Rescue Our Schools has been approached by the BBC
Many haven’t been inspected in over 10 years. The BBC journalist would like to hear people’s views as follows:
Rescue Our Schools has been approached by the BBC
Many haven’t been inspected in over 10 years. The BBC journalist would like to hear people’s views as follows:
I don’t know about you, but I have had enough of the hoo-ha about exam results day. When I got my O-level results and one token CSE – for this is how old I am – no one batted an eyelid. The day that everyone opened their envelopes wasn’t on the morning radio bulletins. You wouldn’t get distant relatives suddenly getting in touch to find out how you’d done.
Things now seem to be utterly ridiculous, like so much about British life at the moment. Friends whom I rate are fretting days beforehand. They are taking time off work to be there for their sons and daughters on results day. Everyone seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the government line that these results are the most meaningful thing in a child’s education. I would just like to make the following corrections to this particular bit of often media-assisted state propaganda.
Myth Number 1: the results are a fair assessment of a child’s academic achievements. They absolutely are not. There are far too many random factors that determine how a child does. For example, have they been tutored up to the eyeballs? Are they at a school that is essentially an exam factory rather than still trying to provide a semblance of an interesting education? Does the child have a bedroom or somewhere they can work in – as the columnist Barbara Ellen rightly pointed out the other day, how many of the children who are being housed in one bedroom flats, bed and breakfasts or shipping containers were able to pull in a slew of top grades?
Myth Number 2: they reflect a child’s talents. They do not. As any parent knows, children can have a whole range of capabilities, not just academic. You can be brilliantly empathetic, you can be an amazing orator or salesperson, you can work in a team and bring out the best in everyone, you can create beautiful work for a project you have developed over time, you can build something, you can fix something… and so the list goes on. None of these talents is valued by GCSEs or A-levels now that they are hyper-academic with no course work and minimal speaking and listening. You only have to look at some of our politicians – many of whom have been to Oxbridge – to see how extreme academic prowess is by no means the full toolbox.
Myth Number 3: you need top results to succeed in life. Total rubbish. This year it’s anticipated there will be more university places than students. That trend is likely to increase as foreign students stop applying to British universities. Plus sixth formers are starting to question the argument that university is the be all and end all of educational success. What’s the point forking out £50,000 for average teaching and an uninspiring course? Plus, outside politics, there is not a single bit of evidence that top academic performance ensures success in life – however you define that.
Myth Number 4: you need to put all your results on your CV when you apply for a job. Nonsense. In fact some companies now deliberately don’t ask anything about your schooling, preferring to set you admissions tasks that test the kind of skills and knowledge they are looking for.
Myth Number 5: doing well academically will prepare you for life. This has to be one of the biggest lies out. The kind of skills that our children are going to need are the very ones that are currently sidelined by the high stakes exam system. I mean things like being able to think critically and creatively, to have the deeper skills and resilience that allow you to have more than one career, and to have powerful knowledge to change the world rather than being able to remember and write out chunks of text. Let’s focus on our human skills, not the sort that robots and computers can do a whole lot better than us. If anyone tries to tell me that tests are best because life is a test, I might have to go and finally burn my A- level work (some of which I fear is still languishing in my mum’s loft).
Myth Number 6: results are the best way to measure educational standards. Codswallop. Being good at passing exams doesn’t mean you have had a good education. What about not just the human qualities I have listed above, but a child’s values? Aren’t they just as important? I refer again to some of our best known politicians, who’ve allegedly had a top education. It reminds me of the famous EM Forster quote about those who go into the world with “fairly-developed minds and underdeveloped hearts.”
Some of these chaps in power like to talk about character education. What do they mean by this? I suspect they mean that kids need to toughen up and put up with the mediocrity which defines so much of our current system. But in fact proper character education should surely be about developing courage, compassion, trust, curiosity and the like. It’s a goal really worth striving for, and there are schools that are trying to do this properly (such as XP school in Doncaster and the Relational Schools movement).
