This week's Voice of Experience essay was originally published on spiked, a London-based Web site "for those who want to see some change in the real world." Educator Sue Palmer reflects on the standards (or targets) movement in the United Kingdom. "How had we let statistics become more important than children?" she wonders. Palmer has created a Web site to support her campaign to improve the quality of British primary education by returning decisions about curriculum to the professionals -- the teachers -- who know best!
You know how sometimes you go along with something because, even though it obviously isn't perfect, it seems to be headed in the right general direction?
And as time goes on, it gets less and less perfect, but you carry on being a fellow-traveller because ... well, what else is there to do? And then, things get sillier and sillier until you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night thinking, 'How, in the name of sanity, did I get mixed up in all this? I've got to bail out. Now!'
Well, with me it's targets [standards]. The UK government's targets for achievement in literacy and numeracy at age 11. Targets set by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), and imposed with utter ruthlessness across the land. Targets that have come to dominate everything that happens in English primary schools, from the deployment of staff to the setting of spelling homework.
Hardly any teachers ever liked targets, but on the whole we went along with them because they were part of the initiative to raise standards, which was clearly a good and necessary thing. Five years ago, far too many children were leaving primary school with appalling basic skills. The New Labour government's thrice-repeated education pledge meant a real opportunity to improve literacy and numeracy teaching, including money to help failing readers and information for teachers about phonics, grammar and spelling -- essential elements of literacy that had been neglected for decades. Specific targets for pupil achievement were part of the package, and in the early days maybe they did help focus schools' attention and ginger us all up a bit.
In those first few years we did make progress -- gradually the numbers of children achieving the 'average' score of Level 4 in national tests at age 11 rose from about 60 percent to 75 percent. Maybe the targets weren't a completely bad thing, we thought, and carried along by spin and good intentions, we all stuck with it.
But as time went on you couldn't help noticing the ill effects. Targets seemed to force teachers increasingly to teach to the test, sacrificing the 'broad and balanced curriculum' and the emphasis on creativity that is essential if primary children are to learn.
Stress levels throughout the profession rose, as priorities went cock-eyed. Head teachers, government advisers, local government officials all seemed to be rushing around with rising blood pressure, looking for some philosopher's stone that could turn the base metal of a Level 3 into the shining gold of a Level 4. Some headteachers even tried cheating. Statistics were the all-important thing now ... and many excellent primary teachers decided it was time to leave.
Then, in autumn 2001, the test results were published. Horror! We were no longer making progress. National scores had not improved on the previous year, and in maths they had actually gone down.
The DfES didn't pause to wonder whether its short-termism might have proved counterproductive. Instead, its response was short-sighted, swift, and terrifying: new, tougher targets for 2004 and unprecedented levels of government prescription to meet them.
Within weeks, DfES had scripted lesson plans for 11-year-olds and published them on its Web site -- what amounts to the first volume of a national textbook. Since most Year 6 teachers have been reduced by all the target nonsense to grovelling wrecks, they are embracing with tired resignation a level of state interference that, three years ago, would have been unthinkable. 'OK, I'll follow the government lessons to the letter,' they reason; 'then nobody can blame me if my kids don't get their Level 4.'
As somebody who became a primary teacher because of a passionate belief in democracy, this was when my panic kicked in. This was when I started waking in the middle of the night, wild-eyed and shivery, wondering how we had got here. How had I, and countless other well-meaning teachers and educational professionals, managed to spend three years marching down this terrible educational cul-de-sac? How had we let statistics become more important than children? How had we allowed a focus on short-term solutions -- based on a couple of highly questionable national tests -- to lead to prescribed lessons, stamped with the words 'Government Approved'? And where might this subtly crafted culture of dependence take us next...?
It's time to bail out. Time to substitute government prescription with informed, reflective professionalism. Time to stop being led by the nose, and start teaching again ... before it's too late. Please visit the Time to Teach Web site and pass it on....
Sue Palmer is an independent writer and literacy inset-provider. For the past three years, she has been a consultant to the National Literacy Strategy, contributing to a number of government training packages.