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FAILURE IS A TERMINAL STATUS

This week saw Nicky Morgan’s significant and much vaunted one nation education speech – significant because it sketched the assessment landscape that will soon be shaping a school near you. There were four key areas: consultation on more rigorous KS1 tests (for which read the return of KS1 SATs pursued with renewed vigour); new KS2 SATs resits in Year 7 (for which read if something doesn’t work just keep repeating it); the requirement for 100% of pupils to achieve EBacc reduced to 90% (for which read almost everyone must follow an academic curriculum) and the creation of a National Teaching Service, in which 1500 teachers will be parachuted in to failing schools to turn them around (for which read the resurrection of ASTs with national mobility required).

I blogged earlier this year about why Year 7 resits are a destructive idea so I won’t take up any space repeating that particular diatribe. Taken as a whole, and added to the baseline tests, phonics assessments and GCSE rigour that are already in place, these ‘new’ policies leave no room for doubt. This government is determined to blight the education landscape; turning the green spaces of our 25,000 learning communities into exam factories. The problem with exams (or mere ‘tests’ as Nicky insists they are called) is that failure is a terminal status – one from which those least able to interpret failure as a learning opportunity rarely recover. Repeated exam (aka test) failure is life defining.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against assessment and I see the need for testing. When someone comes to fix my gas boiler I want to know that they’ve passed the necessary exams to prove that they can do the job safely. But so much testing throughout school? And playing for such high stakes? Nicky Morgan really needs to take a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book – his recent damascene experience was the realisation that teaching and learning can actually be harmed by an obsession with tests.

The point which is missed, of course, is that schools are communities. Each school has its own context and ethos, reflective of the community from which the pupils are drawn. Outstanding teachers in one context can’t just be dropped into another, quite different, context and expected to deliver. Teaching and learning are relational activities and relationships have to be built.

It also misses the point that teachers and students are real people and real life is messy. There’s no formula. There’s no textbook. There’s no way of measuring the things that really matter – how students learn and grow as whole, rounded people, not just as data sheet fodder.

Our modern work ‘pedagogy’ derives from the Latin ‘paedagogia’. A Roman pedagogue was a trusted slave who was responsible for a child from the age of seven, teaching him to read and laying foundations for later learning. He led the child to school and was there 24/7 to protect, oversee, supervise, discipline and train. His job was to deliver the young adult as an upright citizen, a credit to Rome and a reflection of his master’s values. How different might contemporary pedagogy look if this, rather than teaching to test, was our job, too?