Myth Number 7: there is no better system than high stakes exams. Hmmmm. I would suggest taking a look at what’s going on internationally, where there is a good deal of work on how to assess students more broadly. For a start, lots of countries don’t test students at 16 (Finland being the most frequently cited example). Even in America – where again there’s no equivalent of GCSEs – the “Mastery Transcript” concept is being developed by some private schools. When students are ready (so “stage, not age”) they are rigorously assessed in modules which show their mastery of a variety of skills and areas of knowledge. Their competence in these various fields is put together to form a detailed picture of an individual student. Yale and Harvard are supporting the project, which is developing fast.
One thing that is most definitely not a myth is that a third of students are currently being written off by the new GCSEs. The national pass rate for English and maths last year was only 64 %. What future for the 36 % who don’t get these most basic of qualifications – the ones you do actually need for most jobs? Both the National Education Union and the Association of School and College Leaders have spoken out about the forgotten third. ASCL’s own survey had senior leaders reporting that some students were simply refusing to take GCSEs, they were so demoralised.
These are the students who most likely don’t have a private tutor, or they don’t have parents who went to university, or they don’t speak English as a first language, or they have additional needs or challenging home circumstances, or multiple combinations of the above. It seems that kids who are already disadvantaged in various ways are far more likely to fail these spuriously high stakes tests.
What happens to these young people? Some clearly remove themselves from the system, as ASCL has uncovered. Others, one suspects, have already been quietly sidelined through off-rolling. Do they just disappear into casual work or no work at all? Others stay at school and repeatedly retake maths and English GCSE to try to pass. Is this really an effective education system in terms of creating citizens who can contribute to both society and the economy?
Let’s not forget where these ideas originate. The reforms were introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary. And who was his special adviser? None other than Dominic Cummings. Anyone who has tried to read his ideas on education will know that he sees intelligence in a highly academic sense. Thus we have a system that aims to motivate and single out the extremely intelligent students (in his terms) – “the diamonds in the rough “ as someone once put it. Hence the new, granular grading system that piles pressure on academic students to get a 9.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Gove and Cummings to find these students in all social backgrounds, because I think their belief in social mobility (as opposed to social justice) is genuine. But the trouble is that it is a deficit model that writes off the majority as having only limited abilities or none whatsoever. Then there’s Cummings’ alleged interest in eugenics. While there is evidence that genes can play a part in intelligence, only the purblind could ignore the effect of personal circumstance on doing well at school. Diane Reay’s book, Miseducation, explores this brilliantly. But of course none of this is taken into account in exam halls.
So we need to start really questioning the aims of our education system. We need a much more forensic approach. Let’s hear the human stories of the students who disengage from education – and the ones who have “succeeded” but can see how little that’s really worth. And let’s hear a whole lot more about different systems which resist summing up an education with a handful of scores. As Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, puts it, “in the longer term we simply must review the exam system to find a more humane way in which we can assess the abilities of young people and prepare them for the lives.” I am not sure how long many of our students can wait.
After 22 years of teaching in the independent sector I have decided to follow my heart, and return to a state school. I start in September, at a wonderful village primary.
Becoming a parent governor at my children’s large non-academy state secondary was hugely influential in making the choice to go; to witness, around that conference table, the passion of the leadership team and teachers who will do everything in their power to support the achievement of every child, no matter what that child will ‘do’ for the ratings, has stopped me in my tracks.
We understand as teachers, that all children are valued. All are important. It is not the child’s ‘fault’ to be the recipient of any set of circumstances, good or bad. I have taught some wonderful children, enjoyed the privilege of amazing times in amazing settings – some scenes worthy of Hogwarts. I have listened to celebrities speaking at prize giving ceremonies, I have had rent and bill free staff accommodation, superb lunches and suppers, extraordinarily long holidays and splendid grounds. But a bell was tolling in my head for years, a bell which, with state governorship, became too loud to ignore.
