Having had her thunder – and her policy agenda – neatly stolen by Teresa May’s pronouncements on extending grammar schools before she had even time to get her feet under her new desk, Justine Greening has finally produced some policy of her own. On Tuesday she announced some changes to primary school assessment tests (the dreaded SATs). My daughter did SATs earlier this year, and I was one of many who were unhappy enough with SATs and their impact on children and schools that I considered withdrawing her from school during SATS week, so I was interested to hear what she had to say.
Justine Greening’s announcement included the welcome withdrawal of the threat that children who had been deemed to ‘fail’ their SATs would have to resit them in year 7, and the equally welcome statement that the KS1 spelling and grammar test remains voluntary (though quite who would volunteer to do such a test is beyond me!). She announced that a review of primary assessment is needed and forward-promoted a consultation into primary school assessment which will start in the spring, and that meanwhile there will be no new tests introduced before the 2018-19 academic year.
Such stability might sound like a good thing, but that still leaves thousands of pupils and primary schools facing an every-narrowing curriculum and unnecessary, stressful tests for the next two years at least, in order to carry on jumping through a series of hoops of the DfE’s choosing. (After all, if a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity for a 10 year old.) That is more than a shame, when she could have taken the opportunity to suspend SATS altogether given that they are not actually about pupils at all, they’re a means of manufacturing school league tables.
Unlike her predecessors, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, who given to zealously issuing edicts, Justine Greening clearly has a more conciliatory, listening tone. And in acknowledging that a review of primary school assessment is needed, she appears to question, at the very least, the merit of some of the policy that she has inherited. But in announcing that the DfE will launch a consultation, she’s missed a opportunity. That the DfE will be involved in such a consultation suggests that she shares her predecessors’ enthusiasm for micro-management and policy leadership in an area where there is no shortage of actual independent experts who are willing and able to provide appropriate guidance for politicians to act on. The Headteachers Roundtable, for instance, have already gone to the bother of producing an alternative education Green Paper which neatly explains why using pupil assessment to measure school performance is a bad idea, and proposes alternative solutions for both pupil assessment and school accountability, I hope she already has a well-worn copy of that on her desk. (As yet the Green Paper doesn’t come with a summary, let alone one aimed at parents rather than headteachers, so I recommend a large coffee before starting to read it!)
I don’t know whether Justine Greening is already talking to the Headteachers Roundtable. But she does say that she is interested in talking to parents, as well as teachers and unions (though no mention of experts, interestingly). I just hope she doesn’t cherry-pick her parents.
Last month saw the launch of a new educational ‘campaign’ called Parents and Teachers for Excellence. Now I think you’d struggle to find parents or teachers who were against excellence, so even to the vaguely cynical the group already sounds like an exercise in spin. But if you take a closer look, you’ll find that this apparently ‘non-partisan’ group which claims to be separate to the Westminster elite appears to be nothing but a soft mouthpiece for Conservative education ‘reformers’. (Of the 29 people on its advisory group, only 4 are listed as parents, CEOs or other leaders in Academy chains figure prominently, and the group includes the governments’ ‘Behaviour Tsar’ as well as a former education advisor to the prime minister). It doesn’t look very independent to me.
The group describes itself as a campaign seeking an evidence-based approach to education. I’m with them on that, but only if they start off from a neutral position, not from a perspective that uses ideological assumptions as if they were some kind of truth. In my dictionary, non-partisan means not taking sides. Yet the stated starting position for this group is that they already know free schools and academies “work”. (Oh and behaviour policies, knowledge-based curriculum, and increased testing. Apparently.) We parents just need convincing, it would seem.
PTE are also keen to promote ‘enrichment activities’. Absolutely nothing to disagree with there, enrichment is exactly what the word suggests (though it should happen within the curriculum, as well as outside it). I try not to be too cynical, but it’s hard to avoid wondering if they have added in the enrichment line to distract us from all the other market reform stuff. PTE has financial backers, so unlike other education campaign groups involving or aimed at parents, it’s got money. Quite whose, we have no idea – though the ‘donate’ button features prominently on their webpage and they are keen for people to contribute to their cause as they will, apparently, “never have the resources enjoyed by those opponents of change in the education system”. (Their words, not mine.) And quite a lot of people stand to benefit from those DfE reforms. Just not most pupils, teachers or parents.
Those pupils, teachers and parents could all benefit from Justine Greening’s forthcoming consultation on primary assessment. Especially if it’s properly done, and independently led by experts. If Justine Greening wants to really engage with parents and make sure we are on side in her efforts to improve both our children’s education and their experience at school, there are other parent groups already out there – not be as well-connected to the Westminster elite, or with secret financial backers, but which don’t have an agenda apart from wanting their children’s schools to deliver a positive experience with good outcomes. Groups such as Let our Kids be Kids, or Rescue our Schools. Ms Greening, we’re waiting for your call.