‘Education has become something to be endured. A new generation is coming up that’s internalising the rules of our achievement-based society.’
So said the historian Rutger Bregman in his 2019 book, Humankind.
Three years later and the recent White Paper has set the tone for the decade to come. A further decade of endurance. Despite all the earlier soundings coming out of Ofsted, that the curriculum is the progression model, and that raw data is worth as much as a Russian holiday, this all comes to nothing if we continue to internalise the rules of our achievement-based society.
Here’s another quote.
‘They can’t be an active citizen if they can’t read and write’…‘they will fail in life.’
This was Nick Robinson from the BBC on Monday morning when interviewing two headteachers about the said White Paper. Now I’m sure he was asking this in devil’s advocate mode, to be rather mischievous, but the truth is it belies a degree of ignorance. In fact, the media’s ignorance of our children, families, and society during this pandemic has been a notable feature.
Because here is the truth. A child could miss the standardised score in Year 6 by a couple of marks but still be a fluent reader, a competent mathematician, and a better writer than many journalists. The bar is very high. In no way does it signify that someone is illiterate. The child may lack some test technique, or struggle with some of the more complicated vocabulary, but they will be able to read. I know because I work with many of them.
And this is the problem with the emphasis on numbers – it divides pupils into winners and losers. Far from levelling up, it elevates those that have had the benefit of a stable first 1000 days in life, and castigates the others who have not. Why? Because this second grouping typically require more time to develop, more time to master the disciplines of comprehension and reasoning, and will get there eventually in the hands of committed teachers and loyal parents who provide stability and order. They are in no way unintelligent, and certainly not illiterate.
Writing they and their schools off in such fashion is the very opposite of levelling-up.
And then we have those children with special educational needs. What of they? Can they not aspire to being ‘active citizens’? Will they ‘fail in life’? Honestly. The very people who think these things then go home and proclaim themselves champions of inclusivity. It’s grotesque.
Our school has a third of pupils with special educational needs, and some will read and write well enough to gain their standardised score. But most won’t, for very complicated reasons. However, I can assure you their progress will be remarkable. I am intensely proud of them and in no way think of them as failures.
But it gets worse. Because the vulgar separation of children at age eleven will also trigger further unintended consequences.
I’ll never forget interviewing a group of Y6 pupils in a school whilst on inspection (I have now resigned from that role). One girl actually cried as she told me how much she loved science but that ‘we haven’t done science now for two years’. Instead she was subjected to cramming for the standardised tests. Such is the fear that shrouds some headteachers and trust leaders, that this curriculum narrowing will only intensify in the decade to come.
And what of SEND? Well, which idiot would take in large proportions of children with severe learning difficulties if they, and by association your school, are to be labelled ‘failures’?
Errm, well that’s me I suppose, and a few other eejits out there. This might just further create a two-tier system where some primary schools become hybrid primary/special schools, whilst others pursue a more homogenous demographic in order to reach the mythical 90% target.
The DfE and Ofsted can talk all they want about data being just a ‘starting-point for discussion’ or simply an ‘aspiration’, but that’s not how it works in real life. It will narrow the curriculum still further and continue to neuter any attempt to create a truly comprehensive and diverse intake. This will lead to division, ghettos and inequality on a scale double what we have at the moment.
I say it again, it’s the very opposite of levelling up.
I’ll finish by reflecting on the experience of some of my pupils this week. Not all Year 6, but certainly some, have just returned from a schools’ skiing trip to Italy. After a Sunday rest, they’ve gone to Chester Zoo to adopt an animal for a pupil activism group that they founded. In addition to their lessons this week, they then have various people from employment coming to give them bite size insights into the World of Work. They finish the week by performing in a string orchestra on the Liverpool Philharmonic stage with professional musicians, playing a song that they themselves composed, conducted by the RLPO’s principal conductor Domingo Hindoyan. It is the very opposite of enduring an education.
Some of these children will probably pass their reading and maths in May.
But if they come up just short, they will never ever be failures in my eyes.