In 2010, Michael Gove renamed Labour’s Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) the Department for Education (DfE), at a stroke ejecting Ed Balls’s tiresomely winsome munchkins from the Sanctuary Buildings atrium, ending baffled discussion about whether DCSF stood for comedy and science fiction or curtains and soft furnishings, and heralding a gimmick-free return to core business.
Then last week, with the Gove supremacy a receding memory but with Govine policies firmly in place for the duration, the PM announced that from November 2014 every new government policy ‘will be assessed for its impact on the family.’ The PM’s admission that too many existing policies have failed his ‘family test’ must prompt us to ask whether he had in mind the doings of the demoted Gove. After all, who needs munchkins to tell them that children’s needs and family circumstances are as inextricably the business of schools and hence DfE as are curriculum, tests and standards?
Labour appeared to understand this relationship, up to a point. So the Cambridge Primary Review found widespread support for Sure Start, EYFS, Every Child Matters, the Children’s Act, the Childcare Act, Every Parent Matters, the Children’s Plan and Narrowing the Gap, an impressive procession of ‘joined-up’ initiatives through which the Labour government sought to reduce childhood risk, increase childhood protection, support families and maximise educational opportunities. But CPR also reported growing and often intense opposition to the same government’s apparatus of high stakes testing, higher stakes inspection, performance tables, naming, shaming and closely prescribed pedagogy, all of which also impacted on children and families, with outcomes that remain hotly contested.
In any event, this so-called standards agenda was widely thought to exacerbate what, in her important research survey for CPR, Berry Mayall called the ‘scholarisation’ of childhood: the incursion of schooling and its demands ever more deeply into children’s lives at an ever younger age, leaving little room for a childhood unimpeded by pressures which in many other education systems, including some that perform better than the UK in the international PISA tests, start a year or even two years later than in England. When Britain came bottom of a rather different performance table, UNICEF’s comparative rating of childhood well-being in rich countries, opponents of these tendencies drew the obvious conclusion.
Hence the reaction: Sue Palmer’s best-selling ‘Toxic Childhood’, the Children’s Society Good Childhood Enquiry, and latterly the Save Childhood Movement. And hence, true to the laws of policy physics, the ministerial counter-reaction, from Labour’s ‘these people are peddling out-of-date research’ – a lamely unoriginal and transparently defensive response to unpalatable evidence – to the Coalition’s earthier recourse to personal abuse: ‘Marxists intent on destroying our schools … enemies of promise … bleating bogus pop-psychology’.
Meanwhile, the rich became richer and the poor poorer.
In relation to children and families, then, there is all too often a pretty fundamental policy disconnect. Education policy may give with one hand but take with another; and education policy strives to narrow the gap that economic policy no less assiduously maintains and even widens, not pausing to ask why the gap is there in the first place. For surely Treasury ministers know as well as their DfE colleagues how closely the maps of income, health, wellbeing and educational achievement coincide; that unequal societies have unequal education systems and unequal educational outcomes; and that equity is a significant factor in other nations’ PISA success – though in all this we need to avoid facile cause-effect claims and we know that fine schools can and do break the mould. Yet will the ‘family test’ be applied as stringently to the policies of Chancellor Osborne, I wonder, as to those of Education ex-Secretary Gove? Or will the social and educational fallout of austerity be written off as unavoidable collateral damage?
But I suspect that linking the policy dots is not what the new family test is about and each policy will be assessed in isolation. In any case, how many new education policies, if any, will the government introduce in the eight months before the 2015 general election? And at a time when the demography of childhood and parenting is more diverse than ever, how exactly is ‘family’ defined? Isn’t the family test both too muddled and too late?
For its part, CPRT, like CPR before it, is operating more holistically, and we have invited leading researchers to help us. Kate Pickett, co-author of The Spirit Level – that groundbreaking epidemiological study of the causes, manifestations and consequences of inequality – to help us. In one of five new CPRT research surveys, Kate is revisiting her own and CPR’s evidence on equality, equity and disadvantage and examining more recent data in order to re-assess causes, consequences and solutions. Her report will be published early in 2015. In parallel, we have commissioned research updates on children’s voice, development and learning from Carol Robinson and Usha Goswami; and on assessment and teaching from Wynne Harlen and David Hogan. Squaring the schooling/family circle we have embarked, in collaboration with the University of York, on an Educational Endowment Foundation-supported project to develop and test the power of high quality classroom talk to increase engagement and raise learning standards among those of our children who are growing up in the most challenging circumstances.
You’ll find information about all these projects on the CPRT website. We hope and believe they will pass the family test.