in youngsters, in the drive to achieve the sole goal of reaching narrow exam targets.
These fears have been confirmed in a major independent enquiry into primary education led by Professor Robin Alexander and the Cambridge Review group. It provides a damning indictment of the damaging effect of Government directives on the primary curriculum.
The Review confirms that the main cause of educational underachievement is not school ‘failure’ but poverty. Schools work hard to meet the needs of their communities. Yet, the report concludes that schools’ successes are made despite government policy, not because of it.
It recommends extending play-based early years curriculum approaches until the age of six, in line with most other countries, to prevent the long-term damage to confidence and learning that can come from trying to enforce formal learning too soon. It calls for a widening of the curriculum with more room for teachers to develop their own initiatives. It concludes that league tables are so flawed that they give no valid information about schools and that SATS tests should be scrapped.
The review covers many other areas, including raising concerns about the inadequate support for children with special educational needs and the need to increase funding to allow for more specialised teaching in primary schools. While some of its recommendations (for example calling for a shorter summer holiday!) might cause debate in staffrooms, it is a review based on educational expertise and research, unlike so much imposed policy.
The Review complains about the political interference in education where “discussion has been blocked by derision, truth ... supplanted by myth and spin”. Yet, predictably, the Government response has been further derision!
As detailed argument and research is being ignored by Labour and Tories alike, it will take trade union action to defend education. The Review provide further good reasons for teachers to vote to support a boycott of SATs in the ballot being issued to all primary-based NUT members in early November.
There has been real frustration that plans to implement a SATs boycott agreed at Easter’s Annual Conference have been delayed and that the November ballot is only an ‘indicative’ preparation for a further ballot. Such a formal ballot would have to be held after many schools were already well into their preparations for the 2010 SATs. Nevertheless, it is essential that teachers vote for a boycott if we are going to start to repair the educational damage described in the Cambridge Review.