“. . . in the very torrent, tempest, and . . . whirlwind of passion, you must beget and acquire temperance . . .” – Hamlet
The Conservatives’ plan to require re-sits of the KS2 SATs for those who ‘fail’ has prompted a backlash of sizeable proportions. This backlash is powered by some very deep emotions, and it reveals deep divisions in educational thinking, as well as in wider society.
There is a widespread view that SATs testing is a poor instrument for measuring the success of a student’s primary schooling. Suggesting that those who find it most difficult should then be exposed it to for a second, and possibly a third time, is a frustrating – and, for some, infuriating – proposal. This blog post by @DisIdealist, passionately articulating his anger at the injustice he felt it did to his children, went stratospheric, clocking up over 300,000 views in a day.
The post you are reading is not a defence of SATs. It is a comment on the reasons people have given for objecting to the SATS re-sit plan. I am not in favour of the form of current SATs tests. I think that we could do a better job of measuring students’ progress through straightforward, standardised tests in reading, maths, and spelling – and probably writing if we wanted to.
Having said that, it is apparent that at age eleven or even ten, the tests do not have to be seen as high stakes for students. The blame for the anxiety that parents and children feel lies squarely with schools and teachers, who have perpetuated a narrative that SATs are evil because of their emotional impact – a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves the schools’ needs to meet targets.
Back to the backlash. For example, this post opposed the re-sits idea by posing the analogy of a child being asked to tidy their room. There might be many reasons, the writer mused, why a child might not do this. Should they then be prevented from playing until it was done? I found her reasoning alarming, not least because I would have expected her to realise that an analogy is not an argument.
Then there is the analogy itself. The writer provided (by my count) fourteen reasons why a child might not tidy up their room. None of these reasons seemed to me to be a justification for not teaching them to do so. Is it reasonable for a parent to accept that a child hasn’t taken responsibility for an age-appropriate task (presumably the analogy is still being applied to eleven-year-olds) and not to do something about it? If the child is allowed to go out to play, what happens to the room? Does the parent tidy it up instead? What does this teach the child? There is an implicit idea that even logical consequences are a punishment, and therefore should be avoided. Is it an intentional consequence to communicate that such irresponsibility is perfectly OK?
Lastly, and most concerning for me, everything was considered but improving the quality of the training. At no stage was there any suggestion that the parent might have a responsibility to prepare the child better, and so to ensure that he or she is successful. I doubt that she meant it this way, but the piece was wide open to the criticism that the list of reasons actually amounted to excuses, since the parent could have made appropriate responses to any of them, but apparently stood by helpless – before, presumably, tidying up the room herself.
But of course the real issue is not tidying a room, but checking whether the child has developed certain reading, writing and mathematical competencies that are essential to success at secondary school. The role of the parent in the analogy above is in reality that of the teacher, who is accountable for ensuring that the student has developed these competencies. There seems to be a widespread consensus that some children must inevitably fail, without any suggestion that the teacher might have done something different. It seems much more acceptable to define the activity at which they failed as unfair.
This seems to be the tenor of the Disappointed Idealist post that struck such a chord. (For the purposes of this post, I am not focusing on the writer’s vitriol for those with whom he disagrees politically. But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, or that the acquiescence to this – even celebration of it – by his readers isn’t alarming.)
The writer’s rage was prompted by the inference, presumably drawn from the Telegraph article that he used to illustrate the piece, that his children would be ‘mediocre failures’. What the Telegraph actually quoted was ‘zero tolerance for mediocrity and failure’. The statement was about mediocrity and failure of schools, not children. No politician in their right mind, not even a Tory education minister, would use such language about children in the middle of an election campaign. But no matter – the damage was done, the outburst was made, and a flood of sympathy – or rather, antipathy – crashed over the internet.
The writer said much in praise of his children’s school, but this also is troubling. How is it that both parents and teachers have such limited expectations – NOT of children, but of our teaching? Why do we think that being ‘endlessly patient’ is a virtue, when what we are doing is clearly not working? Would you want your doctor to be ‘patient’ if they were not resolving a health problem? Would you want your car mechanic to be ‘endlessly patient’ while they kept tinkering without success? We may not pay the bills directly in state education, but we are paying – not just through taxes, but through the consequences our children experience for OUR failure to teach them well.
At this point, some readers may be feeling offended or dismissive. Am I really suggesting that it is possible to teach all children? Surely there must be an acceptance that some children are not up to the challenge? And isn’t this just support for the Tories?*
It is possible to teach nearly all children to read, write and do mathematics effectively (Binder, 2003). Dr Louisa Moats (1999) puts it this way: “Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well.” I recognize that the culture in the UK has been to smother anything that can be ascribed as a learning difficulty under a large ‘SEN’ label, but the bloating of the SEN register to 27% of the country utterly discredited that practice. And if it’s now possible to teach children to read whose characteristics were considered ineducable forty years ago, what about ‘regular’ children? Don’t they all have a right to effective teaching?
Are all children up to the challenge? It depends on whether we know enough effective ways of teaching them. All teachers should have a repertoire, but the practices in this repertoire must be effective and teachers must know what they should do when one approach isn’t working. Just trying something else isn’t sufficient. And nor is compensating for the problem, with coloured overlays, large print, dumbed-down language and simpler vocabulary. Like tidying the child’s room for them, we are just putting off the problem, and it will be harder to fix in the future. Unlike tidying a child’s room, the level of technical expertise required of the adult is significantly greater. It is the kind of teaching, not the compassion of the teachers, that needs attention.
And so my question is, why are we angry at the Conservatives for suggesting that we teach our children well? Is it really punishing children to insist that schools do something – something effective – if we know that there is a problem?
While I don’t think SATs are the right way to go, we need to hold schools to account for progress in such essential skills. At the moment secondary schools are completely off the hook for five years. To the extent that they have to do something about the problems that they say they inherit from primary schools, checking on progress in Year 7 is a good thing. Just don’t waste everyone’s time by trying to do it with SATs.
I applaud the passion of the Disappointed Idealist. We need parents who can articulate empathy and indignation on behalf of their children. But I would be happier if he – and the thousands who cheered him on – were directing their anger at the education establishment’s assumption that we will always have children who fail. It’s a false assumption, as is the emotional caricature that those advocating for more accountability for children’s progress care less about the children. I have worked with SEN long enough to know that the most deadly poison is sympathy. It kills by paralysis. Perhaps we should temper our passion in order to learn – and fight for – practices that will ensure success for all children.
* No, it’s not. I’m equally appalled by Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt.
Binder, C. (2003) Doesn’t Everybody Need Fluency? www.ispt.org (March 2003)
Moats, L. (1999) Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science. American Federation of Teachers.