the end of sats for 13 14 year olds ‐ october 2008

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					The end of SATs for 13 / 14 year olds – October 2008

Some good news about the English education system at last? It would be, if it
heralded an understanding of why those tests had to go. Not because of teachers
reluctance to be assessed. Not because “some teacher‟s didn‟t fancy having the
attainment of their pupil‟s measured”, to quote Jack Straw, answering a question on
Jonathan Dimbleby‟s “Any Questions” on Oct 17th and 18th. Even he thought his
teacher sisters‟ would say to their pupils “Hey, kids! The government has at last done
what teachers have been asking for.

So, how is it that teachers and most members of the public have recognised the
dangers of over-testing and government ministers have not? That “Any questions?”
programme and its follow up “Any Answers?” gave us an insight. The questioner had
asked “How do I explain to my Year 9 class that the SATs we were preparing for
were very important on Monday but abolished as an irrelevance on Tuesday.”

Jack Straw believed that SATs had had to be introduced by Keith Baker because the
system was failing its pupils. By knowing the attainment of their schools, the
government began what Straw described as a “relentless drive to increase
standards”. It had worked, he claimed. The number of youngsters in Blackburn, his
constituency, achieving 5 A-C grades at GCSE at 16 years of age had risen from
one third to two thirds in 10 years.

Brian Cox, Professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, had an interesting
response to that. “If a government measures the success of its policies by the
number of people who pass an examination there will follow an inevitable downward
pressure on standards. It does not follow that quality will rise because people simply
aim to achieve the desired targets.” “To judge the success of academic institutions
you need a better way, a way without exams, exams, and more exams.”

It was heartening to hear him say “Education is not about teaching children to pass
an exam but helping them to be functioning adults, learning about the achievements
of our wonderful civilisation and preparing them to be inquisitive.” Universities, he
said, have to “dismantle the mindset which asks „what do I have to do to get a first
class honours degree?‟” If you ask that, you are asking the wrong question and
might as well not be in a university.

“Any Answers? was flooded by responses. They ranged from “Thank God” from a
retired teacher and from a 13 year old pupil, to accounts of children spending at least
half a term just practising SATs papers. A grandparents asked, “What is the
problem? Are teachers not to be trusted or are schools too big to keep track of their
pupils or are all teachers too poor to plot progress? None of those are a good reason
for the resulting stress and narrow curriculum. Lily, a student who has escaped the
Key Stage 3 SATs asked “what about those who do really well in Art and Drama?
Those subjects don‟t seem to count and are pushed aside.” She confirmed what
Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, had said, “the curriculum has
lost creativity while the Chinese have recognised that industry and commerce cannot
thrive without it.”

The questioner‟s own reply had been “We have started to study Romeo and Juliet
and I said to my pupils „we are going to carry on but we will enjoy it much more‟”.
His views were reflected by Daphne Clark from Richmond who responded to Any
Answers?. When SATs were introduced she had to change from teaching three
texts, one a modern one, to concentrate on one Shakespeare play. We “did it to
death” she said. The only way to cope with the questions was to dictate appropriate
answers. “There was no time to teach how to think or to stimulate or give a love of
literature.” “Teachers were trusted in those days and we had time to get to know our
pupils individual needs”. That is an interesting comment in times when “personalised
learning” is a Government focus. Mary Lloyd spoke movingly of teaching with 80% of
her pupils suffering from one kind of deprivation or another. By carefully planned and
targeted teaching her school had steadily built confidence through the five years to
GCSE and raised the achievement to the national average. SATs ended all that.
Confidence flew out of the window with the disappointment of SATs results. The two
years to GCSE were not enough to overcome the setback, whilst for the able pupils
there was no more discussion of ideas or exploration of language. Teaching had to
be reduced to concentration on the plot.

“If the goal of education is to pass examinations you miss the point about education.”
Brian Cox had said and his fellow panellists and the respondents illustrated his point
admirably.