My own children are in state schools. There is no choice about that. As a single parent on a teacher’s salary (and no, before you wonder, there is no staff discount at some of Britain’s most elite schools) it would be too hard even to cover the cost of the uniforms, sports kits and ‘extras’. Some of the time I feel that they are at a great disadvantage here – the attention to performance in the independent schools I have worked in is massive. The pupils are driven by the staff; they are tested, measured, pushed, mentored and given opportunities beyond my wildest comprehensive school memories. No one really seems to fail. It’s not an option. Something will be done. League tables are very important. They drive the business forward.
And in the school that my children attend? It looks like Grange Hill. It has an electronic barrier rather than deer leaping in the grounds. But the thing that I love, that makes me feel like waving a lighter in governor’s meetings is the difference in ethos. The head refuses to ‘offroll’ any child. If they can support a child with complex issues, to get just one GCSE, they will do that. If it means that the school’s overall score for that year is negatively affected, they will still keep that child within the community. They will send a minibus out to pick kids up who might struggle getting in. They provide breakfast items to some, not because they’re boarders, but because they really might not have any food in the cupboard at home.
High standards are also expected, and they are a national award winning school with many excellent results to celebrate, but the difference that I feel, which made me know I had to go back to state, is that the excellent education is available to you simply because you exist. Not because you can afford it or because you’re so brilliant at one discipline that you will bump up the school’s results.
So, it’s back into the state system for me. The kids I have left behind at the independent school will be completely fine. They already have every chance of success. I start my new job in September, but what of the wonderful village school I am heading to? A school that seemed good to be true? The county has just announced that it is in consultation to close in August 2020. Budget trimming.
It’s a good job I have allowed the deep passion for state education back into my life – time to roll up these sleeves and join the good fight.
Our recent parent blog in support of comprehensive education garnered a huge amount of engagement from our followers.
So we thought we would take the debate one step further, and report on growing calls for private schools to be phased out and how to do it. Only this week the Guardian reported that there’s a proposal to get its conference in September to discuss a motion to “nationalise” private schools.
This comes after a similar initiative launched just a couple of weeks ago. Westminster hosted the first public meeting in decades to consider how best to phase out private schools. The meeting was organised by the Socialist Education Association (SEA) and drew – appropriately enough – a comprehensive crowd made up of experts, politicians and parents.
At the meeting the SEA launched a drive to encourage the Labour Party to embrace a much more radical agenda to sideline private education. This would mean doing more than the party’s current pledge to remove business rate tax relief on independent schools, and use the money to fund free school meals in all primaries.
The most forthright speaker on the panel was Robert Verkaik, the author of the excellent book Posh Boys. He argued that politicians needed to do far more – to abolish private schools’ charitable status, to encourage Oxbridge to make far more contextual offers to state school students (meaning they would be offered lower grades at A level to take account of an education less geared to getting into elite universities) and – most strikingly – positive discrimination towards state school students in key professions.
Fellow panellist Melissa Benn recounted a story about the Conservatives making similar noises a few years ago about people not being allowed to name their school on job applications, only for the former minister and current Provost of Eton, Sir William Waldegrave, to march into Downing Street and demand that the policy was retracted. The anecdote triggered groans from the audience. It tells you everything you need to know about the often privately-educated establishment, and how it maintains its supremacy.
A contrasting policy approach was put forward by Francis Green, author with David Kynaston of Engines of Privilege. They argue that the way to break the ‘pipeline of privilege’ is to ensure that a third of all private school students are from less advantaged backgrounds. It’s not clear how these students would be chosen – but it would not be on the basis of academic ability – nor whether they would enjoy being in a school dominated by students from radically different families. The school fees for this minority group would be paid for by the state. Isn’t there every chance these schools would break down into class war, given entrenched attitudes on both sides? It would make a riveting documentary, but it’s not at all clear how it would solve the private school problem.
All the speakers agreed that there was now a grotesque gap in resources between private and state sectors. Two factors were at play: in the last 20 years independent schools have hiked up their fees – aided by tax cuts for top earners – to fund five star resources. State schools meanwhile have seen a big increase in costs since 2010 with insufficient government funding to match.
