Education notes: Reeding and riting with fonics

Synthetic phonics is the Labour government’s preferred tool for teaching literacy to four-year-olds. Why? Why should successive education ministers favour one specific mode of learning to read and write English – a famously diverse melting pot of a language which lacks a systematic spelling system? Command and control is the answer. This authoritarian government imposes its will on the smallest details of daily practice in the state education system by enforcing specified criteria of performance for teachers, parents and pupils, by setting targets, testing, measuring, and assessing.

‘You can keep on weighing the pig but it won’t make it bigger’
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers says, ‘If the government sticks with the current high stakes testing regime, it will not meet its targets’. The most tested pupils in the world are failing to reach the standards set by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) in England. For example: Target: 85% of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 or above in English and Maths tests by 2006. Reality: in 2005, 79% achieved the benchmark in English, 75% in Maths. These statistics are not just some kind of raw data. They represent processes in the real world of school where life is dominated by government-imposed targets and teaching and learning is dominated by criteria-referenced measurements.

The merger of PANDA and PAT
Teachers were roughly introduced to the idea of public accountability in 1985 when Tory Education Minister Kenneth Baker took five days off the annual holiday for training and introduced the National Curriculum. Since then education auditing has flourished into a £1m-a-year business and school data analysis has become a kingdom of its own. Ofsted (the Office of School Inspections, now including nurseries) rules here, although the DfES and the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) also have a role. The mass of statistical evidence now in use is mind-blowing. PANDA (Performance and Assessment Reports) present an overview of each school’s performance in relation to other schools using data from the DfES, Ofsted and the QCA and indicate pupil progress shown by using contextualised value added scores (CVAs). What this means is that each pupil’s test results in a given number of ‘competencies’ has been entered on a database with some modification for indices like English as a second language or free school dinners. But Ofsted is always on the move and has just announced ‘Improved data usage and analysis: merger of PANDA and PAT (Pupil Achievement Tracker)’, to be launched in summer 2006. Ofsted says:

‘As part of the New Relationship with Schools programme, Ofsted and the DfES are working together to streamline the provision of data analysis to schools. The new product will be known as RAISEonline (Reporting and Analysis for Improvement through School self-Evaluation). RAISEonline will provide schools, local authorities, School Improvement Partners (SIPs) and inspectors with a wide range of analytical information from one convenient source as well as providing schools with a tool for reviewing their performance data in greater depth as part of their self evaluation and target setting.’

Soon there will be no need for Ofsted inspectors to go into schools. They can simply look at statistics based on performance at key stages 1, 2 and 3, in only three subjects, add in the number crunching indices of social deprivation (CVAs) and calculate whether a school has added the required levels of value to a given percentage of pupils and is there therefore failing or not. The DfES is indifferent to protests that the tests are so narrow as to be useless and that even Ken Boston, chief executive of the QCA, has publicly stated that they should be scrapped.

The real agenda
All this matters because the data decides schools’ local and national rankings in the league tables. Schools found to be ‘failing’ can then be removed from local authorities and opened up to bids from businesses, religious groups or others interested in having (but not paying for) an input into education. The new independent state sector schools are the Labour government’s present to its rich friends who seek influence and business opportunities handed over under the banner of school ‘ethos’. So keen is Jim Knight, schools’ minister, on ‘ethos’ that he wants to give defence companies and the armed forces a role in running new trust schools.

The fightback is starting against this bullying and dismantling of the state education system. As so often it begins with recourse to the law as head teachers take legal advice about suing Ofsted for libel after being labelled ‘failing’ and ‘need for improvement’ schools. Similarly, parents are beginning to organise serious protest against plans to close local schools and establish big new academies in their place.
Susan Davidson

Stop kicking kids out of Manchester’s schools!
In July Manchester Evening News detailed new government figures which show that nearly 10% of pupils are being suspended or expelled in high schools in parts of Greater Manchester. More than 12,000 secondary pupils served at least one fixed-period exclusion or suspension in 2004-05. This trend is rising, with a 15% increase in one year. Once again it is the children of working class families that are suffering.

In Salford, where poverty and unemployment are high, exclusions amount to 9.13% of the school population, in Manchester and Bury more than 8%, and in Oldham and Bolton more than 7% were expelled or suspended. And this attack extends to primary school children: 1,414 were suspended and 79 excluded in 2004-05.
Louis Brehony

FRFI 192 August / September 2006


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