Author: Dr Pam Jarvis
As the Anglophone world prepares to move with trepidation into a new phase in its history, with the inauguration of Donald Trump and the beginnings of the Brexit negotiations, a quieter revolution is also under way which has equal potential to change society. In the mid-2000s, academic and professional voices began to be raised about the pressure under which children were placed in England’s state education system, particularly in the primary years. The response from the Ministry was to propose that these were the criticisms of a left-wing ‘blob’ who were making ‘excuses for not teaching poor children how to add up’.
In 2014, an ‘accelerated’ primary curriculum was introduced, and in 2016, primary children sat the first SATs based upon its content. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers proposed that ‘this data is not worth the paper it is written on’ and described the subsequent furore as ‘chaos and confusion’, adding that ‘Parents should not be distracted by the 65% attainment benchmark, which is based on badly designed and rapidly changing tests’. The schools minister Nick Gibb defended the government’s position claiming that ‘This new curriculum raises expectations and ensures pupils become more accomplished readers and are fluent in the basics of arithmetic.’ However the final statistics indicated that almost half of the primary school pupils in the country had failed the new SATs standards.
The voices raised in protest included that of Liberal leader Tim Farron, father of four school-aged children, who accused ministers of living in a fantasy in which ‘students are robotic and teachers skip around teaching past participles and antonyms by rote to seven-year-olds.’ The debate continues into 2017, and is beginning to rapidly evolve; in particular many of the voices being raised to contest the ‘transmit and test’ approach to education are not just professional and academic, but increasingly those of parents. Parental voices are beginning to question practices that, in Farron’s words, turn their children into lab rats to test Gove’s highly suspect ideology, drawn not from professional or academic experience, but from his own personal opinions and prejudices, which he later exposed in his comment that Britain has ‘had enough of experts’.
Parent power has already surfaced in the US, where many states operate similar ‘transmit and test’ regimes to England. In the US book More than a Score: the new uprising against high stakes testing Jeanette Deutermann describes how she and her sister started a movement in Long Island ‘to accurately inform parents what their options were for shielding their children from these abusive tests’ (p.197). She eventually put together a Facebook group of 4000 members. In 2016, almost 100,000 children in Long Island were ‘opted out’ of standard testing by their parents, causing the New York State Education Chancellor, Betty Rosa to comment ‘I think we need to emphasize the issue of high-stakes testing… we have to get back to what really matters, which is teaching and learning—deep learning—and our kids’ excitement to really become those deep learners. We have to change the narrative back to focus on teaching and learning, and less on one Kodak moment to capture all of that work’.
In September 2016, a More than a Score protest movement started in England, calling for an end to ‘toxic SATS’ that ‘left pupils in tears’. The allied Let Our Kids Be Kids movement currently has a petition online calling for the suspension of primary school testing. The parent leaders of Let Our Kids Be Kids state: ‘We established Let Kids Be Kids in response to a lot of whinging in the school yard – we aren’t whingers – we are doers… and so we wanted some positive action!’
Parent Debra Kidd describes on her blog how just such a spirit motivated her decision to remove her youngest child from England’s primary school SATs in mid-2016:
When my youngest was in Year 4, I decided to boycott the SATs. He’s now in Year 5. I strongly believe that the SATs tests, as they currently stand, are damaging to children and to schools and that the only reasonable option for parents who are concerned, is to refuse to allow their child to sit them. If you’re a parent of a primary aged child, please consider this as an option available to you.
She describes the situation that motivated her to take this decision: children who were too busy with SATs revision to learn their lines for a Christmas play, children only permitted to have a Christmas party if they did a maths test beforehand and sat three mock SATs tests on the first day back after Christmas and a timetable hugely skewed towards the ‘drilling’ of maths and English language principles, with all other subjects squeezed into such a short time that some inevitably get dropped altogether. She concludes: ‘Let me be clear, when half of our children are told they are failing to meet “expectations” at the age of 11, there is something wrong with the expectations, not the children’.
So is 2017 going be remembered in educational history as the year of parent power? Many grandparents such as myself, who have long had misgivings about the direction in which state education has been travelling will be cheering from the sidelines. And perhaps, then, the future does not look quite so bad after all.
Dr Pam Jarvis is a Reader in Childhood, Youth and Education at Leeds Trinity University. She is a Chartered Psychologist and Historian, and her research focuses upon policy creation and well-being with respect to children, young people and their families. She is also grandmother to Lennon (6), Frankie (3-and-a-half) and Ed (3 months).
This is a forthcoming blog entry from Dr Pam Jarvis’ series written for the Huffington Post. Find the blog series here.