Dear Mr Cameron,
I’m jumping on the bandwagon here a little – I suspect the internet is awash with posts from devastated, tearful teachers, despairing over the thought of another five years of teaching under a Conservative government. I say five, but thanks to Scotland, you’re probably there to stay. And you seem like a nice man and everything – all those cute photocalls with your children and tremendously capable wife – and very efficient at running the country in lots of ways. But you’re ruining education. You’re creeping back to a frighteningly elitist, assessment-heavy, mind numbingly tedious system in which we will spend our time testing children on things I’m not really sure they need to know, and I certainly don’t think they need to know at the age your education advisors have arbitrarily decided on, and preparing all but the very brightest for a life of failure. At the same time you’ve decided to hold schools to acount for failing to ‘bridge the gap’ between students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from the middle classes. Let’s get this straight – it’s not schools that set the groundwork for these disadvantaged children to fail from the moment they enter reception – but the government and your policies.
Your education advisors are very fond of spouting statistics about how Britain lags behind the rest of Europe in education league tables, employer satisfaction, etc. Yes, I’m sure we do. Perhaps we could take a closer look at countries we lag behind. Germany. In Germany children start school at six. Finland. In Finland children start school at seven. Ireland? You got it, age six. In Britain children start school at four rising five. This means that for a large percentage of children, most of their first year of school is spent aged four. Therefore I’m a long way from surprised that we lag behind the rest of Europe. We’ve taught our children to fail from the age of four. Do you think that leads to a successful and flourishing next fourteen years in education? Starting school so early is all very well if you stick to the plan that the reception year is supposed to be about learning through play, ‘child initiated learning’, and developing social skills. Sadly, you have placed schools in a position where they are unable to do this, because you are such a fan of baseline testing when children enter reception, and then continuing to test as they continue through infant school. You have a four year old yourself, Mr Cameron. I’m certain you’d tell me that she’s perfectly ready to be tested, to start reading and writing, to flourish under your regime. I’m pleased for her. My children are not. My daughter, for instance, was four and two months when she arrived at school. I’m not sure what her baseline testing would have indicated – I assume that she couldn’t read, write, spell or do any of the maths you would have wanted her to be able to. You seem to believe that the earlier you get hold of our impressionable children, and the more their teachers try to cram into them in the early years of their education – which, lest we forget, actually lasts for the next fourteen years of their lives – the better they’ll do. Correspondingly, therefore Britain will rise like a meteor up the education league tables and suddenly be better than everyone else in Europe.
Let me tell you what actually happens. Yes, there will be some children who will cope with this. They’re likely to be the children whose middle class parents decided to have children born in September or October for precisely this reason – that they’d do better at school. Some will be children that cope no matter what time of the year they are born. Some will be children who are just naturally clever and able and it won’t matter how often they’re tested or how they’re judged – they’ll always do well. But an awful lot more will be children who won’t learn to read or write or count or add within a timeframe that your advisors arbitrarily decided that they should, because they’re too young, or too immature, or simply not able to cope with having to keep up with a lot of other children. They’ll fall behind in the first year and then they’ll be in the bottom phonics group getting extra help for the next two, panicking their parents and making them feel like they’re just not very clever, even though by age eight you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway – IF you had started them later and on a more level playing field. They’ll be missing out on the curriculum because the school will be so frightened they won’t pass the year 1 phonics tests that they’ll take them out of science or art or something that they probably actually enjoy doing to drill them in phonics.
This leads me nicely to the Year 1 phonics tests. Most parents aren’t even aware their children sit a phonics test, and they’re even less aware that part of schools’ baseline data – which in turn forms the all important Ofsted judgement – is formed based on the results of these phonics tests. Therefore there is a huge pressure on schools to ensure the highest percentage of children possible ‘pass’ these phonics tests. Yes – run that by me again – my son’s school will be judged on his performance when he sits this test aged FIVE. He – fortunately – has no idea of the importance of it – but I assume when or if he fails, he’ll be subjected to years of catch up phonics lessons even though he’s actually really quite an impressive reader. It is entirely possible to be a good reader without being great at phonics. I know this, because I read early and very well, and entirely by word recognition. They don’t test his actual reading, you see – no, just the phonics programmes that schools deliver. This is based on your government’s insistence that only phonics programmes can teach children to read, and any other way simply doesn’t work. This isn’t true. Actually what is true is it is the most efficient and cost effective way of teaching large numbers of children to read. Which is really fine, as long as there’s a small bit of flexibility in the whole process. You know, because you’re dealing with actual human beings and not robots. But that wouldn’t suit your educational advisors at all – because then you’d lose a way of what you call holding the schools to account and what I call frightening the life out of teachers and senior leaders. You could say they are not testing the children at all, just the schools. ‘Diagnostic testing’ apparently – allowing children falling behind to be identified and given help. Rubbish. My son has a brilliant teacher who is perfectly capable of assessing his progress without the help of a ridiculous phonics test upon which she and the school will later be judged.
There is much, much more I could say. I could talk about how if children started school later they would be more able to cope with everything school requires of them. I could talk more about how ridiculous it is that if children arrived to me in secondary school able to express themselves through interesting vocabulary, structure their paragraphs and sentences correctly, understand complex layers of text, and have a genuine love of reading and writing, they would be absolutely fine, even in the ridiculous new GCSEs that your colleague Mr Gove has dreamed up, seemingly based entirely on his own Eton education way back when. I could talk about how forcing children to read and write before they’re ready destroys any chance of developing this genuine love of reading and writing. I could talk more about how your system forces children who are entirely unready through a process that sets them up to fail. I could talk about how your system victimises those from the poorest and most disadvantaged backgrounds because it allows them no time in school to simply catch up with their more advantaged peers before being taught that they’re just not good enough.
But I will restrict myself to simply this: as both a parent and a teacher, I am more fearful for the future of the education system, and therefore the whole of the future of my children and all their peers, than ever before. I worry for my son, who can’t be fitted into your little box because of a genuine special educational need. I worry for my daughter, who might be more creative than academic, and by the time she reaches secondary school may well be written off because your government wants to do away with all GCSEs that are not ‘academically rigorous’ enough. And most of all, I worry for all those children who just weren’t ready for all this at age four, and all those parents who have no idea just what havoc you and your government are happily wreaking upon our children and the education system in which they will spend so much of their lives.