One member of the audience questioned whether Theresa May had deliberately starved state schools of funds to build the case for the abolition of private schools. This was a joke question, but the fact remains that lots of politicians of all parties are beginning to see the educational apartheid we reside under in England as a major obstacle to social equity.
So what will Labour actually do? The new MP for Crewe, Laura Smith, pledged “Labour will not shy away from this problem”. Let’s see. Given that they have shied away from a commitment to wind up grammar schools under a National Education Service, one can only hope.
Perhaps the most effective way of emasculating private schools is to make non-selective education irresistible. That means funding comprehensives properly, and celebrating their diversity through a creative curriculum that gives every child the chance to develop their capabiliites. Above all, it encourages empathetic learning – listening to the view points of those different from ourselves.
It was none other than Andreas Schleicher, the inventor of the PISA international tests, who told the Education Select Committee a few months ago that the most important skill for the future would be “understanding other people’s point of view”. He also suggested that we in England are far too preoccupied by the ”top” students, and that the quickest way to improve our education system would be to focus on those who achieve the least. If that is not the death knell for private education, what is?
Having worked as a teacher in London schools for over two decades, the majority of that time in the comprehensive public school system and significant portion of time in the private sector, I can say, without any hesitation, that I would not send my children to private school.
There are three very good reasons why I would not send them but none of them are about money. Admittedly, I do not have a spare £18,000 or so a year to invest in private education (although I wouldn’t need to pay the full cost because, in most cases, as an employee you are entitled to often very substantial staff discounts). However, this would still not entice me. This is not to say that ‘everything is coming up roses’ in state education, far from it. But even if I could afford it, I just wouldn’t want my children to be educated through the private school system.
Firstly, I strongly believe that as a parent, I would be doing my children a huge disservice by sending them to a private school. There is an overwhelming lack of diversity in private schools by their very nature. Some are non-selective (in that pupils may not have to pass an entrance exam to gain admission) but, by and large, a child in a private school will be surrounded by lots of wealthy, privileged, white children.
There may be one or two pupils on a bursary in a private school, which may give a tokenistic nod to ethnic or social diversity but still independent schools just do not reflect the rich tapestry of cultures in our cosmopolitan capital. More and more overseas students are attending private schools in the U.K. (as middle class families feel the austerity pinch and their numbers in private schools are falling) but although these overseas pupils may have a different nationality, their values and attitudes are very similar if not identical to their British peers.
This is not to say that privileged children are unsuitable peers, but a whole school of very similar pupils provides a rather limited scope of experience. Private school pupils are on the whole extraordinarily well-travelled and have been exposed to a wide variety of cultural events but they still, on the whole, have a limited life experience.
Children who have everything handed to them on a plate and have all adversity removed from their childhood will often lack resilience and emotional robustness. Generally speaking, private school pupils have had very little to overcome in their lives and have experienced little hardship. Consequently, many often have a huge sense of entitlement and fragile personalities.
As a teacher for over 20 years it is not in my nature to speak ill of any child. And that is not what I’m doing here. I’m generalising. In the same way we could also say that children from challenging socio-economic backgrounds often present with challenging behaviours. It’s not rocket science but it isn’t a rule for all children. My children have friends with names, religions, cultures, nationalities and social backgrounds which are sadly absent from private schools. These friends will go on to be my children’s neighbours, colleagues and partners, and learning about each other and how to get on with each other as children is a crucial foundation for what goes on in adult life.
Secondly, I feel the attitudes to learning/ learners and teaching/teachers in the different education sectors is vastly different. In the independent sector, the curriculum is pumped with subject knowledge and specialist teaching. Children from as early as reception receive specialist teachers for French, Mandarin, music or Latin for example.
In the main, the curriculum is ridiculously compartmentalised and disjointed and this makes for disparate learning. On the whole, in public sector schools the ethos is different; topic learning is still prevalent. For example, pupils will learn about the Tudors in history, write imaginative diaries of Elizabeth I in Literacy lessons, whilst learning to play Greensleeves in music and about the impact of Henry VIII’s break with Rome on religion in Britain, whilst painting a Holbein portrait. The learning is within a firm context, is meaningful and cross-curricula. The thinking is joined up, holistic and fun.
