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Mark Ellse: There is no quick fix in education

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If you have an 11-year-old, you’ll be aware that just about half of them will be told over the next few days that they are not good enough. In the latest Key Stage 3 SATs for primary school children, 47 per cent of them have ‘not reached the required standard’ in reading, writing and mathematics. What a contrast this is to last year when 80 per cent reached the standard. What on earth has happened? Is it a triumph for the Gove-Morgan quick-fix-improvement-to-education regime or the opposite? To understand, let’s think of how we got here.

Since Keith Joseph’s time, almost all secretaries of state for education have had the view that, if only they screamed at teachers loudly enough, everything in schools would be so much better. It hasn’t really mattered which party was in power. David Blunkett was just as good at screaming at teachers as Keith Joseph. And, when one stands back a little, one sees that the effect of all this intervention, by whatever party, has been the same. The party in power has always claimed tremendous progress in education but more or less nothing obvious has changed. Employers, and pundits, complain that children lack basic skills and, the most important area in which educational failure is evident, there continues to be a good proportion, well in excess of 10 per cent, of children who leave school with terribly weak basic skills.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the current GCSE is much easier than the old O-level. That’s not too surprising because O-levels were designed for the top 10 per cent of the ability range and GCSEs have been designed for the whole ability range. And, if one is of that sort of mindset, it isn’t too hard to get on one’s soap box and use this patently obvious difference between O level and GCSE to argue that the whole world is going to the dogs. After a few drinks with like-minded friends, one can see an idea forming to general agreement: ‘exams have got easier; standards have fallen; let’s make the exams harder and standards will rise.’

And so the word became policy. As Michael Gove said in 2014: ‘…above all – higher standards….they’re giving our children a better start in life…behind each of these changes is one simple belief. It’s the belief in higher standards for all…It’s the belief that any child – and every child – can succeed.’

Except they haven’t all succeeded.

So far as GCSEs are concerned, one can only prophesy what will happen because the new GCSEs will not be examined until 2017. But this year the gung-ho let’s-fix-education-overnight attitude has been applied to Key Stage 3 SATs for 11-year-olds. The old ‘low standards’ exams have been thrown out and new ‘much higher standards’ examinations introduced. Instead of the well-understood methods of developing general English skills by a broad curriculum of free reading and writing, English teaching has been funnelled into prescriptive grammar. Children have been expected to master abstruse irrelevances like identifying the difference between a preposition or a subordinating conjunction, something that the schools minister Nick Gibbs was unable to do. Similar nonsense has been going on in maths where the questions have been made harder, with the result that children haven’t had time to become confident in basic arithmetic before being baffled with harder topics.

After thirty years of authoritarian management, primary teachers are nothing if not obedient. To a man (woman, mostly) they have they have tackled the process of teaching grammar instead of building the general English skills that they would have taught last year. They have followed the new mathematics curriculum meticulously.  Since the new system is a revolution and has been inadequately piloted, schools, headteachers, teachers, children and parents didn’t have a clue what the pass marks for the papers were going to be like so they were all working in the dark. Secondary schools, which do all their forward planning on the preliminary data that primary schools provide well before SATs are taken, have been unable to plan for their new intake. Teachers have done their best but it has been chaotic.

And now, nearly half of the children have failed. Mr Gove’s words come to mind again: ‘It’s the belief that any child – and every child – can succeed.’ Very fine words, Mr Gove.

Thank goodness there is a leadership election. Nicky Morgan will be relieved because it will distract attention and help her with the hard sell that she has, explaining to half the primary children and their parents why the system she is in charge of has failed them. At a higher level, there are more important issues around at the moment but someone might notice that, however well articulated he is, however forceful his implementation, however convincing his rhetoric, Michael Gove is no different from most of his predecessors in the Department for Education. There is no educational quick fix and his claims to have found one are merely hot air.

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Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse
Mark Ellse is a physicist and author. He is a former headmaster, independent school inspector and A level chief examiner.

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