[ProgressiveEd] For your attention

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Thu, 1 May 2003 14:49:21 +0000 (UTC)

Linda spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and thought you should see it.
To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to http://www.guardian.co.uk
Tested to destruction
The NUT has voted to boycott Sats. They are right to resist the tests-and-targets culture in our schools
Jenni Russell 
Sunday April 20 2003
The Observer
Pity poor Charles Clarke, he cannot be having a happy Easter. He was already so fed up with the NUT that he had decided to boycott their annual conference. Then, yesterday, the union voted unanimously to boycott the Sats for seven- to 14-year-olds. They agree with the most moderate teaching union, the ATL, that education has become a straitjacket, in which an impoverished curriculum and relentless testing are turning children away from learning. Clarke is likely to condemn the teachers' opposition as the moaning of a profession unwilling to raise standards, but his difficulty is that it is not just teachers who now believe there are serious problems with the government's approach to education. 
Take this comment, published last week: "Examinations here are the most    excessive in the world...we could get equally valid measurements of performance with less examination." That wasn't a resistant teacher; that was Ken Boston, the new head of the qualifications and curriculum authority. Last month, there was a call for the whole system of centralised control, testing and inspections to be dismantled because it didn't produce a well-educated population. It came from Chris Woodhead, the former head of Ofsted, and the man most strongly associated with driving the tests and targets agenda. Then, three weeks ago, Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools, made one of the most sobering interventions of all when he warned that half the nation's 16-year-olds were "failing to benefit from the education provided". Too many children, he said, were failing to learn and the rate of   failure "increases at every stage of education".  
It is, of course, largely the underprivileged who are being filtered out. They start school behind their peers, and for most of them the gap widens with every passing year. The tests cause huge stress but don't ensure effective learning. At seven, 11% of children fail to meet national standards. By the age of 11, 25% can't read or write properly. This means that when they reach secondary school, nearly 25% can't follow the curriculum: only 10% of these children go on to reach the government's target of five GCSEs.  
The irony is that Labour adopted and developed the Tory strategies of tests, targets and a national curriculum because it believed it would ensure that everyone, and not just the middle classes, would be guaranteed a good basic standard of education. It   didn't foresee that the rigidity of the curriculum, and the pressing need to meet statistical targets, would mean that children who didn't understand what they were being taught would simply get left behind. One dedicated teacher in a tough primary told me, in despair: "Two-thirds of my class can't follow what I'm teaching, and what I'm saying passes straight over their heads. But there's nothing I can do about it; the machine is moving on without them."  
Children begin to understand that the schools' primary purpose isn't to discover and develop their talents; it's their task to hit the targets set for schools. This continual emphasis on a narrow definition of success is profoundly alienating for all children, but particularly so for those who either haven't the ability, or   the support they need, to achieve it. Unsurprisingly, many of them disengage from a process that makes them feel worthless and clearly isn't giving them skills they'll need. It's one reason why the culture of violence and bad behaviour dominates so many inner-city schools. The government hopes to counter this process of disaffection by introducing greater freedom for vocational courses after 14, but much of the damage to pupils' attitudes has been done by then. The approach is fundamentally wrong.   
No one is well served now. Academic children aren't inspired or stretched, just overworked. University teachers complain that the students arrive without the intellectual curiosity or the background knowledge they had in the past. The introduction of AS-levels has narrowed the scope of teaching within each subject, while giving sixth formers less time for outside activities.  
The government's defence against these criticisms would be that standards are rising. But are they? Only a third of children pass GCSEs in the three core subjects. The Sats results at 11 show startling improvements over the first five years, yet other compelling evidence suggests the gains in literacy aren't real, but the result of teachers teaching to and, in some cases, cheating at, the tests. GCSE and A-level results are also improving every year but Durham   University's research using unchanging tests shows this is just grade inflation. Mathematical skills, for example, have been declining for a decade, and some universities now run remedial courses in English and maths because even those with GCSEs in those subjects can't cope.  
But even if this restrictive, unimaginative approach was getting more and more people through more and more exams, it still wouldn't make sense. Education should motivate and enrich every child. In a fast-changing world, we need people who are self-motivated, who have knowledge, skills, a pleasure in learning, and a questioning, entrepreneurial approach to their lives and their careers. How can we possibly get there from where we are now?  
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