Additionally, I do not want to speak negatively or disparagingly of private school teachers (many of whom are my very good friends) but I will say that in the private sector there is a much greater emphasis on the teachers’ subject knowledge and not their skills as practitioners. Sadly, as I know from experience on open mornings, when prospective parents go around, quite often one of the questions being asked is “so where did you get your degree?”. (Although parents need not ask, as this information is often made available on school literature.)
This prevalent attitude is based on an out of date and largely debunked philosophy. I’d like to believe that ‘gone are the days’ when we think of teaching as little more than seeing children as empty vessels to be filled with facts and knowledge. In the private sector, I’ve encountered many teachers with first class degrees from Russell Group universities who are ‘old Downe House girls’ or ‘old Paulinas’ (educated at St Paul’s Girls School) who are very knowledgeable in their specialist subject but haven’t got a clue about pedagogy, let alone children. These teachers are often completely confounded by pupils who may have special educational needs, have English as an additional language or have emotional and behavioural difficulties. Even in deliciously small class sizes, private school teachers struggle with pupils with difficulties as they themselves have probably encountered few pupils with learning difficulties in their own education.
Just as well private school teachers rarely encounter such children in their teaching career, and if they do, the school will often simply request the parents pay additional fees for the child to have one-to-one tuition with SEN or EAL specialists. Excluding pupils with challenging needs is rarely an issue because a quiet informal meeting with the head teacher usually leads to the pupil leaving to go to a more ‘suitable’ setting with little fuss.
Regularly, I tell my pupils and my own children: ‘Mistakes are golden!’. It is when we make mistakes that we really have an opportunity to reflect, develop and grow. There is nothing wrong with making a mistake as long as you learn from it. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that, if you’re not making mistakes you’re probably not learning. The real tragedy is when we make the same mistake over and over again without learning, or, as is so often the case with particularly pupils in private schools, we hide or run from a mistake and see it as a source of embarrassment, or worse, shame.
If so much of your life in a private school is building up towards passing an 11+ exam and getting into a seemingly elite independent secondary school, the cost of making mistakes is high. Children focus on finding the right answer. Therefore understanding the process of learning, metacognition and creativity is stifled if not crushed. It may sound alarmist but many private schools are breeding judgmental, jaded and narrowly-focused pupils who are terrified of making mistakes.
Finally, children’s mental health across-the-board, (regardless of socio-economic, racial or cultural backgrounds), is an overwhelming concern for any educationalist, regardless of where or who they teach. In many private schools (and increasingly more public sector schools) the culture of competition is at best problematic but in many cases, disturbingly rampant. Consequently children are frightened of making mistakes.
When your parents have met substantial financial costs for your education, mistakes take on even greater implications. Children become automatons fearing mistakes and seeking only to score the top marks. Their awareness of themselves as learners or as creative thinkers is repressed as their prime focus becomes getting 130+ in standardised scores and looking like a candidate for a ‘top’ independent secondary school.
I have known many children who, after a very heavy day at a private school (learning six different subjects and having clubs for sports or science before and after school) then go home and have another hour or two of tuition. It is worryingly commonplace the number of children who regularly look exhausted, fraught and on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew of one girl preparing for 15 separate entrance exams, which probably cost her parents over £1,500 to just sit them and nearly cost the girl her sanity.
As a teacher and parent, my fundamental principle is this; what I want for my own children, I want for all children. I want children to grow into happy, successful, creative, well-rounded and caring adults. Without a shadow of doubt, I believe the best chance of my own children, and arguably any child, becoming such an individual is by going through the comprehensive school system.
My daughter is a school refuser. She was diagnosed with Autism in March 2018 having suffered a mental breakdown at the end of 2017. She attended an Academy which operated a “Positive Discipline” system and before she was diagnosed she was in a cycle of negative comments written in her planner and detentions.