Oct 17th newspapers gave us official figures which reveal that only 3 in 10 school-
leavers score a C or more in languages, perhaps not so surprising when you
remember that languages were made optional for 14 year olds in 2004. So numbers
studying a language fell by more than a third, even though Arabic, Chinese,
Japanese, Turkish, Russian and Polish numbers increased along with Spanish. The
Government solution is to propose new half courses, one without any speaking and
another in speaking and listening alone. Dumbing down? Even in the basic
Mathematics and English where the focus has been tightest, fewer than half the
pupils this year achieved an A-C grade, indeed though Ministers insist that trends
show “sustained improvement”, figures for the core subjects are rising more slowly
than other subjects. The new secondary curriculum does have increased flexibility.
Teachers and those who care about children have, like Jude Kelly and the young
Lily, been asking for that flexibility to allow creativity to return, time for the Arts, time
to study in depth and to think. But that is not what the flexibility is for. It is “for schools
to focus on the three Rs.”
Without reading any educational research or studying the findings of those who work
on how the brain learns, we all know that learning does not happen unless the
student is engaged, motivated and stimulated to take responsibility for themselves.
Just dip into that research, read John Abbott‟s “Overschooled and Undereducated”
and the findings are compelling. Awaken a child‟s curiosity, imagination and interest
in learning before they enter formal school. Teach the basics in the early years with
small groups and lots of support and fun, while a child‟s brain is soaking up all it
comes across. Then, with basic skills and enthusiasm in place, pupils can stand on
their own feet. With teachers who see their responsibility as “opening the windows of
their minds and letting them fly, letting their dreams breathe”, (another quote from
Daphne Clarke), in a learning environment rich in adults other than teachers they
thrive. She said “Children are disillusioned, disaffected”, and continued “Learning is
for life. It is for encouraging children to learn beyond the box the teacher puts the tick
in.”

We do indeed seem to have “lost the point of education”. In particular we seem to
have lost any sense of the importance of parents, family and community in the
process. Parents are at least responsible for the health of a child yet those same
newspapers on Oct 17th told us that in Telford and Wrekin NHS Trust area, 23% of
pregnant women were still smoking up to delivery. The Trust is to offer vouchers and
beauty treatments to encourage them to stop! Why do we have children at all if we
are not prepared to give them the best start in life that we can? On that same day a
study of 5 year olds, the Millenium Cohort Study of 15,000 children born between
2000 and 2002, told us that children who eat breakfast each day halve their risk of
obesity. It is the children of the jobless who are 3 times more likely to go without
breakfast. Is it an economic issue or one of remembering the children? Whatever the
reason there is no excuse.

TIME, that special way of spelling LOVE. Only 50% of mothers read to their children
each day that report tells us and for fathers, less than a fifth. The findings of the
world league table of reading at 10 years old last year, showing England 19th, cannot
be a surprise. The report concludes that living apart from natural mothers and/or
fathers can be associated with negative outcomes for children, academically and
socially. Parents are a child‟s first teacher, role model and the foundation upon which
they build their own concepts of fairness, love, security and support for others.
Consider another article on Oct 17th. Nicola Marfleet, governor of Pentonville Prison,
interviewed dozens of convicted and expelled teenagers to conclude in her report
that youths dismiss campaigns to discourage them from carrying knives, saying they
need to ”protect themselves and cannot rely on anyone else, not even the police, to
keep them safe”. Read “Ghosts from the Nursery” by Robin Karr-Morse.

Young people need more and deserve better. We need the skills and potential of all
teenagers to survive the current crisis in finance, resources, environmental
degradation, climate change and loss of civic responsibility and a common belief in
moral values. Oct 17th, one day‟s media presentations, full of wake-up calls, yet
failing to raise so much as a ripple in the lives of most people. If it were to solve
some of these problems, instead of to counter the poor publicity resulting from the
marking fiasco of this last summer‟s SATs that the government had reduced testing,
we might have cause to celebrate.

Janet Lawley, 19.10.08

				
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