The Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) has taken its toll on schools, teachers and most of all on children and young people. It has infected the institutions, relationships and individuals involved in working towards a common goal, the full and effective education of all students. The proposition here is that the reform agenda is not aligned with this goal, and also, that it never was. But, what is even worse, the evidence indicates it has damaged the whole system rather than improve it. So, what amounts to evidence for making such a claim?
To begin, in England there is a growing consensus that ongoing reforms are narrowing the curriculum. This point was made recently by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee.
In this letter, however, the Chief Inspector stated incorrectly that “spending per pupil in primary and secondary schools has increased significantly in real terms since the early 1990s”. This is in direct contrast to the evidence fuelling the campaign of parents deeply concerned about education funding levels. Just like the Education Secretary and even the Prime Minister, the Chief Inspector has it wrong, as evidence from the Institute for Fiscal Studies 2018 report confirms – ”Total school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2017–18.”
Many young people are left with fewer subjects they would study out of choice as the arts and humanities in particular have been cut back in schools as funding cuts have taken greater effect over time. In her letter, the Chief Inspector acknowledges the impact of reforms on curriculum provision when stating the “research has found evidence that an overly data-driven accountability system is narrowing what pupils are able to study and learn.”
The extent of the damage being done to the education system can be summed up in some very disturbing comments made by Ms Spielman in the report – “ In primary schools, we found examples of schools effectively suspending Year 6 to focus exclusively on SATs, rather than encouraging children to grapple with new mathematical concepts or encouraging them to read widely. Schools were forcing pupils instead to retake reading comprehension papers, with the purpose of boosting the schools’ results, not their pupils’ abilities to read.” It is time to question if these are the actions of educators who feel free to exert their professional judgements. Are they rather an indication of the desperate measures adopted by schools seeking to avoid special measures when Ofsted comes to call?
There is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention tackled in part by off-loading the recruitment of teachers to schools and others offering on the job training, leaving many new recruits with little understanding of child development and with insufficient knowledge of how to deliver the curriculum. Teaching the ‘basics’ takes precedence over breadth and balance in the curriculum for many children, especially those with developmental difficulties.
A recent report, ‘What Motivates People to Teach and Why Do They Leave, Accountability, Performability and Teacher Retention’ by Jane Perryman and Graham Calvert, describes why so many teachers are leaving the profession.
In summary their report concludes; “The top reasons (closed option answer) given for leaving by those who had left were”
- To improve work life balance (75%)
- Workload (71%)
- Target driven culture (57%)
- Teaching making me ill (51%)
- Government initiatives (43%)
- Lack of support from management (38%)
Very similar responses were given by those teachers who indicated, when asked, why they may at some time leave. The greatest area of conflict for many was that they lost sight of the reason they had entered teaching in the first place under the relentless pressure they felt. Others directly involved in education (support staff) also experience unhealthy levels of pressure arising out of the reforms.
Two issues of great concern for parents are testing and discipline. The precise manner in which these two apparently unconnected aspects of school life overlap with dramatic effect is very telling.
The first round of National Curriculum testing began in 1991. Since then testing has come to be accepted as part of normal life for children between the ages of four and sixteen, at the end of the three Key Stages. The pressure on schools to ‘perform’ well in nationally reported testing has resulted in the introduction of ‘zero tolerance’ discipline policies that have been widely reported to particularly adversely affect children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with additional needs. This blog by Roger Titcombe with its many links to other sources, offers a more detailed background to the ‘thinking’ behind the reforms that we are now seeing unravel in our schools.
The damage done to pupils’ from such changes is reported on almost a daily basis and we are left with an important question that needs to be confronted. Are the costly structural and other reforms introduced by successive governments harming our children’s future education and development? Unless we see the present situation in our schools as more than an issue of funding, we will fail to fully grasp what needs to change and why it is so important.