On what has been the first glimpse of summer in Northern England, I’ve spent most of today in the garden, trying to bring some semblance of order to rampant flower beds. As I’ve been weeding, I’ve been listening to the BBC coverage of the so-called ‘parents strike’: a one-day protest organised by parents today who are concerned that we’re testing our kids too often.
Having listened to the media reaction, and the Twitter response, I feel sorry for these parents. So, for what it’s worth, here are my reasons why the sky won’t fall in if you take your kids out of school for a day, and why you deserve our support:
- Too much testing DOES have consequences.
In the days leading up to the boycott, the Twitter neocons asserted that anyone who was in support of the boycott was ‘teacher bashing’. That certainly wasn’t my impression listening to the teacher-supportive accounts from parents. Some of the tales of kids, anxious and stressed at the prospect of yet another test, were genuinely upsetting – but I didn’t hear one parent attach any blame to teachers . Once these stories started to air, however, the neocons – most prominently from Policy Exchange and the Campaign For Real Education – quickly resorted to some teacher-bashing themselves, arguing that, if kids were stressed, it was teachers that were at fault. They argued that the tests had no consequences for kids, they were only there to make to make bad teachers accountable. These tests, apparently, are critical to spotting reading and writing problems at the earliest stage – all the while ignoring the fact that good teachers do that week-in, week-out But if you still believe that these tests have no consequences for kids, read this recent piece from a parent.
2. Tests aren’t the only yardstick
Teachers are trained to continuously assess, so it’s not clear what purpose these national standardised tests serve (one reason why the previous government got rid of them). All day, the Policy Exchange (founding Chair, Michael Gove, former Sec. Of State for Education) cited OECD stats that placed England at the bottom of the table for literacy and numeracy – conveniently forgetting that the OECD report was looking at adult skills, not primary ages. There’s no yardstick that I’m aware of that suggests we have a problem in literacy and numeracy at primary level. Indeed, some people argue that the reason why our English and Maths scores suffer later on is as a direct result of switching kids off learning through ‘drilling-and-killing’ test prep.
3. There’s no evidence that more tests = better outcomes
Finnish kids don’t even go to school until they’re seven, and they seem to do OK, but they were dismissed by SATs defenders as being too homogenous a society to make viable comparisons. However, when asked repeatedly by BBC reporters to cite evidence that shows a link between testing and improved outcomes, there was a deafening silence…
4. Test prep is time that could be better spent on learning
Please don’t imagine that, when there’s a national spotlight shining on them, schools won’t spend time – lots of it – on preparing kids for tests. It’s just self-protection. I’m not aware of any stats for England, but a recent estimate in the US suggested that, on average, kids spend between 20-25 hours, per test, in preparation. I work a lot in schools, and some schools that are feeling pressure from government high-stakes accountability are now testing their students every six weeks. Add it up.
5. They’re testing the wrong things
We should insist that no standardised test should be inflicted upon our kids that hasn’t been passed by our education ministers. The BBC tripped up schools minister Nick Gibb on the difference between a subordination conjunction and a preposition (I don’t know the difference either). His dismissal of his failure to answer the question correctly (he wasn’t taught grammar at school, and we need to make sure future generations don’t suffer the same fate). Nick, you made it to schools minister without knowing the difference between a preposition and a subordination conjunction – is it such a critical thing to know?
A major source of kids’ stress has been the shift in the nature of the tests: away from expressive writing to regurgitating arcane grammar rules. Author after author has cheerfully admitted today that they couldn’t pass the test, so fear not, parents, it’s not what employers are looking for anyway (and 50% of your kids are going to be freelancers anyway)
6. Taking your kids out of school for a day isn’t going to make a shred of difference to their learning – it might even improve it
Despite the protestations of schools ministers that even a day out harms their learning, it won’t. If that were the case, then alumni from Summerhill School (where kids can opt to attend classes or not) would be living on the streets, their prospects ruined by not conforming – and that’s clearly not the case. Having your kids out in the woods – as most of you did today – is not, as the Twitterati had it, ‘opening the floodgates’ to laissez-faire schooling. They always tell you that parents are the primary educators, not schools – but only if you do as you’re told.
7. What else can you do?
I’ve been enormously impressed by the cogent arguments of parents in the media today, despite all the guilt-tripping and name-calling. All the stereotypes have been trotted out: you’re a bunch of middle-class tree-hugging activists – at least according to ‘other’ middle-class activists (the ones who hold opposing political views), but no matter. The education community has, for decades, asked for greater parental engagement in learning, so it’s great that you’ve made your case clear. Incidentally, your numbers would have been significantly swelled were it not for the fact that school is seen, first and foremost, as a free child-minding service, so a future protest might need to tap into those whose work commitments prevented more active participation today.
Don’t be deterred by the lack of overt support from school leaders – they can’t be seen to advocate ‘bunking off’, but the vast majority of them share your concerns. And it’s been great that you have never criticised teachers, or schools, in your campaign. They’re with you and hope that you make an impact. Nor have you ever fallen in to the neocon trap of being seen to be against testing. You’re simply again too much testing, and at too high a stake.
While I was listening to the media representation of your views, I was digging up plants that could have been weeds, or vice versa. I was reminded of the great John Holt’s gardening analogy of testing. It’s as true today as it was in the 1970s: no one is against testing, but too much of it is like a gardener frequently digging up a plant to see how well its roots are developing.
Keep your parental campaign going – you’re the only constituency that government will listen to.