A report from the 2013 National Education Conference
This annual event gives delegates a chance to reflect on the broader ideological agenda underlying Government attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions – and on children’s education.
This year’s Conference is entitled “Does every child still matter?”. As Christine Blower rightly pointed out in opening the event, of course, for teachers, every child always mattered. However, it’s quite clear that the success of only a select few matter to this Government. Without jobs to offer to our youngsters, they are seeking to ration education by making it harder to achieve examination success.
As an article by Dr Rona Tutt in the NUT’s latest “Education Review” points out, “there is nothing wrong with politicians being ambitious as long as they realise that simply making standards harder to reach does not, in itself, mean that children will become more able to reach them …. increasing the pressure on pupils and those who teach them can be counterproductive” [unless, I would add, increasing ‘failure’ is, in fact, your actual objective].
Michael Gove is also trying to enforce a dull fact-laden curriculum on maintained schools that will make it even harder for teachers to inspire a love of learning, particularly to pupils from the poorest backgrounds. It could even attract some maintained schools to become Academies so as to be ‘free’ of Gove’s ‘National Curriculum’.
Another article in the Education Review, by Carl Parsons, concludes from research that the ‘school effect’ could contribute to perhaps just ten per cent of attainment. Poverty, or “the cumulative disadvantage of low income, tiredness, lack of time, lack of space, poor diet, poorer health and lower parental educational attainment,” plays a much greater part in deciding educational outcomes. Yet these facts are conveniently forgotten by politicians – and Ofsted inspectors – determined to blame teachers for problems that have much more to do with the failure of the UK Government to tackle child poverty and growing inequality in our society.
A session led by Professor Colin Richards spelt out how the pseudo-science of ‘Ofsted grades’ was based, at best, on subjective and tentative evidence rather than any objective measurement of a teacher’s worth. Colin pointed out how an individual lesson ‘grade’, just like pupil attainment, was subject to so many factors outside a teacher’s control (including their nerves!).
Yet classroom observations and pupil attainment results are being used to make judgements on schools, and to make judgements on teachers’ pay-rises. Colin pointed out that genuine inspection was more akin to an ‘art’ than a ‘science’ and involved complex judgements over-time, which should be linked to supportive advice and feedback, not ticking-off against a list of Ofsted criteria.
Two school leaders, both NUT members, explained their views and experiences of Ofsted. Susan Penney, a primary headteacher from Lancashire explained how her school’s recent inspection was carried out by an inspector with a sales background who had never taught in her life! Baljeet Ghale, a previous NUT President now teaching in Tower Hamlets, reminded the Conference of her Presidential speech where she had called for all inspectors to be practising teachers with recent experience.
Another delegate who had been at the receiving end of Ofsted a few days ago reported that attempts to ask for feedback had been rudely refused by the inspectors. Ofsted act to bully and undermine schools, and certainly not to advise and support teachers.
At an afternoon workshop that I attended, subject specialists in Design and Technology and Citizenship reported on their tortuous efforts to persuade civil servants to revise the original draft plans for Gove’s new National Curriculum after they were released in February. In both cases, the original drafts had been absolutely dire, produced from within the DfE with little or no consultation with teaching professionals. The citizenship draft had read like the content of an old ‘civics’ exam and the technology draft had been an outdated craft-based syllabus.
As in several other subject areas, lobbying had achieved some successes. The Design and Technology Programme of Study is certainly much improved. However, the lobbying was helped by business and industry also being critical of Gove’s original proposals. Improvements in Citizenship had been more limited. After all, while Gove may want to listen to business concerns, he certainly doesn’t value schools teaching genuinely ‘critical thinking’, especially about the real reasons for problems with public finances!
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The final session, on education in Wales, confirmed how these data-driven policies were an international phenomenon. Welsh teachers had been proud of the fact that their schools were not subjects to SATs and league tables, unlike schools in England. However, annual national reading tests from Year 2 to Year 9 had been introduced from this year together with a totally unreliable ‘banding’ of schools to compare them unfairly into ‘successes’ and ‘failures’. Education Minister Leighton Andrews had angered teachers by echoing Gove’s criticism of teachers and refusal to accept that lack of school funding and child poverty were significant factors in attainment outcomes.
Leighton Andrews has been forced to resign but, of course, this was a Labour politician carrying out Tory policy. Shadow Education Minister Stephen Twigg has also made clear that he accepts much of Gove’s educational ideology too. While some speakers implored the Union to work harder in lobbying politicians, the reality is that it will be our collective strike action that will have the greatest effect. Surely, after the debacle over Falkirk and Milliband’s attacks on UNITE, it’s also time for trade union leaders to recognise that they have a duty to rebuild our own political representation, independent of the main pro-business parties sitting in Parliament.
The Conference continues tomorrow with sessions looking at Inclusion and on ‘Breaking the Mould’, reporting on a project to tackle gender stereotypes in primary schools.