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My New Labour education

A front line account of the experience of being tested rather than taught under Blair. A recent UK school-leaver reports on what is was really like for the new generation educated since the Tories were in power

I have been educated under New Labour. I was six years old when Labour won in May 1997. I was in Year 2 – just a few months away from completing what would come to be known as Key Stage 1.

This means I am among the first of a wave of young people now entering adult life who have been educated, educated, and educated thanks to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

 

Should we fear for our country? I leave this for you to judge.

One of my strongest, earliest memories of school is what were known as practice or mock SATs, the Standard Assessment Tests. These began for me at the age of 7 and were repeated once a year, every year, until the real thing at ten and fourteen. This is how the official web page describes what they are about. It says SATs:

are used to show your child’s progress compared with other children born in the same month. The mean (average) score for each age group on an assessment is set at 100 and the standard deviation at 15. For any age group a given numerical value has the same meaning in terms of standing relative to the group. For example, an eight year old and a nine year old, each of whom has a standard age score of 105, have performed equally well in relation to the average for their respective age groups.

So that’s clear.

I witnessed at first hand the disproportionate time teachers spend with those children who are at the borderline of Level 5 (the expected minimum – in effect a ‘pass’ – achievement level at fourteen). These are fed into the results based league tables for schools. As long as the Government insists on SATs results being the gold standard, every school’s hands are tied. Especially if they are under-funded and poorly resourced, it really matters to them because their future income is linked to the number of students they have, which in turn depends on the attractiveness of the school to parents, who are encouraged to judge by a league table of SAT’s results.

You could argue that this is evidence of a system working to improve itself as school teachers dedicated themselves to enhancing the education they provided, urging on pupils to enhance what they learn. Maybe it is stressful, but that’s necessary for a good education.

However, in addition to putting tremendous stress on students and teachers, I found the SATs system detrimental to my learning and the learning of my peers.

Crucially, SATs do not measure how much you have learnt or how well you understand what you are being taught – simply how good you are at passing the test. The first thing I was handed at the beginning of each new module or subject was the course specification. As you begin exam practice you are given mark schemes and above all taught how examiners apply them: you are taught content only as far as is necessary to give the examiners what they require. If it’s not on the syllabus, you don’t need to know it. What you do need to know are the exact criteria for the level you are aiming for. In this way teaching time is monopolised by teaching to the test, and consumed by teaching exam technique.

This creates a constant pressure on children from a very young age. I have seen and experienced the dramatic effects on health and well-being. I had friends who began smoking at thirteen, to steady their nerves rather than aspiring to maturity.

SATs are the quintessential institution of a system so obsessed with constant measurement and quantification that it gets everything the wrong way round, destroying education in the process. Yes, I agree it is important to hold teachers and schools to account for the standard of their teaching. Of course parents want to know what kind of school they’re sending their children to. But it is essential to work back from the goal. This should be to provide good education that produces well-educated young people. Then, you need to develop reliable ways to report this, including when and how it may not be happening, in a way that leads to the swiftest possible improvement.

The SATs system goes about things the other way round. Its starts with the need to have measurements and subordinates education to this objective: it bends education to the production of outcomes measurable in terms of a comparative system designed so as to enhance its own measurement by means of SATs. The result has been to make education thinner and more superficial even while greater resources have been invested in it.

The SATs method is wrong. Why can’t OFSTED adopt a more qualitative measurement – and more succinct and accessible style – to give parents a true picture of the learning environment?

In my case my parents carefully chose my secondary school, based in no small part on its results. They were sorely disappointed when it transpired that these results were in spite of an oppressive atmosphere, unruly students and poor teacher control.

My secondary education took place in Sheffield, the birthplace and spiritual home of Citizenship education – a flagship New Labour programme. It was here that Professor Bernard Crick taught the young David Blunkett at Sheffield University. When he became Secretary of State for Education Blunkett made his old teacher the head of an advisory group on education and its report led to the creation of a compulsory citizenship curriculum.

In my school Citizenship was squeezed into just one hour a week accompanied by sex education, careers and health issues (smoking, alcohol, drugs etc). Of course, none of the topics could be covered successfully – not least because all were dropped by the time I was 15 except for careers. But topics were also delayed. By the time we started our lessons on safe sex, the first girl in our year to leave school pregnant had a two year old child. To say the lesson was belated is understating things somewhat.

Most of the teachers who give PSHCE (Personal, Social, Health and Citizenship Education) classes are not specialists and the lessons saw even worse behaviour than usual. I can’t remember a single one that was not disrupted – or where a senior member of staff was not called to support the struggling teacher. Most memorably, was when some students took the opportunity to play football at the back. Hardly any work of value was actually achieved. How could it be? Mashing PSHE and Citizenship meant time was very pressured just to cover the various syllabuses and when you add to this the need to spend more than half the lesson trying to get the students to be quiet, you are never going to finish them. So a topic like Law and Order was supposed to start by talking about school rules, why we need them, what happens when you break them, and then broaden out to the rule of law. However, we never got beyond the first step, and the wider element of the ideas of citizenship itself were lost. In 2011 yet another compulsory subject – Financial Education – is due to be added to the crowded sessions.

I feel let down by the government that rose to power with education as all three of its “main priorities for government.” My lasting impression of my New Labour education is one which fails to live up to its promises. The government were so controlling and mistrustful in their management of education they squeezed the life out of it. They had such a need to regulate that they excluded the possibility of organic creativity, let alone genuine learning, or the possibility that one size does not fit all. Perhaps the lost opportunity is symbolised for me by the PFI expansion of part of our sixth form. We got much needed new space. But we all knew that the land would revert to the developers in 20 years or so, that the government had sold the future of the school.

But above all, young pupils, sixth form students and staff are all recognised primarily as the statistics they equate to: SATs levels, GCSE grades, teacher assessment results, OFSTED scores. Our education was sacrificed to their enumeration. At least, that’s how it was in Sheffield, the heart of New Labour’s educational reform.

 

 

This article is an edited version of the author's contribution to the e-book, Radical Futures. See http://lwbooks.co.uk/ebooks/radicalfuture.html 

 

About the author

Clare Coatman is Campaigns and Ideas Organiser for Compass. She is an experienced campaigner, having worked on issues including democracy, the environment and intergenerational justice.


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