Demoralisation and failure: what are we doing to children?

In the open letter which a hundred education professors and lecturers wrote to Michael Gove in 2013, and which hit the front pages of national newspapers, the government was clearly warned about what the new curriculum would do.

The lists of spellings, facts and rules will not develop children’s ability to think or encourage critical understanding and creativity. It takes no account of children’s age and will place pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.

All this has proved true. In fact, Gove’s supporters even pretend that’s a good thing. What’s wrong with rote learning? Who needs critical thinking or creativity? Government ministers preach that stressing children out is character-building.

Not surprisingly, when the SATs were changed to match the new curriculum, the result was disastrous. Only 53% of children reached the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and maths in 2016 – compared with 80% the year before. A third of children were failed in reading – three times more than the previous year.

The tests have since become a little easier, and teachers have put increasing pressure on children, so the failure rates are less dramatic now but still bad. Roughly 1 in 3 children are being sent to secondary school with a failure label in one or more of Reading, Writing and Maths. The failure rate is even worse for some groups: 2 out of every 5 boys, 2 out of every 5 August-born children.

Gove insisted that his mission was to help disadvantaged children. In fact, the tests are failing more than half of children with a free school meal entitlement. No one in government has stopped to think about these children’s feelings.

Now at last the government’s Social Mobility Commission has spoken out. It has warned that nearly 166,000 disadvantaged children could be starting secondary school ‘disenchanted’. The word ‘disenchanted’ is mealy-mouthed (not surprising, given who makes up the Commission) but it shows that they are worried. What must it feel like, at age 11, to be told you are just not ‘ready’ for secondary school? What must it be like to learn that, after seven years in school, you are a failed reader?

This poses a question: did Gove and Gibb and the rest not understand, or did they really not care? The tests were deliberately made much harder. Children have to read three difficult texts and answer 40 questions in an hour. In arithmetic, they have to answer 36 questions in 30 minutes. Many children can get questions right but not at this speed. To be cynical, maybe Conservative ministers wanted children growing up in poverty to feel personally inadequate. After all, that is what has happened to many parents hammered by benefit cuts.

As yet we don’t have any research to show how these children are feeling when they start secondary school. We do know there is a growing crisis to which some schools have responded with isolation punishments and offrolling. It is time for secondary teachers to speak out on this.

Despite ministers claims, the new curriculum is not closing the attainment gap. Although Department for Education statisticians have produced a new formula to show a slight improvement, the actual gap is just as wide as in 2011. There is a 22 percentage point gap between children getting free school meals and the rest. This is a criminal situation which must be stopped. It is time to end child poverty and it is time to stop tests which simply reinforce a sense of failure.

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