Let’s get something clear from the start: children should learn times tables at primary school. They should have them thoroughly memorised so that they can spend their mental energy on problem solving; there is absolutely no contradiction between memorisation and creativity. Moreover, this process is not always going to be fun and there is hard work involved (although I have seen schools make the recitation of tables look quite jolly).
It is important to get this out of the way in responding to this weekend’s ill-informed, brutal and cheap announcements. It is a home goal to get distracted with the progressive/traditional debate when something much more important is happening. This weekend the sheep’s clothing of reconciliation was removed to reveal the wolf of government policy. For all the warm words on workload it is still the stick not the carrot that they choose to wield.
An aside on workload: schools are already preparing for stringent new tests, based on the new national curriculum, due for implementation in 2016. Are we ripping these tests up and starting again? As we await the government’s response to the workload challenge, and as most teachers blame the constant churn of short term government initiatives for excessive workload, this is quite a feat of self-contradiction.
Back to my main thread though. In violation of not only employment law but common sense, head teachers were threatened with sacking if any child fails in the KS2 SATs for more than one year in a row. I’ve seen some backtracking on what ‘any’ means since, but the spin doctors knew exactly what they were briefing. Sacking featured heavily in their original briefings, as I know from journalists’ calls on Friday night.
I think we should aim to ensure that every child reaches very high standards. I don’t think a child’s background offers any excuse. But with the best will in the world, and the best teaching in the world, there will still be times that young children do not perform as well in a short, high stakes test as they should. There will also be children that otherwise competent schools have failed to reach. Schools certainly need to raise their game in these circumstances, whether they should be closed down or converted is another matter entirely.
It is all too easy to sound defeatist in presenting these arguments, which is what the government relies on to score easy points. Perhaps a life and death comparison can put it into perspective. Not every patient survives surgery. Every surgeon wants to improve their mortality rate, and surgeons with unusually high mortality rates rightly come under scrutiny, but no one talks about firing surgeons if a single operation does not succeed. This is not particular sympathy with surgeons but rather because they know what the result would be: no one would perform risky operations that pioneer new medical practice.
The analogy with education is apt. We want our most talented teachers and leaders to seek out the most challenging schools; we want them to welcome in the pupils with the greatest need; we do not want them to play safe. These punitive measures punish those with the strongest moral compass. It is increasingly difficult to recruit head teachers in even the most stable environments and the government is spending millions to try to get people to lead the most challenging schools. It has shot itself in the foot today.
Once again, though, you don’t need to be sympathetic to head teachers to appreciate this argument. It is not good education policy to make it impossible for good people to dedicate their careers to the most challenging circumstances. It is not good for pupils for the stakes to be so high that the final years of primary school are characterised by relentless cramming for tests.
We should aspire for the highest standards for every pupil; schools should strive to improve every year; it is good to be challenged to make sure you are doing everything you can and sometimes that is uncomfortable. But we have to set goals that are stretching but within reach. We have to inspire confidence and optimism among those who work in schools, for that will bring out their greatest efforts. We need a debate between policy makers and professionals that is not conducted through cheap shots and slogans. Our government has failed in this and damaged its reputation once again with those who work in schools. Who knows what damage the rest of ‘education week’ in the election campaign will cause.
Russell Hobby is General Secretary of NAHT