There’s an election looming. Hopefully, teachers will take the opportunity to revenge themselves just a little on the government that gave us Gove and hollow promises of workload reform. Hopefully, they will manage to make it to the polling station and put a lovely big black cross next to any party that appears vaguely aware of the very real pain they are enduring.
Of course, funding is a crucial issue. There’s talk of strikes and the NAHT warns of ‘harsh, austere’ times ahead – particularly troubling for those in sixth-form or FE colleges. But the seemingly inevitable funding cuts would be better borne if accompanied by a change in the political zeitgeist. The hectoring ‘must-do-better’ tone that trickles down to the classroom from the two main parties is an outrage. Currently 40 per cent of NQTs bail out after their first year, but it’s not just the naïve newbies who are finding it hard. It’s also the experienced ones who finally just can’t take it any more – 68 per cent considered chucking it in last year. This is not surprising given that the job routinely demands a 70-hour working week from people it equally routinely smears as inadequate.
Sadly, though, both Labour and Conservatives are persisting with the tough talk though there may be a glimmer of hope in Tristram Hunt’s recent speech to the NASUWT. That aside, both parties still tediously insist on the importance of raising standards. Labour’s Changing Britain Together – a product of Agenda 2015 – takes the banal rhetoric further, demanding that standards are ‘driven up’. When I go into my classroom in the morning and look at the children sitting there, I wonder how precisely should I achieve this driving up? Hell, yes, it sounds tough, but these are small children not US Navy Seals.
There is little discussion about how standards are to rise as funding falls. Nor is there much sign of sensible political debate as to what these raised standards look like. Teaching children to recognise a fronted adverbial or to do subtraction by decomposition at ever younger ages does not appear to me – nor to the CPR Trust with its support for a broad, balanced and rich curriculum – to be valid aims. As we are poised once again to embark on the enervating ‘run up’ to Sats, the ideal of a system that – in the words of the CPR final report – ‘assesses and reports on children’s achievements in all areas of their learning, with the minimum of disruption,’ seems more remote than ever.
True, Ed Miliband has promised to strengthen ‘creative education,’ but this welcome move away from the Gradgrindian Gove isn’t actually in Changing Britain Together. Instead there is the pledge ‘to bring a relentless focus on the quality of teaching’. Now that sounds jolly. I shall look forward to the spotlight shining in the eyes. And we have the promise ‘to require all teachers to continue building their skills and subject knowledge on the job’. It’s that tone again. The choice of verb tells us much about the party’s attitude to the profession. Doesn’t it understand that most teachers are gagging for training, desperate for any help they can get in the face of a largely hostile Ofsted, beleaguered local authorities and bullying politicians – never mind a new curriculum and the constant reinvention of the assessment wheel?
Also in Labour’s Changing Britain Together is the charge that, under the Tories, ‘underperformance in schools has been allowed to go unchallenged’. Er, sorry, but what planet is Dr Hunt on? How can the shadow education secretary have sanctioned that statement? Teachers and heads are worn out responding to a multiplicity of challenges. Days and nights have been sacrificed to organising mock Ofsteds, to reviewing marking policies, to feeding the Raise Online machine and to crunching statistics until they reveal that every pupil’s performance is improving, steadily and evenly. There is no place for footnotes to explain that this child was ill, or this child’s father ran off with another woman, or this child’s mother lost her job or this child’s dog died or this child, dare I say it, is just not very good at literacy…
What a shame Labour has been so slow to challenge the madness of the current assessment culture. It distracts from the true work of teachers who need, as the CPRT puts it, assessment that ‘enhances and supports learning’ rather than distorting it.
But no, we don’t have assessment that enhances and supports. We just get the tough talk. It’s a little like being bullied. Everyone thinks it’s ok to join in. Take, for example, the person who arrived at our school recently. He was a critical friend – with the emphasis on the critical – who spent a lot of time ‘interrogating’ the online performance statistics. Along the way, he announced that pupil background was no excuse for poor performance.
There it is again; that patronising ‘you-must-do-better’ tone. Actually, we do not spend our time making excuses. We spend it patiently teaching and nurturing children, some of whom have extremely challenging home lives and consequently struggle to progress as fast as others. This is a fact and not an excuse. These children fall behind as a result of family disadvantage and poverty. They are the losers in our unequal society. CPR, in its final report, urged the government to give the highest priority to eliminating child poverty. CPRT reinforced the importance of this goal by making its own priority ‘tackling the continuing challenge of social and educational disadvantage and finding practical ways to help schools close the overlapping gaps in social equity and educational achievement’.
Schools deal with the consequences of disadvantage every day. When they succeed in closing the gap just a little, they are picking up the pieces of political failure and should be thanked not rebuked. Every time a minister agrees to a policy that will exacerbate rather than reduce inequality, he or she needs to visit a classroom and see the consequences for children who have, for many reasons, no one to help them practise their times tables, learn their spellings or to read them a bedtime story.
Labour, like the Lib Dems, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, appears committed to investment in the vital early years as a means of redressing the balance slightly. Its manifesto highlights the fact that poverty and inequality are increasing. Teachers, with support, can do much to help create a more equal society. Overworked and rebuked, they can’t. They will just leave. It’s time for Labour to wake up and smell the cheap staffroom coffee.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She was one of the authors of the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.