Gordon Brown showed his true colours on Wednesday of last week with his “get tough on school failure” speech.
It could easily have been written by Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. He threatened to close any school where fewer than 30 percent of pupils obtain five A* to C GCSE grades including English and Maths.
Because he made no distinction between schools serving different neighbourhoods, this is in reality a body blow against schools in the poorest areas. This target is child’s play in affluent suburbs, but an uphill struggle in poorer neighbourhoods.
Brown’s 30 percent would be fine as an aspiration, but it is disgraceful as a threat. And it is hypocritical from a politician who, as chancellor, was so slow to reduce child poverty and did next to nothing to reduce class sizes.
If you look at the examination scores in any major city, you will see the scope of Brown’s assault on schools. In effect, he has just declared half of all schools in cities such as Newcastle, Sunderland and Liverpool to be failing.
Birmingham is an important example. A few years ago it was hailed by the education inspectorate Ofsted as a resounding success. Tim Brighouse was praised for his leadership and asked to run the London Challenge.
Leaving aside a few grammar schools, Birmingham is England’s biggest education authority with 68 secondary schools. According to Brown 33 are failing. In fact 22 of these “failures” have been inspected in the past 12 months. Of these only four were judged inadequate, 12 were satisfactory and five good.
The prime minister threatens to close any school not reaching his target and privatise it as an academy. This could be an own goal if it wakens more teachers to the threat of privatisation.
The irony is that most existing academies fall below his target. In fact, of the 14 academies opened in 2002, 2003 and 2004, only one reaches Brown’s target. Will the rest be put back into local authority control?
Brown’s threats will do nothing to improve standards. Urban schools already find it difficult to recruit teachers. Who will apply to work there knowing they will suffer constant threats and interference?
Once again, schools will focus attention on pupils getting Ds to lift them into Cs, ignoring higher achievers and pupils who are really struggling.
Of course we all want educational standards to improve for young people, especially those growing up in poverty. This requires eliminating the blight of child poverty now, not in 2020. And teachers need the freedom to develop a curriculum which will re-engage disaffected young people.
Meanwhile, an official review of primary schools has raised serious doubts about New Labour’s interference in teaching methods and its strategy to “raise standards” in education.
As part of the national primary review, experts were asked to look at the literacy hour, imposed on schools ten years ago. The conclusion – £500 million was spent with almost no impact on reading levels.
Cambridge lecturer Mary Hilton had already shown how the key stage two SATs tests – for ten year olds – were simplified in the very year that the literacy hour was made compulsory.
Questions requiring interpretation were replaced by easier questions based on spotting simple facts.
Assessment expert Peter Tymms from Durham university then checked official SATs results against alternative tests. His conclusion – there has been only a slight improvement in reading.
Schools minister Lord Adonis continues to trumpet the fact that 84 percent of 11 year olds have the expected level four reading standard, compared with 67 percent ten years ago.
The truth is, David Blunkett promised to resign as education minister if the literacy hour didn’t work, so they made the tests easier.
Despite protests that the literacy hour was a great success, it was abandoned last year – in favour of an even worse regime.
The latest magic answer now is phonics. The government’s new
instructions reduce reading to matching a letter to a sound. This ignores the complexity of English spelling – you simply can’t make the sounds of the letters t-h-e, say it quicker and get the word “the”.
It ignores the way we recognise sentence patterns. It ignores the many tactics we use to make sense of what we read.
Phonics are an important part of learning to read, but only a part. When you concentrate on phonics too much, you forget about reading for enjoyment. You turn reading into a chore. This is particularly harmful to those children who haven’t had books read to them at home.
The government’s new phonics regime is based on extremely limited research, but primary school teachers in England are being expected to ditch their professional knowledge and experience and follow the latest orders.
Why do New Labour’s generals always think they know better than teachers? The last ten years have seen unprecedented central control.
Michael Barber, a chief adviser to Tony Blair on education, showed his contempt for teachers when he quoted Pascal, “If you want to teach the peasants to pray, force them down on their knees.”
New Labour is now defining schools as “failing” when it is they who have been pushing the policies driving schools to failure in the first place. Isn’t it time to say no?
Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh university and is author of Another School Is Possible, which is available from Bookmarks, » www.bookmarks.uk.com