She was isolated 4 times in 2 years. Now, although granted an EHCP and a place at an independent school with a specialist resource, she has lost trust in the education system due to the injustice she suffered at her previous school. She feels that she kept her side of the bargain by attending mainstream despite finding it extremely difficult, until she eventually reached breaking point.
My daughter is highly academic but was punished for her autistic traits which I believe were deemed disruptive or not compliant with their discipline system.
Please sign and share this petition if you agree with banning isolation booths becasue they do not work and can be damaging for the mental health of children on the Autistic Spectrum.
Rescue Our Schools recently received an anonymous message from a parent whose son was about to sit SATS. His grandparent had sadly passed away during SATs week. The family told the school. What did the school say in response? Please delay telling your child about their grandparent’s death until SATs are over with, in case it affects their score. The parent was rightly disgusted at such a suggestion.
Over the last few weeks we have received other stories like this. Another parent told us that her child had become ill with chicken pox, but the school offered to send someone round to administer the test at their home.
The heads in these cases are giving very dodgy advice: the guidance on SATs, limited as it is, makes clear that heads in are in loco parentis. If children are upset or unwell, heads have a duty of care towards their students – in other words they shouldn’t put them in for SATs. This is a safeguarding issue. Above and beyond this, parents have the legal right to withdraw their children from school – whether that’s to avoid SATs or any other reason. They may face a fine, but we know of no case yet where that has happened.
Why do some heads do this? We all know the reasons. We have an utterly punitive accountability system, in which schools are judged by their SATs results. A couple of children withdrawing from SATs can affect their data, bump them down the league table, trigger an Ofsted inspection, and in the worst case lead to the head being forced to leave, and forced academisation or a new sponsor taking over.
No other country in the world puts these pressures on headteachers. Those pressures are passed on to staff – who can be paid according to the results they get from their class – who in turn can very easily pass it on to the children in their care. It’s only human to do this. Once you understand the high stakes environment in which heads are operating, you understand why some of them behave the way they do.
But we know from survey after survey that the vast majority of heads think SATs are damaging to both children’s education and their wellbeing. They don’t like doing them. Nor do teachers. So in this sense they are collaborating with a system they fundamentally oppose – and they have that on their conscience until SATs are got rid of.
For children this means that too many of them are suffering in so many ways. Most of the parents who got in touch with us wanting advice on withdrawing their children were doing this because they wanted to protect their children.
Protect them from the unhappiness they thought the tests would unleash. Isn’t that what any caring parent would do? Some parents had assured their children they wouldn’t be sitting the tests, only to be told at the last minute that boycotting would harm their school. With a heavy heart they sent their children to school. We know that some of those students were upset and even crying at doing tests they thought they would avoid. What kind of system is this? It’s a hostile environment not just for learning but for happiness.
We can’t carry on like this. So how do we change the system? One strategy is to encourage more and more parents to boycott SATs next year if they think this is the best thing for their child. That’s assuming this government is still in power, which is a big if. It’s worth remembering that they are now the sole defenders of SATs – the Lib Dems, Greens and now Labour all oppose them.
But a much better way forward would be for heads to come together and vote to boycott SATs en masse next year. That requires the unions to come together on this – in particular the NAHT, which has the greatest number of primary heads.
The NEU, meanwhile, has just opened its ballot on a boycott. We would urge as many members as possible to vote. Under the government’s tough new rules unions need to get more than 50 per cent of members participating in a ballot for it to have any validity. Of those, 80 per cent (yes, it’s that high) need to vote for a boycott.
The stakes are high. – just like the system we must unravel. Winning a vote for a boycott will be extremely tough. But this is a critical moment. NEU members, when you receive your ballot paper, please think of the thousands of children who are being damaged by SATs. Then cast your vote accordingly.
