I’ve worked with some unbelievably fussy people in my time. People who straighten pictures or match their hair bobble to their underwear (I’m told), people who calculate the time lag developing between school clocks and the BBC and tell the Head exactly how many seconds need finding; statisticians in their upstairs cupboards for whom a progress prediction to three decimal places is evidence of sloppy thinking. You’d imagine exam boards have loads of those folks, but where are they? Locked in a drawer? Messages don’t send themselves. They have to be primed and fired, like those in the Education Select Committee Report published this week.
In the interests of balance, I’ll tell you what’s good about it first.
- The giant problem of the underachievement of poor white children and blighted generations in endemically disadvantaged places certainly needs close attention.
- Teachers have not been blamed entirely, which is a novelty: poverty, alienation, isolation and disempowerment are all mentioned.
- It is good to see a tidy focus on early years and careers.
- The report’s recurring emphasis on the need for live deprivation statistics accurate to neighbourhood level so they can be used to target particular needs is long overdue.
- There is a knockabout routine involving pointy questions on the curriculum and the Minister of State’s rambly answers which would be amusing if it weren’t depressing.
- This government has been in power for 11 years and needs to take responsibility for the prevailing conditions. Austerity is not a naturally-occurring phenomenon, like cold weather at the Summer Solstice.
- The teacher supply nightmare is unaddressed. A pandemic bounce won’t sustain us for long.
- The extremely successful New Labour Sure Start early years intervention didn’t close itself. If you dig something out, do you expect the wound to heal over or fester?
- If a government strips the Office of National Statistics, argues with every release and generalises inaccurately about big datasets rather than neighbourhood information, the stats are compromised. Go figure.
- Curriculum matters. An untargeted focus on academic learning brings an EBacc-heavy curriculum that doesn’t engage children who need a different way into school success. Also, only 37% of poor white children get a grade 4 in English or Maths. The minister says: we need more time to check that everyone’s doing it right, teaching phonics in the one true way, only using approved maths methods. The report says: 25% EBacc isn’t much to show for eleven years. This curriculum drains all the life out of learning unless you happen to love writing and exams above all things. Schools are too timid to broaden the subjects offered in case their progress score doesn’t stack up: it is assumed this is the way of things.
The report argues that any school talking about white privilege has been duped by shady academics into divisive (‘pernicious’) thinking that is meaningless to most white people, especially the most disadvantaged. This hides the level of disadvantage they are suffering from the poor white people themselves. Schools should stop talking about race and focus on disadvantage.
What? I was born in Middlesbrough and I’ve worked in Sunderland, Hartlepool and on the outer estates and former mining towns of the Midlands. Disadvantage is not in short supply: there is plenty to go around. Identifying disadvantage in one group does not take suffering away from another and restricting disadvantage, as if only a few people deserve it, is strange thinking.
The National Curriculum starts with these words:
Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:
- • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
- • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.
It cannot possibly be the case that the DfE want to quash critical thinking in schools. Creativity and argumentativeness are pretty fundamental British values as well as tolerance, respect, democracy and the rule of law. Individual liberty is one of those values: surely that includes the freedom to criticise, discuss, hypothesise, understand and think?
Its second lunch and year 9 are charging about like five-year olds, temporarily oblivious to the divisions being sown amongst them while year 7 participants in the Peace Game are staring it in the face. This report seems to suggest that if we just stop talking about racism, the poorest in the country will do much better. With respect, Mr Halfon, if that were true we wouldn’t be in this mess.