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Playing Politics with Education

September 3rd, 2007


The government is upset that improvement in educational achievement is stalling. The Conservatives are considering proposals to ‘hold children back’ at primary school if they fail to achieve a particular standard. Neither party takes any serious notice of what serious educationalists say. Will politicians ever realise that playing politics with education serves only to undermine the system?

Since the introduction of SATs, primary schools in England are measured by their KS2 results. Though in the first instance it was never meant to be this way, increasingly so too are the students. So worried are schools about those tests that almost all of Year 6 is given over to preparation for tests. In those years where SATs are not taken, teachers take a very different approach to educating youngsters. In Year 6, they essentially become exam factories. In KS3 at secondary school, a similar pattern emerges. In years 7 and 8 students and teachers are ‘free’ to concentrate on learning, but in Year 9 everything is again given over to SAT preparation. It is not unreasonable to argue that in Year 6 and Year 9 are probably the years in which students actually learn the least. Learning should not be identified with recall and with ability to understand exam questions, particularly at such a young age.

“Improvement in educational achievement is stalling”. When new educational systems and testing regimes are introduced, it takes teachers some time to work it all out. When tests are introduced, it takes teachers a few years to really understand how best to prepare their students for those tests. During that period, the quality of test preparation goes up and up from a low initial level. The government can point to this and call it ‘improvement’ in the standards of education. Eventually of course, it will level off. Suddenly, there is no more improvement, and the system is in crisis. The government’s response? A new educational system or testing regime is needed! It would be funny, if it wasn’t playing politics with our nation’s education system.

The most worrying aspect of the Government’s approach to education is that they appear to understand education only through the lens of testing.

“If students are failing, hold them back”. Listening to radio 4 this morning, every educationalist agreed that the Conservative party have not taken any serious educational advice on this issue. The Conservative’s response to a failing student in Year 6? To make them go through another year in which learning is put on hold in order to improve performance in tests, despite it having clearly not worked the first time around! There are other problems with the Conservatives’ policy too, such as labelling students as failures and the logistical nightmare of requiring more primary school spaces to cope with the numbers held back, but for me the biggest problem is that it shows that the Conservatives too understand education only through the lens of testing.

In economics, in 1997 a newly elected Labour government was the first to realise that the way to ensure fiscal stability was to divest the responsibility to decide baseline interest rates away from the political arena. Let the Bank of England decide on the correct rate. By ceding power the government made the economy more stable and more effective. There was no more political squabbling about the level of the interest rate. In education, while England’s politically driven education system moves from crisis to crisis, no similar level of discontent is felt north of the border, where education is essentially governed by the General Teaching Council of Scotland.

Will politicians ever come to understand that playing politics with education might actually be a bad thing?

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