What is primary school for? Education in the widest sense, with every child accommodated for

Schools shouldn't be test-heavy laboratories turning out a million mini-Goves


On Monday, I took my daughter to her first settling-in lesson at her new primary school before she starts properly in September. I was probably more nervous than she was.

As we walked across the school playground and the bell rang for morning break, children spilled out of their classrooms and I was transported back to my first few days at school, spent cowering in the corner hoping that no one would notice me.

As we got into the classroom, my daughter wouldn’t let go of my hand as she saw other children sitting at tables painting or making biscuits with Play-Doh. But within a few minutes she was drawn out of her shyness by her lovely new teacher, who was encouraging and positive, even when she made a mistake or did things wrong.

Despite my nervousness about my daughter starting school, I am encouraged by what I have seen so far. A primary school (rated “Good” by Ofsted) where reception classes learn phonics and maths every day, but at which these four and five year-olds are still encouraged to be what they are: very young children who want to play, paint, get messy, use their imagination and make friends.

Despite what the dear-departed Michael Gove no doubt thinks, this kind of ethos is what British primary schools should be: a combination of learning and play and, as pupils get older, gradually more rigorous tests. But also with a recognition that some children cannot be as academically brilliant as others, and that teachers are at least in part there to bring out other qualities in their pupils.

This was the spirit behind the letter sent by Rachel Tomlinson, the headteacher of Barrowford Primary School in Nelson, Lancashire, to Year 6 pupils alongside their Key Stage 2 test results. After this letter was retweeted thousands of times on Twitter and shared widely on Facebook, it turned out Ms Tomlinson had copied it from a US blog, triggering calls from some (including, not surprisingly, allies of Gove) for her to be sacked for plagiarism.

But while Ms Tomlinson was in the wrong – teachers are the last people who should be cutting and pasting – this was not an exam paper or a PhD thesis. This was an attempt to inspire. Ms Tomlinson’s intentions were well-meant, and her desire to motivate a group of children is no less valid. In the letter, she said that “tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique”.

The examiners, she said, did not know the children the way their teachers and family did – that many of them can speak two languages, play a musical instrument, paint a picture, or that their laughter “can brighten the dreariest day”. She summed up: “So enjoy your results and be very proud of these but remember there are many ways of being smart.”

The majority of us can remember being the child who did not streak ahead at tests but loved this stage of school for being education literally in primary colours. Primary school should be about preparing children for the more academic environment of secondary school, and not how the ex-Education Secretary saw it: as test-heavy laboratories turning out a million mini-Goves in training for Oxford.

You are not “dumbing down” education by exposing children to the wonders of sport, art, music and play, you are enriching their lives and encouraging them to love school so that maths, English and science are fun too.

Gove’s argument was that children from poorer, less academic backgrounds are let down when a school does not churn out pupils carved in his image. But improving grades for those children needs teachers who encourage an ethos of fun and affirmation. It is that positivity which is an unbridled, paint-splattered, dough-under-the-nails two-fingers-up to the era of Gove.

Germany – not so  great, after all

The backlash has begun. Just days after Germany’s triumph in the World Cup, at a moment when the entire planet is in awe of that nation, it turns out a group of German food producers has been fixing the price of sausages.

In a murky scandal which makes the secretive Bilderberg Group seem like Katie Price’s love life, a cartel of sausage producers met at a hotel in, confusingly enough, Hamburg, to fix the price of wurst. Germany’s competition watchdog has fined members of the cartel £267m for price-fixing. It is huge news in Germany, although I’m not sure you can buy Böklunder, Wiesenhof or Rügenwalder brand sausages over here – either at Marks & Spencer or even the German-owned Aldi.

Still, if it had been anything else – bar maybe match-fixing – this national scandal for Germany would go unnoticed. But fiddling the price of German sausages risks undermining their international brand. It is a bit like that moment when we discovered the Queen stores her cornflakes in a Tupperware box. Some of the mystique has gone.

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