Deborah Orr: If pupils must be tested, let the teachers do it themselves

Teaching to the test bores children, bores teachers and distorts results
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The Independent Online

The Government has announced that it is going to increase "parent power" in schools, by conferring upon us the ability to "force" local authorities to improve institutions that we are not happy with. Surely, however, if a local authority has to be "forced" to improve a school, then the assumption has to be that the local authority is not capable of running the school very well anyway.

The Government seems dimly to recognise this, by muttering about making it "easier" for parents to start up their own schools. In reality, the renewed rhetoric about parent power is a rather pathetic attack on teacher power, or specifically on those teachers who support unions that are threatening to boycott SATs, and destroy the league tables.

Education minister Ed Balls said "it would be a retrograde step to return to the days when the real achievements of schools were hidden from parents and communities", as if in the bad old days parents were too dumb to work out for themselves which were the decent schools.

Certainly, parents had little choice but to be phlegmatic about the schools their children attended back then, but, in those days, towards half of the population rented council accommodation, and were more phlegmatic about where they lived as well. Now, many parents can buy themselves a spot near a good school, in a grotesque, at-a-distance, winner-takes-all kind of proxy privatisation.

Nevertheless, even now many parents simply have to lump it when their children don't get into the school that they want (the same ones, often, who have less choice than ever over where their council place is situated). The Government is essentially saying that it wants these parents to have a more formalised ability to complain when choice doesn't work.

But since the original idea of the league tables was to let poor schools wither on the vine as parents flocked away, or raise their game, I think we can assume that after 15 years it isn't really working. On the contrary, the children whose parents value education the least often end up disproportionately represented at the poorest schools, where parent-power is less likely to be a transforming force.

Ultimately, the harsh fact is that in a very unequal society, like ours, you're going to get a very unequal school system, like ours. Offering parent power to the parents least in command of their children's destinies may seem like a way of addressing inequality but it is actually a way of en-trenching it further.

And, sadly, the schools where the least supported children end up are those where the most "teaching to the test" is likely to go on, as schools attempt to drill their children into looking more academic than they are, in order to avoid the further decline in interest from concerned parents.

Value-added scores were brought in as a sop to that situation, and Balls now talks of a new "report-card system combining test results with information about social background" in a further nod to the truth about social and economic segregation in state schools.

Yet there is in fact ample opportunity for the Government to meet the teachers' unions halfway on the matter of SATs, to everyone's benefit. Teachers argue that spending up to 10 hours a week preparing children for SATs narrows learning in primary schools. They want to stop doing it, and intend to stop in September.

This is excellent news because teaching to the test bores children, bores teachers and distorts results. It's much better, if a primary child has to sit an exam or two, for this to be done without preparation, in order to offer a more authentic snapshot of attainment. And if a school wishes to withdraw from SATs altogether, then why shouldn't it? Parents can draw their own conclusions from such a policy, and can surely be offered the genuine parent-power that would allow them to refuse a place at a non-SATs-registered school, or vice-versa.

Balls can then install his social information report card system at those schools if he wishes to, and can then undertake to ensure that this social information will be acted on in a dynamic and progressive fashion. Before long, these schools will be clamouring for an opportunity to show the world how much better they are doing under a flexible and creative needs-led regime, by registering their pupils for SATs. And most importantly, teachers' long-running anger about the system will have been meaningfully addressed.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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