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The educational vandalism

that passes as Labour policy

by Bob Sulatycki, Kensington & Chelsea NUT


Doug McAvoy argues that relations between the NUT and the Government are worse than had been the case even under the Tories.

In practice, the fundamentals of policy - privatisation, centralised control of the curriculum, testing and league tables, the attacks on the trade unions - have been consistently pursued by both Tory and Labour Governments since the 1980s. Admittedly, Estelle Morris had presented a less overtly hostile face to teachers in general, and the NUT in particular - she was, after all, a member of the Union.

Yet it was Morris who, as schools standards minister, ensured that up to 10% of LEAs were fully or in part contracted out to private companies. In her time as Education Secretary not one of the fundamentals of Government policy was abandoned. As Peter Wilby, perceptively and accurately (for once) commented of Morris's departure in October 2002: '...the pressures of all those targets and all that scrutiny, which have driven so many teachers out of the profession, proved too much for the minister.'

In reality the arrival of Charles Clarke as Education Secretary is little more than a return of a 'nasty cop' - a la Blunkett - after the 'nice cop' of Estelle Morris. Again, this is a pattern evident since the 1980s. The underlying attitude to teachers remains the same as it was five years ago when Blair spoke in New York alongside the then President Clinton. Explaining the Third Way he singled out teachers as a group to be confronted for the greater good: 'It's very easy to say education is tremendously important and even to get extra resources for it. But making changes is difficult. You've got to be able to address certain strong vested interests within the education system. We're finding we're going to have to take on people when they say they don't want something'

And so, of course, teachers have to be attacked. It's an absolute pre-requisite for them that there is no organised resistance to the educational vandalism that passes as policy at present. A Government that now has more tests for its pupils far more than any other nation in the world, where most primary school children sit more than 30 tests before they leave at 11 and where the brightest pupils take more than 40. So shameless is the Government that in January 2003, Schools Minister Stephen Twigg wrote a three page letter to all primary heads demanding to know what action was to be taken by Heads to raise the number of Level 4s and 5s for KS2 in May. This, he advised, should include adapting the curriculum to meet what is simply a Government target. Twigg's letter managed to avoid mentioning the word 'education' altogether.

The pressure on schools to meet targets and to boost leagues table standings is intolerable. The Guardian last summer listed 26 ways in which schools can and do rig KS2 results. Their investigation collected 'such compelling evidence...that school league tables can no longer be trusted.' Such are the consequences of this culture of targets and league tables - and the attendant bullying to achieve results. With PRP and DfES achievement awards now increasingly linked to year-on-year improvement in SATs results such practices will become endemic.

If the net effect of this culture were that standards are improving, as the Government and the QCA insist they are, there might be a case for the defence. What of these standards and this improvement? Let us take the National Literacy Strategy as an example of a much vaunted Government success.

The Government's own unpublished evaluation of the NLS undertaken by academics from Toronto University in 2001 showed widespread teaching to the test and a narrowing of the primary curriculum; it had brought what they defined as only 'skin deep' improvements in literacy. A further, extensive study by Durham University in 2002 threw doubt on there having been any improvement at all in reading and knowledge of vocabulary. In addition there is now a considerable body of evidence showing that children's speaking skills have deteriorated since the intro-duction of the NLS. As one Head commented in the TES: 'When improvement is a political imperative, it's very difficult to tell whether it is happening or not.'

For New Labour, a school's 'failure to achieve' is down to the failings of the staff. Labour ministers, like the Tories before them, will not accept any excuses about poverty or class or any other such 1970s nonsense. Presumably, therefore, it is a simple statistical quirk when OFSTED figures showed that the poorest 10% of schools were eight times more likely to fail their inspections than other schools. It must have been another remarkable coincidence when in 1999 OFSTED discovered that only one in 40 deprived primaries had average English and maths scores.

Of course, the lunatics who control the asylum try to claim that the fact that there are a few schools who do get good results in adverse circumstances proves that it's possible for all schools to do equally as well with a bit more application. Yet under closer scrutiny such claims simply fall apart.

The TES in March 2003 tried to test the regularly repeated government mantra that schools in identical circumstances perform wildly differently - i.e. it was all down to the staff and not the intake. The TES requested from the DfES and OFSTED a list of schools with the highest free-meal percentages in the country. Both refused. The reasons for this refusal may have something to do with the fact that DfES reports do not distinguish between schools with 36% Free School Meals to those with 85%. They also do not identify the type of school, i.e. does it have some sort of admissions policy that would give it an advantage in exam statistics. The DfES in fact admitted it has given such potentially revealing data to researchers of its choosing, although -incredibly - it refused to supply it to Parliament when asked by Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Phil Willis.

The TES conducted its own survey of 44 secondary schools with 45%+ free school meals comparing performance as measured by GCSE grades; what it showed was that most achieve the same sort of results. The variations occur when the admission policy of the school lends it an advantage. The 'best' performer was Notre Dame Catholic College in Liverpool, an all-girls Catholic school, that admits on the basis of church attendance and religious commitment. Virtually all the top eleven performers had some particular intake advantage - either religious, or selection on bands etc.

In effect this means intake determines what schools achieve. Dr Ruth Lupton of the LSE analysed OFSTED inspections of teaching in similarly deprived schools and concluded that the nature of pupils was the key differentiating factor. To improve a school, she argued, pupils need to change rather than the teaching. In other words, exclude the poorest and most vulnerable. Thus we see, particularly in secondary, an ever-increasing reliance on methods such as parental interview. Children whose parents cannot or will not attend such an interview, or whose parents do not express the required support for the ethos of the particular school, are not given a place. As everyone knows, it has always been about poverty and class, and continues to be so. Nowadays, however, you're not allowed to say so.

So shameless is the Government that in January 2003