Tuesday 29 March 2016

Children Are More Than a Score

We’ve heard about the damage that high-stakes standardised testing is doing to our children’s education. We’ve heard about the impact it has on their self-esteem, on their mental health. So there’s a pretty obvious question to be asked.

Why, when the weight of educational research is against them, when the mass of parents are against them and when the professional judgement of teachers is against them, why would this government continue in its dogmatic obsession with standardised testing?

Well, I think it comes down to visions of education. What is the vision of education that drives this government and the governments that preceded it?

I want to share with you you a quote which I think encapsulates it.

Investment in learning in the 21st century is the equivalent of investment in the machinery and technical innovation that was essential during the industrial revolution. Then it was capital, now it is human capital

Where does this come from? Some dry economic publication? Some fantastical projection of a dystopian future where human beings have been reduced to the status of ‘human capital’?

No, it comes from a publication produced by the department for education in 1996. And in many ways it encapsulates the view of successive governments about education.

In his 2011 book, Finnish Lessons, Pasi Sahlberg outlines the key features of what he calls the global education reform movement or GERM, the policy set that has dominated education internationally for the past thirty years. These include competition, choice, standardisation, test-based accountability, performance-related rewards, low-risk strategies for acquiring knowledge.

You see, if your vision of education is as a narrow economic process, nothing more than the creation of human capital, and if you believe that a fragmented market system is the best way of delivering this narrow economic goal, then you need standardised testing.

You need a simple means of measuring the ‘output’ of the education system.

As education is increasingly commodified through the illusion of choice and artificial introduction of competition and financial incentives for schools, you need a simple way of comparing the products on offer.

And of course, if you want a compliant workforce, you need a means of disciplining the producers of educational goods via performance-related rewards and punishments, which means you need a simple measure of teacher performance.

Never mind that education is a complex process that can’t be reduced to a simple question of inputs vs outputs, that can’t be compared like a brand of cereal, where the performance of an individual teacher cannot be separated from the performance of the system. Their narrow vision of education demands simple, reductionist measurements, and it is our students who suffer the consequences.

In this way, standardised testing is intricately tied in to the whole agenda of the Global Education Reform Movement, whether it is the imposition of teacher evaluation in Mexico or the academisation of schools in England. We must link these fights nationally and internationally.

I am proud to be a primary school teacher in Oxfordshire.

I am also proud to be a father of two amazing girls, one of whom does and one of whom soon will attend our local primary school in Oxfordshire.

David Cameron, as I’m sure you are aware, is one of our local MPs.

As we’ve seen this week, David is not universally popular, even amongst his own local Conservative Party. Melinda Tilley, the conservative cabinet member for education on his local council has spoken out against the government’s white paper. Strange bedfellows you may say but I think we should to pay tribute to Melinda for standing up for teachers, for parents and for our children’s future, in defiance of her own party and of this government’s undemocratic agenda.

But Melinda isn’t the only person in Oxfordshire who has a problem with this government’s education policies.

I have a message for David Cameron, a message from the teachers and parents in his local community.

Our children’s education is far too important for us to stand aside and let you destroy it.
As teachers and parents, in Oxfordshire, and across England and Wales, will stand up for education.

We will stand up for the right of our children to be treated as human beings, not simply numbers on a piece of paper.

We will fight for our children every step of the way.

And we will win.

The above post is the text of a speech I gave during the debate on testing at NUT conference on Monday.

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