Michael Rosen: ‘More tests mean more pupils feel they’ve failed’

The children’s author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen spends two or three days a week visiting schools. And in a climate of constant assessments,  he fears real learning is giving way to ‘factory farming’, he tells Richard Garner

Sometimes it can seem to the former Children’s Laureate and author Michael Rosen that he is a kind of “treat” put on for the children after the hard grind of tests and reaching targets is over. “They’ve done all the hard stuff – the skills, drills and thrills,” he says. “Now we’ve got a panto – and it’s called Michael Rosen.”

In some ways, it is all reminiscent of his own school days when he spent the last two years of his primary schooling being drilled and coached for the 11-plus. The only respite came at the end of term with sports day. “Maybe, I’m a kind of sports day,” he muses.

He spends two or three days a week visiting schools – putting on performances and running poetry workshops – and has just completed a series of visits for the Children’s Book Show, which has been running a competition that includes pupils finishing off a poem he has started with the first line “The water was burning”. The results of the competition, supported by The Independent, will be announced in the new year.

He likes to help develop children’s imaginations and encourage them to work on their own with riddles such as: “I go up when the rain comes down – what am I?” The answer is an umbrella, of course, and he then gets the children to imagine what it is like to be an umbrella. “I like them to make up their own riddles – riddles and impossibilities, like ‘how do you know an elephant was in your fridge? Because its footprints were in the butter’,” he says.

He hopes his visits are not a one-off event and that the children pass on what they have been doing to other classes who were not there  “Think of it as a seed,” he says. “You don’t want it just to be, ‘today, we are doing seeds’. You want to watch that seed growing through the year.”

He remembers vividly from his own childhood his parents bringing back some nettles from the park. “They had butterflies’ eggs on them,” he says. “They turned into caterpillars and then became fully-grown butterflies. All that took nine months of watching – we didn’t just do a butterfly unit one week and then move on.”

He is a staunch critic of Michael Gove, which makes me pause for a moment before I bring up the fact that this interview has been postponed for a week because I had to attend a conference the Education Secretary was addressing (for good measure, it was organised by the Independent Academies Association – an organisation that is also probably not top of his Christmas card list).

The theme of Gove’s address that day was the importance of testing and how tests could make pupils happy, especially if they were rigorous, because there was a sense of achievement in passing them.

“I can’t believe that,” he says. “Doesn’t he realise that if tests make you happy because you pass they leave more children with a sense of failure because they have failed them?”

He can back his point of view with support from an unusual source – a major education document produced by the CBI for its annual conference, which says that the best teachers were those who rebelled against the system and the tests and league tables. (League tables were also praised in Gove’s speech for giving clarity and honesty to a school’s performance after decades in which tittle-tattle at the bus-stop was the way prospective parents decided whether a school was good enough for their children or not.)

“The CBI said, ‘we don’t want factory farming’,” he says. “Ministers are always telling us what they say employers need as a justification for what they are doing – yet the employers say they don’t want factory farming. Who are we running this system for?”

It would be fair to say that Gove is not Rosen’s biggest fan either, as he made clear in a recent speech about Downhills Park school – the primary school in Haringey, north London, that was forced to become an academy earlier this year after the education standards watchdog Ofsted said it  was failing.

He claimed Rosen, who had supported the school’s attempt to stay under local-authority control, was “the best-known supporter of the Socialist Workers’ Party”. He, and other critics of the (successful) attempt to force the school to become an academy were “enemies of promise,” Gove added.

Rosen, who says he believes the SWP is right on many issues – although he does not accept everything they say – says Gove’s linking of him with the SWP is an attempt to avoid engaging in the issues. “We’re not ‘enemies of promise’,” he says. “We just believed there were better ways to improve the school.” In fact, its national-curriculum results in the last year it operated as a local-authority school were a considerable improvement after several previous years in which it failed to meet the Government’s minimum targets. The two have never met which – seeing as they are both articulate spokesmen for two very different visions of education – could be seen as a cause for regret.

Rosen believes, though, it is not so much the man as the power that his office has that is one of the main problems. “If, say, 90 per cent of schools become academies,” he adds, “how can you expect one Secretary of State to manage that?”

Warming to his theme, he continues: “The Secretary of State is considered as an educational guru who has the answer to everything. Why is it that the boss of Ofsted [Sir Michael Wilshaw] and ministers of education have taken to lecturing people who  are far more qualified than they are about education?

“Many of the teachers and heads they are talking to have MAs or PHDs in education. I know dear old Michael Wilshaw has got practical experience in schools – but they talk so confidently through their positions of power that they don’t seem to listen to anyone else.

“You can almost imagine in the Secretary of State’s office there’s this map of 30,000 schools around the country and there’s a little bulb flashing from one school in Carlisle. There’s a school that’s not doing so well there.

“‘Right’, he says, ‘it hasn’t worked  – get rid of the staff, change it, close  it, sack the head, and bring in  school uniforms.’

“You’ve got a George Entwhistle situation [the former Director-General of the BBC]. He was editor-in-chief. He was supposed to be responsible for dealing with, say, Jonathan Ross saying a few rude words on a late night show – while being responsible for Newsnight’s output. It was too much for one man.”

There is another way, argues Rosen. Let teachers and academics meet and talk about things together, discuss different ideas about the curriculum and come up with good practice that could be spread between schools. Not rocket science, he says, but it could work.

Life Story: A writer's tale

Michael Rosen is the author of around 140 books and was appointed Children’s Laureate in 2007, holding the post  until 2009.

He also received the Fred and Anne Jarvis award – in honour of the former general secretary of the National Union of Teachers and his late wife, Anne – for campaigning  for education.

He is best known for his children’s books such as ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ and ‘Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard’.

Aged 66, he first started writing poetry at the age of 16 and became a children’s author by accident after publishers told him his first collection of poems, ‘Mind Your Own Business’, was more suited to a younger audience.

After leaving Oxford University, he spent some time at the BBC working on – among other programmes

– the children’s  series ‘Jackanory’.

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