60% of all permanent exclusions occur between the ages of 12 and 14. DfE Statisical Release 30th July 2015
This post is going to be a plea (probably rambling and certainly in vain) for policy makers to support the teaching profession in coming together at the points of transition (most obviously but not exclusively the move from Primary to Secondary) in order to promote understanding around best practice. The current National Curriculum and the interim assessment arrangements are driven by a perceived utilitarian need to make all year 6 children “secondary ready”. As with most imposed educational change, the policy is likely to fail at the expense of a significant number of pupils and undermine some of the excellent practice in schools. At a time when a range of indicators (mental health, measures of unhappiness, rates of self-harm, dips in attainment) suggest we are heading in the wrong direction, evidence is emerging that getting transition right has significant benefits.
“Cosmic” by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, one of my favourite books to share with Year 6s, begins with a child being mistaken, due to his height, for a new teacher on his first day at secondary school. Although the book is about what is it is to be an adult rather than the issue of transition, the opening is a great way into discussions around primary pupils’ hopes and fears related to Year 7. Those hopes and fears are very real and unless they are acknowledged, and pupils are supported, dips in attainment at year 7 and the increase in exclusion rates are likely to persist. Rather than simply raising the year 6 expectations to the point that they are out of reach to the majority, the government needs to balance increased focus on subject knowledge with an understanding of, and support for, pupils’ experiences and opportunities for teachers from either side of the primary/secondary divide to develop understanding of their differing perspectives. Some teachers have good understanding of colleagues (and some children take the transistion in their stride) but, outside of Y6 and Y7 staff, there remains an ignorance that has become a growing driver for debate and policy at the same time that the proportion of young secondary children struggling with wellbeing increases.
To understand current educational reform and why Nicky Morgan finds herself making a video to justify changes to Key Stage 2 assessment, it is useful to consider the different starting points of the Blair government in 1997 and the Conservative government elected in 2015. These governments shared economic beliefs but approached education from opposite ends. Blair was sold on the idea of investment in early intervention (SureStart, Early Years Curriculum guidance, increased funding to primary schools) whereas the current government, unshackled by the constraints of coalition politics, has sought to speed up reform of secondary examinations and then work to fit primary education into the new system. Neither government considered it important to the success of their policies to promote understanding between primary and secondary sectors in order to improve education. Whilst transition has from time to time been an issue addressed by schools, it took the LSE report http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/8006 on the success of London education to highlight, among a range of factors, improvements in pupils’ progress in primary schools being sustained in Year 7 as an important element that makes the situation in the capital different to other cities and regions.
If a government focuses policy on early intervention, as Blair’s did, child development rather than subject transmission will be centre stage. The first PISA league tables in 2000 led to the lauding of Scandanavian education with the emphasis on development through play and engagement with the outdoors. The New Labour government used the information as justification for their approach to the Early Years while establishing their more uniform, prescriptive approach to teaching literacy and numeracy skills in primary schools resourced partly through increasing the number of teaching assistants. The two policies combined to create a issues of transition between Reception and Year 1 that constrained learning in a way that mimics the Y6/Y7 divide. The speed in the increase in the number of teaching assistants prevented their effective deployment and the focus on the child was in some quarters seen as promoting a level of dependency that made Y6/Y7 transition more problematic. The other problem was that taking education policy from one context (Scandanvia) and imposing it in another (England and Wales) was unlikely to work effectively because many of the factors that impact on learning are influenced by culture outside of schools. One example of this is that Scandanavian languages have a consistent and straightforward letter to sound corresponance and therefore, after learning through structured play for three years, 7 year old children in Sweden read and write with remarkable efficiency. In comparison, English has a relatively complex relationship between letters and sounds that makes learning to read a far more involved process.
Where governments base education policy on secondary examinations, the focus is on the reproduction from memory of subject specific content. By 2009, PISA league tables were highlighting success of Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. The reform of A-level and GCSE examinations has sought to reproduce the success of systems in the Far East by driving up standards by simply by importing schemes and making the tests more difficult in isolation. As well as failing to address any of the other significant factors that impact on attainment, the changes to secondary examinations being imposed suffer the same problem of translation as was noted earlier except this time it is Shanghai and Singpore being transplanted to England.
The answer to improving education is to find the right balance between child and subject in the context of a range of societal factors. The most obvious point where that balance needs to be struck in the interests of the child is at transition from primary to secondary. Unfortunately, the process of finding and maintaining the balance is expensive and both Blair and Cameron were driven by the overwhelming political need to reduce personal taxation. The victory of neoliberalism economic models over Keynsian approaches means that a political party raising income tax is unelectable. Therefore, education policy is undermined by a lack of sustainable resource leading in turn to a lack of balance at the heart of policy.The New Labour government acknowledged the lack of resource by encouraging private investment in academies. To this day, only Andrew Adonis is prepared to argue for academisation from the obvious and honest standpoint that private money will flow once schools can make profits. It would be better if current government ministers were open about the logical conclusion to their policies. New Labours attempt to find a third way of funding was doomed to fail in a society that lacked the philanthropic culture of rich Americans, they did not follow Adonis’ view. Therefore the legacy of Tony Blair has included large PFI debts and a system of governance that has been used subsequently to dismantle local authorities. In the clamour for reform, the case for sustained improvement over time, as exemplified by London at the turn of the millennium is not being heard. Turning their sights on Liverpool and Manchester this week, and confident of their own infallibility, OfSTED are behaving at a national level like the Inquisition in using fear to promote the divinity of short term data gain rather than supporting lasting deep improvement through a focus on complex issues such as transition.
The context of scarce resource leads to a culture of blame rather than constructive improvement. The Department want to force increases in narrow attainment data relating to primary education just by changing age-related expectation. OfSTED blames secondary schools in language (“wasted years”) which is not going to promote collaboration. Despite this negativity, there is still excellent practice to be found with priamry and secondary teachers working together to support pupils by understanding the relationship between different pedagogies, experiences and expertise. Like so much else in education, approaches are fragmented and behind the data some very vulnerable (and not so vulnerable) children are having an unnecessaryily unpleasant, damaging experience.