The Tories are trying to take us back in time. They started with the economy – overseeing the longest fall in living standards in 50 years – now they’ve got their sights set on the education system. With a focus on more tests that are increasingly “rigorous” (read: morale sapping), an economic policy that will plunge more children into poverty and an education system that drives teachers away from the profession, the Government’s plans will make state-educated children in this country worse off.
This week, Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, has been lobbying for “robust and rigorous” tests for children at the age of seven (otherwise known as the reintroduction of SATs for this age group), and introducing measures to make sure children had “mastered the basics” before they leave primary school. Morgan’s plan translates into more tests. SATs at 7 were scrapped in 2004, and for good reason. This standardised testing system is not the answer; nor is making existing ones harder.
I’ve worked in the state system, and I’ve seen the toll SATs can take on young children; at times making them physically ill with stress. In year 6, classrooms run the risk of morphing from places of learning into stifling environments where far too much is focussed on teaching for the test.
In 2010, research by the Wellcome Trust and academics at Queen’s University Belfast took some radical steps to clear up the debate on SATS: they asked children their views. They found that while children liked testing, they didn’t like the SATs model – which doesn’t allow room for feedback or future opportunities to improve. SATs, they said, aren’t about the individual, just a score. This is going to get worse as English and Maths tests have become more stringent this year; the emphasis is on passing tests, not subject knowledge.
But Morgan and the Tories are experts in administering policies that disadvantage a worryingly high number of children and take us back to bleaker times. Wealth plays its part in how well children perform in the academic system; the poorer you are the worse you’re likely to do. The Tory’s cuts to tax credits will make this worse, plummeting 200,000 children into poverty when they come into force next April, the Resolution Foundation estimated once these brutal changes are fully implemented 600,000 children could be in poverty. Along with a myriad of other traumas, these changes will mean more children are likely will go to school hungry.
More pupils will also be set up to fail academically. With overworked, underpaid parents, poor children are disadvantaged from the offset. Research suggests that poor children hear around 600 words an hour, in comparison to 2,000 for well-off children. This inequality has taken root by the age 4; poor children have a listening vocabulary of about 3,000 words to 20,000 for their richer counterparts. Alongside children, low-paid support staff will be subjected to destitution under this aggressive cuts plan. The situation will be dire for too many children under the Tory’s swingeing cuts and more tests won’t do anything to help.
Another major problems for schools is the chronic shortage of teachers. Most of my friends work in the state system; though they love their job, they find it takes its toll. They work crippling hours, on average 60 hours a week; they’re put under an intense amount of stress by the target-driven culture; and work under the ominous performance-related pay system. Their workplace rights are being slowly eroded and their union lifeline is being torn to pieces by theGovernment’s trade union bill. No wonder so many people leave the job after five years and declining numbers want to dip their toe into this underappreciated, overworked profession.
Meanwhile, the Government are sneaking the idea of grammar schools back into the public consciousness as a positive. Last month, Morgan announced the Weald of Kent girls’ grammar school will be allowed to build a “satellite” school nine miles away from their campus. She claimed this didn’t breach the 1998 law, which prohibits the creation of new selective state schools. She also denied that this would pave the way for introducing new grammar schools that, contrary to popular belief, don’t increase social mobility. But Morgan would say that, wouldn’t she? It’s hard to put faith in the same people who promised they wouldn’t cut tax credits.
The Tories hinted at their disastrous vision of a country populated with academies, where corporations can intervene in the state education system should the Government so wish it, before the general election. This was just a glimpse of what they had in store for schools. From teaching staff to pupils, the state education system is under all-out attack while private schools are left to enjoy charitable status they shouldn’t have and grammar schools risk being ushered in through the backdoor.