The roles that you have in education is very important, at this moment in time. The significant changes envisaged my Ms Morgan’s predecessor have become active parts of the education system, with each still causing confusion and some difficulty for schools, in terms of curriculum, assessment systems and SEND change. It is highly likely that they will not all have settled across all schools by the time of the election. Nor will any child have been tested under the new regime. That will not happen until the summer of 2016. In other words, the proof that the changes will be seen as improvements is still almost two years away, by the time the analyses are undertaken after the summer results. On that basis alone, education will have been faced with up to six years of disruption.
Having spent an active lifetime in education, as a teacher, headteacher and now as a University tutor and consultant/assessor for a number of national schemes, I hope you won’t mind if I share some thoughts on the current state of education, as you reflect on your education strategy.
It is a truism that children are born today in exactly the same way as they have been over millennia. They grow through the same stages as every preceding generation, seeking to engage with the world, developing skills which enable them to explore their close world using their senses. While some may have some elements of genetic or physical advantage from birth, it is also clear that some are born into poverty, while others have significant enhancement from birth. Children, in my experience, as a teacher and a parent are different, one from another, even if they have the same parents and ostensibly appear to have the same upbringing. I am not convinced that this is always the case, as the uniqueness of individuals demands certain behaviours from parents, so their children do not receive equal treatment.
It would be good, but probably naïve, to think that every family provides the same early years’ experience, in terms of care and cultural awareness. Sadly, this is not the case, perhaps because of lack of money, poor housing, the poverty of the locality or parent educational poverty, access to and interest in using, parks, museums and galleries and lack of provision of parent and child support. Where a, potentially significant, proportion of families miss out, others have access to the full range of opportunities and are sufficiently interested to make full use of all that is on offer.
So children start school in differently advantaged settings, from their own starting points. While some start in Early Years classes at an age-appropriate stage, others will not. In order to make progress to age-appropriate levels at the end of the EYFS, some children already have to make significantly more progress than others, to attain parity. Where some children will make easy progress in school, supported by interested parents, others will find learning harder and may not have such supportive parents.
The early stage of learning is so significant that it should be a major area of concern, with additional focus and funding to allow every family and every child to enjoy success from the beginning. If some parents, families and children need more support, it should be identified and made available, to ensure home life adds value to early learning opportunities.
A child playing a continual game of catch up in their education, unless they have significantly high motivation and resilience, may well fall at different hurdles. Mentoring and coaching for vulnerable learners should run parallel with formal education, to supplement family support, and, if necessary to support the families too. Their own motivation and resilience might be low.
However hard we try, we may not make all children achieve equally, but we should be aspiring, as a nation to ensure that each learner has every opportunity to make the best of their opportunities. Perhaps we ought also to become better at recognising that sometimes appropriate focused effort means a learner makes progress, but not as much as a peer; both should be celebrated to encourage continuous effort. Bridging gaps may need to be done over a slightly different time frame.
National aspiration is currently described, in a recent consultation document, at the end of Key Stage 1&2, as a national standard. There is a descriptor of expectation of what needs to be evidenced as success against this standard. It does feel like a return to an 11+ system, with an interim 7+ system alongside. There is likely to be, at some stage a call for a 9+ assessment too and by extension, each year is likely to have its own assessment need. Some children could be found to be below or working towards the national standard throughout their school lives, which is likely to be more demoralising than the current systems which describe different levels of personal educational needs. A significant minority of children could go through their schooling with this “below standard” label, which may have, as a root cause, some poorer than wished teaching.
Handing the creation of an appropriate curriculum back to schools and teachers would release a creativity which was the hallmark of earlier times. Creative teachers provide an energy into the system which enthuses children more, so that they achieve more than they thought.
Current plans can be envisaged as a deficit system, especially as some may apparently be allocated a “mastery” grading. By doing that, a large number will be below “mastery”, but at some discrete point, say 20%, there will be a child on one side of the divide, so becoming a master, while another with one mark less may be perceived as having “failed”. The terminology is potentially destructive. It also plays into the hands of those who would cream off the most able into a separate system; grammar schools have been talked about by some commentators.
Start to build a new strategy on the needs of children’s learning, within a holistic system, not just a focus on small aspects of the system which might support a sound bite. Leave the creative aspects of the curriculum to teachers and support the widespread dissemination of excellent practice. Develop a teaching force of classroom investigaters, broadening and deepening the collective understanding of learning and teaching. Engage in a system wide approach to moderation in everything, with the following benefits to all participants:-
◾If moderation occurs across a school, there is common assent to decisions regarding achievement and progress expectations.
◾If moderation occurs across schools, an area wide understanding occurs.
◾If outcomes of National testing are seen as moderation, the outcomes provide exemplar material to support internal moderation.
◾If moderation became a common tool across all schools, supported by external expertise as necessary, there would be a reduced need for formal testing, so we could save money on SATs testing.
◾If specialist in-house teachers became trained moderators, for internal and external use, the use of such people would provide opportunities for mass CPD and lead to higher expectations, based on a common understanding.
◾If lesson observations became a moderation exercise, based on the common agenda of the teaching standards, then feedback would be developmental. Nobody is perfect all the time.
◾If Ofsted and other assessment/inspection visits were moderation visits, to validate the judgements of the internal moderation team, we would establish expectations common to every school in the country.
◾If Ofsted inspectors moderated each other, the judgements across every establishment would be consistent.
◾If judgements across every classroom in every school in the country were common, as a national educational establishment we would make progress.
So, to summarise; children are all different, but deserve every opportunity to achieve at the highest level. They deserve highly motivated, engaged teachers, supported by systems that enhance teacher development. It is that simple. Why try to make it more complex?