The “Children’s Plan” is a bold attempt by Gordon Brown’s allies to present a new child-friendly image. It will take time to digest it properly, since it contains hundreds of proposals, ranging from positive but token measures to others which are suspect and downright harmful.
This article can only highlight a few of the issues it raises.
In the report the government has been forced to admit to some of its widely publicised failings (see “Labour: Failing the Test” below). But even here the tone minimises the extent of the problem. The plan coyly states that “some children, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, are still underachieving”.
It also attempts to win back the support of parents who are sick of their children being treated as part of an endless efficiency drive. Government policy has been dominated by this “conveyor belt” approach to schooling.
In the plan there is, at long last, a greater emphasis on play. One measure it suggests is improving play for the early years of primary schooling.
But the concrete proposals are limited. For example the plan proposes 30 new adventure playgrounds in disadvantaged areas – spread across the whole of England. At that rate, cities the size of Liverpool or Bristol might look forward to one each.
The government’s obsession with target-setting is not over. Obesity will be reduced – to the level of the year 2000. Hardly ambitious.
“Child poverty will be eliminated by 2020.” In other words, a whole generation will have grown up in misery since New Labour first took power in 1997 – a generation of lives ruined and hopes destroyed (see » Growing gap between ‘leafy suburbs’ and ‘estates’).
The government will spend £8 million a year on a scheme to give individual help to children struggling with writing. That will only provide about 200 extra teachers across the whole of England.
Changes in testing are proposed, but these will not necessarily improve things. The plan is to replace testing at ages seven and 11 with tests “when the child is ready”, as is already the case in Scotland.
In practice, this can mean children being tested every year to see who can jump the next hurdle. Since teachers are still to be judged by test results, and there is no proposal to end performance related pay, the same pressures will remain. So will teaching to the test.
A review of primary education is promised – even though one is already under way, commissioned just a few months ago. The findings of that review are damning of Labour’s policies, so the government has decided to start a different one.
The plan argues for more time to be spent on literacy and numeracy – already about half the timetable. Other subjects will get “more flexibility” – maybe a euphemism for “will largely disappear”. This is part of an extended process of reducing primary education to a narrow version of “basic skills” to meet employers’ demands.
The same neo-liberal strategy of reducing education to work training is also being pursued in secondary schools. We are told that every secondary school will have a university or business partner. We could ask whose schools will have university partners? And how much influence will the business “partners” have? Will they be like academy sponsors, able to choose the staff and dictate the curriculum?
Finally, this plan sees individual teachers as both the problem and the potential solution. For instance, the report says that teachers who are not “effective” can be “helped to leave the profession”.
Altogether too many questions for comfort. Will those who see education minister Ed Balls as Santa Claus end up thinking they’ve found the white witch instead? Will our children and grandchildren step through Uncle Gordon’s wardrobe into New Narnia, only to find it’s always winter and never Christmas?
This has been a year of bad news for a government obsessed with targets.
It began with Unicef, the United Nation’s children’s organisation, placing Britain at the “bottom of the class” in a survey of young people’s happiness and welfare across 21 industrialised nations.
Our children were growing up “unhealthy” and “unhappy”. Labour’s obsession with testing was partly to blame.
One of the report’s authors sited underinvestment and a “dog eat dog” society.
The year ends with international tests showing Britain tumbling down the league table for school achievement.
It is almost impossible to compare countries fairly, so these “league tables” should be treated with a pinch of salt. But they have worried Labour politicians and advisers. These reports and other recent research insists that poverty is a root cause of underachievement.
Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in educational development at Edinburgh University and the author of Another School Is Possible.
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