The full impact of Suffolk County Council’s new home-school transport policy is becoming clear. As reported in this week’s East Anglian Daily Times, families in my village and many others are being punished by the council for no other reason than living on the wrong street. The new policy (which calculates distances to school to the nearest metre, using home postcodes), will divide primary school classmates by providing them with transport to different schools, against their parents’ wishes. Last week I attended Suffolk County Council meeting to ask a public question about the new policy. I asked whether the council was aware that their new policy was creating splits in some villages, where children are now being offered free transport to different schools. (This is a particular problem for children going to secondary school in September). The response of the councillor responsible (SCC Cabinet member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills) was that there might be some short-term increase in costs where it will result in two buses going to different schools instead of one bus going to one school, while the policy is phased in. But he also said that because some parents already choose to go to non-catchment schools, split villages weren’t considered an issue. He suggested that parents and schools might come up with ‘local solutions’ for the ‘two-school’ problem including parents doing lift-shares and schools offering their own transport.
He seemed to be either conflating or confusing different things, so I asked again, pointing out that parental choice and the county’s legal obligations to provide school transport are separate issues, and outlining the problem in Nayland. (After all, parents only choose to send their children to non-catchment schools when they can afford to do so.) It so happens that two of the county councillors live in this village. According to the Council’s nearest school checker, one lives in one of the streets now designated for Hadleigh High School (with which our primary has no links and to which there is no bus service). The other lives in the part of the village still designated for Thomas Gainsborough School in Sudbury (our historical catchment school, with good links to our primary school and on a public bus route). The split occurs at our primary school, which for historical reasons has two postcodes; one is now apparently ‘nearer’ to Hadleigh and one to Thomas Gainsborough. Yes really.
You’d think the sensible response to this kind of inefficient and unfair situation would be to say “we need to look at that unintended consequence”, yet the councillor responsible merely reiterated his view that because some parents choose to send their children to grammar schools over the county border, we are already a ‘split village’ and that by implication, the resulting chaos is not a concern.
The result of this policy is that in villages like Nayland, some parents will be forced to pay upwards of £750 per child per year in order for their child to do nothing more unusual than moving up to secondary school with their classmates. For these families, the policy amounts to an opportunistic extra tax. The alternative is that children in families for whom this is unaffordable will have to go a different school from their classmates – child and family effectively being discriminated against for having less money than others. It has to be noted that the council seems to have little understanding that £750 (minimum per child) is a significant sum of additional money for young families to find. Either way, the council’s new policy amounts to a postcode lottery. And all of this was both predictable, and predicted.
There’s a further complication for the schools concerned. If pupils end up going to schools they did not choose to go to instead of the school they already have secured a place in, those schools won’t get the budgets they are expecting this year. And relationships with feeder primaries are totally disrupted, making it much harder to plan smooth school transitions for children moving to secondary school in future years. (Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools are organising their provision around the numbers of pupils they are expecting to receive come September.)
I was astonished by the lack of interest – let alone sympathy to the affected families – shown by the council in response to my questions. The councillor responsible for schools should be aware that schools don’t have spare management time or budget to put on buses. And the council should surely be more interested in what happens IN schools – and therefore be wanting schools to use resources on education, not petrol. If the county council was actually planning to review school catchments and admissions, including for schools still in LEA control – it should do so based on some actual analysis of the need for school places relative to the locations and types of schools, not just redefine school relationships as an unintentional consequence of reducing access to school buses. And it ought to consult with schools themselves.
I don’t know whether the council is wilfully confusing parental choice with its legal responsibilities for school transport, or simply doesn’t understand the policy framework. Either way, it shows little regard for the wellbeing of children anxious they won’t now go to the same school as their classmates, for their parents, school budgets, or the environment. It couldn’t be clearer that councillors are hoping parents will just pick up the bill for a responsibility that sits with the council.
Several years ago, the county council set about the contentious and messy process of closing all the county’s middle schools with the goal of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school, because, they said, this would help them to achieve better educationally. It seems they no longer care about the pupils, given the indifference they are showing to parents and pupils caught up in a policy blunder brought about by the poor implementation of a bad policy. Please, Suffolk County Council, there is still time to pull your head out of the sand. Postpone the implementation of this policy and go back to the drawing board.
