KIDS’ STRIKE 3RD MAY — THE BIGGER PICTURE
It takes a lot of courage for someone like me to take my children out of school for even just one day. I live life by the rules. I take pride when, at the end of a school year, my children get awarded 100% attendance certificates. I like good grades, high achievement, rules and regulations. I like boundaries. I like praise and approval. I’m a lawyer. I love these things. I learnt all this at school. I went to a private school where the pressure to do well was intense. It was later, much later, that I learnt to love learning for its own intrinsic value. At school I learnt to avoid punishment and seek out rewards. I worked for high grades, praise and gold stars.
So, when it came to removing my children from school to join the Let The Kids Be Kids protest against SATS I had to think very carefully. It was uncomfortable and uncharacteristic. I wanted the school’s approval. Fortunately, our Head Teacher came out trumps. On the Thursday before the protest she confirmed that, in such circumstances, their absences would be approved and recorded as “exceptional”. An exceptional absence is an authorised absence. We had the school’s approval.
I’m a lawyer. Did I mention that already? There’s something else lawyers like doing and that’s research. So, prior to Tuesday’s boycott, I did my homework, lots and lots of it, and this is what I found:
Nicky Morgan likes SATS. She likes SATS because she says they raise standards. So my first question, do they?
The jury’s out on whether SATS raise standards. The politicians say they do. The teachers say they don’t. Are the teachers biased? Not likely. Teachers aren’t motivated by rewards and punishments. They don’t need a big stick or a juicy carrot to do their jobs well. They’ve chosen a vocation (unlike lawyers); indifferently paid, hard work, long hours, not particularly prestigious. If the evidence for SATS driving up standards is flimsy at best and they’re opposed by the majority of the public (which they are) then why do politicians like them so much? This is where it gets really interesting and this is the narrative missed by the vast majority of the press.
Governments and businesses like data. They like to measure inputs and outputs. In schools, inputs are the resources used to educate children. Outputs are the effects on the children of the deployment of those resources. It’s easy peasy lemon squeezy to evaluate outputs using test scores so this is what the government does. Educational outcomes are the longer term impacts on children and society of all those resources (or lack thereof). Earnings are easy to measure so let’s measure those! Forget about the impact of education on morality, emotional, spiritual and physical development; forget about an individual’s participation in democratic self-governance and all the other intangible effects of education on an individual and society. The government can’t easily measure those things so it doesn’t care about them. The narrower the curriculum the cheaper it is to deliver and the easier it becomes to measure outputs. And there you have it. Well, some of it.
Most of the narrative in the press about the kids’ strike focused on tears before bedtime and sore tummies. I’m in no doubt that these tests are causing stress and trauma for many children and, for some, there could be a serious impact on their mental health. However, for me, this was not the only or even the most important reason to take part on Tuesday.
SATS this year have been made tougher than ever before. Why? Does Nicky Morgan really think that a more difficult test will improve standards? I’ll let you in on something. No she doesn’t! The government cares a bit about standards but it cares more about money and privatisation. The government actually wants our children to fail! This will create the perfect conditions to push through their privatisation agenda. Schools labelled as “failing” can be turned into academies quickly allowing the government to move forward with academisation at a faster pace. But is academisation the same as privatisation I hear you ask? I’ve used the terms interchangeably because — you bet it is and this is a global phenomenon. Yes, it is, it really is, a much bigger story than a bunch of mollycoddled middle class kids crying into their cornflakes before school although this is what the mainstream press (with a few notable exceptions) would have us believe.
Have you ever heard a government minister comparing standards in England to those in other countries? I would hazard a guess you probably have. Back in 2015 Nicky Morgan set a target for England to be the best in Europe and in the top five globally for English and Maths by 2020. Governments the world over, not just ours, have become obsessed with their ranking in PISA league tables. These league tables are compiled every three years by an organisation called the OECD. The problem (and this has been pointed out by a whole host of academics) is that the OECD is an economic organisation. Their tests are narrowly focused on easily measurable aspects of education and have an economic bias. SATS in turn focus narrowly on the skills that will be tested by the OECD which determine our global ranking and that is nearly all the government cares about.
And, there are more sinister forces at work. When a country’s ranking drops, multinationals move in (in alliance with the OECD) to deploy their “educational services” for profit. This has happened on a vast scale in America and it will happen here too if our schools are turned into academies operated by private companies procuring curriculums and test delivery. This is profiteering. This is the big picture. This hurts our children and our society.
The American story is frighteningly similar to ours. Once upon a time there were locally accountable public schools. They were tested by the OECD (in a few narrow areas) and America was ranked in global league tables. They did not do well. They were “failing”. They panicked. All political parties bought into the same narrative. They introduced more and more standardised testing to check how they were doing in order to prepare themselves for the next round of PISA tests which happen every three years. “We shall not fail again” they said. They introduced charter schools (they’re a bit like academies) and at first they co-existed with public schools but eventually began to replace them and at the same time all this testing created data (back to measurable outputs again) which created a market and opportunities for big business to make money, big money, from schools. Essentially, from children.
On Tuesday we didn’t go to school. With our school’s support we attended a rally organised by a groups of parents in Preston Park, Brighton. It was a glorious sunny day. We made banners, painted pictures, created nature art, made new friends and listened to Chris Riddell, Children’s Laureate, make a speech and read a poem. It was a huge success and a wonderfully positive experience. Parent power. Kid power. A community coming together and raising its collective voice.
Oh yes, and I was interviewed by ITV Meridian, my children were filmed and I said some of the things I’ve written here. I didn’t talk about tears before bedtime. I spoke about the support we had from our school, I spoke about an outstanding school where children are actually quite well protected from the stress and anxiety of tests, I spoke about the enormous narrowing of the curriculum, I spoke about wanting high standards not just of literacy and numeracy but also of creativity and curiosity, I spoke about teacher led assessment as a viable alternative to SATS. None of this was broadcast. But I’m not surprised. Are you?