Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Fun is being “killed off”! Really?

Every now and then, children’s author Michael Rosen writes a snarky open letter to whomever happens to be education secretary of the day castigating them for his bugbear du jour. His latest offering makes the hyperbolic accusation that Justine Greening is “killing off painting, pottery, thinking … and fun.” What an evil witch!

What are the grounds for Michael’s claim? Well, firstly he identifies several potentially ill-thought out approaches to education currently mandated in my primary schools such as ability grouping within classes* and a state of semi-permanent testing which some misguided souls mistakenly believe to be the best way to educate children. I too abhor these practices but they are not in any way enforced by central government. Now, you could argue that in response to floor targets, hight stakes inspections and forced academisation that primary heads feel they have no choice except to set their weary but well-intentioned shoulders to this Sisyphean burden and roll their reluctant charges through test after mind-numbing test. You could argue that, but you could equally argue that such an approach was wilfully stupid and that any head teacher minded to behave in this way was an unimaginative brute unfit to educate children.

Or you could consider the fact that testing – call it quizzing if you’re squeamish – is not only fairer than any form of teacher assessment, it’s also a hugely useful and astonishingly well-researched pedagogical tool which staves off the natural human inclination to forget the greater part of anything that’s been learned.

Michael then makes the point that while primary teachers are engaged in all this testing ignoring they are neglecting the important things in life such as “reading for fun, painting, dancing, pottery, thinking, film-making, photography or going for a walk”. Again, this is entirely within the control of primary schools and is in fact something Ofsted specifically look at to ensure schools are providing a broad and balanced curriculum. But that’s not really the point, is it?

Does this “kill off” fun? No, of course not. Children are as free as they ever were to go for walks when they’re not at school. Children will, I’m sure, continue playing Pokemon Go, watching Netflix and whatever else they enjoy regardless of the whims of either Justine Greening or Michael Rosen. The narrative that school should be about going for walks and other activities considered wholesome is just more evidence of the rot of therapeutic education.

There’s a broader argument about what schools are actually for. To what extent should compulsory education be about going for a walk? As a parent, I don’t mind my children being given the opportunity to take part in non-academic pursuits, but it’s not why I want them to go to school. I’m rather hoping they’ll be given the background knowledge to be able to fully access an academic curriculum and have the best possible chance of being academically successful.

But, I get the sense that this is something Michael is less keen on. He asserts that the new GCSEs are “packed with more information than many children can understand or remember”. Really? What a low expectation! Of course it’s true that not every children will be capable of getting a top grade (when was it ever otherwise?) but are we really prepared fatalistically to accept that “many children” won’t be able to understand or remember much of the information examined at GCSE just on Michael’s say so? Some will, some won’t, but none will if we don’t give it a go. Then he just gets a but silly and makes the following:

Again, as with the tests for 11-year-olds, it really doesn’t matter what much of this information is, so long as there’s a lot of it, enough of it is “traditional” – for example Wordsworth – and it can be broken down into small enough bits so that there are yes/no answers for it. This teaches students that life is made up of right or wrong facts; it’s not about empathy, invention, investigation, experiment, interpretation, cooperation or change. There is only “is”, never “might be”.

As anyone who’s actually looked at any of the new GCSE exams knows, this is patently false. There’s little credit given to students only able to offer yes/no answers and an ability to show an affinity for “empathy, invention, investigation, experiment, interpretation, cooperation or change” is rewarded across a range of subjects. What ‘might be’ is certainly prioritised over the narrow ‘is’ of Michael’s fevered imagination. (And the fact that Wordsworth is favoured over Michael’s oeuvre in the new English Literature specifications is at once a possible case of sour grapes and no bad thing.)

All this is a great shame because there’s a lot to genuinely be upset with the secretary of state about. Pretty much everyone is in firm agreement that expanding grammar schools is a woeful idea and the increasing lack of funding in FE is scandalous. But as long as Michael determinedly tilts at the windmills of his mind, I for one am mightily relieved that despite his national newspaper column he has little power to influence anything in education.

* As an aside, Michael makes the  claim that children are regularly “tested to see if they are on the right tables” and that, “Mostly they are.” Apparently not, at least according to Dylan Wiliam who estimates that because of the limits of reliability and validity, “only half the students are placed where they ‘should’ be”. 

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