Too much change and high levels of pressure can be so detrimental to our children’s mental health. So I decided to look into things and see if we had any options.
For weeks now I have seen a lot of my son’s peers feel the overwhelming pressure of performing for the SATs tests, completing plenty of practice papers and getting upset that they may not be achieving the results expected or desired. I’ve seen kids turn up to school during half term for holiday clubs aimed at SATs practice, missing out on making memories with family or friends, and losing out on the chance of a well-needed break from schoolwork. All for the sake of assessing their schools’ performance. Is this really what they need, right before the transition to secondary school, and saying goodbye to a handful of their childhood friends?
By chance (or divine intervention, or fate, if you believe in either) I saw a social media post made by the group More Than a Score. They provided a bulk of information that outlined the options we had and some practical help for parents wanting to seriously consider withdrawing their child from the tests.
I started by sending a letter to my son’s school, stating that I would like to withdraw him from the tests, and welcomed any discussion. This was followed up by a brief ‘meeting’ during my son’s parents’ evening appointment, in which the deputy head just happened to pop in and tried in earnest to convince me into reconsidering. Multiple iterations of “His results are brilliant, he really is doing well!” and “He really doesn’t appear stressed with any aspect of the tests” were offered to me, but of course he wouldn’t feel stressed, because by this point we had already decided he wouldn’t be sitting them, so he was more than happy to complete any class work or home work. I firmly believe his marks on any preparation work were because he had a distinct lack of pressure. And besides, his capabilities were never a concern, he’s generally a smart kid. I explained that my disagreement with the tests were simply that there are better ways of assessing the school and their staff, and alternative ways to monitor the performance. Then I was hit with this…
“Basically, we as a school need his good marks to reflect well on us. It makes us look good”
Coming from the deputy head I was a little shocked, but I replied, “Well he isn’t a pawn and he won’t be stressed out for the sake of a league table”. I was quietly satisfied with this, and left this eye-opening parent evening.
Skip forward to the Friday before the start of ‘SATs Week’ and I receive a letter from the head, to ‘clarify the situation’. Full of references to the STA (Standards and Testing Agency) and their regulations/guidelines in respect to attendance marks, it was made clear that even if he wasn’t to sit the tests that week, he could be made to sit the tests up to 5 days after the last test was sat. He would also have to be kept away from all of his peers, and so they would make arrangements to segregate him during the time frame of the tests (both at school and home). There was also a nice mention of the fact he wouldn’t be able to attend the celebratory class meal to a local eatery with his friends, just for good measure. As if the bribery would have won him over?
At this point I reached out for some advice, as I was honestly a little overwhelmed and wanted to be clear of where to go from here. I contacted Rescue Our Schools who along with a colleague gave me some solid guidance. I wrote a reply outlining the fact he would stay home for the days which they have tests, and would be back after the last test had been sat. I also made it clear that he would have access to his friends and the internet, and so had every opportunity to gain knowledge on the test contents, and therefore would not be eligible to sit any the following week. I got no formal reply from the school, so I went on with the plan I had outlined, enjoying 3 and a half days in the sunshine and getting in some well-earned fun. He attended the first afternoon session after the last test was sat and congratulated his friends on their hard work, happy and ready to tackle the last few weeks of his primary education with his friends.
It can be really difficult to navigate your way through the decision to withdraw your child from SATs. It isn’t made easy for us, and I believe that is for a reason. Here are the main things I would advise after our experience.
1.Try to give yourself plenty of time to communicate with the school. Some headteachers may not have the information readily available, so give them and yourself time to seek out any information needed. Opening the conversation well in advance can really help you to avoid feeling rushed into making decisions.
2.Make it clear you would be happy to discuss things with the school, and remind them that you not only worry about the stress put on the children, but also the pressures for the teaching staff.
3.Clarify in a letter to the head, that you will be keeping your child off school for the days of the tests. Also include that they will have access to the internet and their friends, and so will not be eligible to be entered for the tests in the following week. This is crucial, and will prevent them from going against your wishes.