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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 November 2009

The battle for state education

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

When Labour came to power with a mission to sort out education, they bulldozed ahead with the mantra of "whatever works". All opposition to New Labour "reform" was met with this crude put-down. Tests were necessary to drive up standards. Ofsted was needed to root out bad teachers.

Linda Taaffe

This was a mask to continue Tory policies. It was a strategy to justify the centralisation of control of schools, the handing of lucrative contracts to their friends in big business for buildings and services, and to stop dead any opposition from teacher unions.

A regime, initiated by the hated Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher, introduced the testing of children at seven. This has been pursued relentlessly over the last 12 years. Now every part of education - from children's early admission to school, the content of the curriculum, the building of schools under the Private Finance Initiative, the conditions of teachers and support staff, right through to university level - all have been infected with this suffocating top-down control. Targets, testing and league tables have led to bullying management, and a narrower curriculum than even that of the old Victorian Gradgrind era!

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Paul Mattsson

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

But the recent Cambridge Review completely shatters the New Labour and Tory myth. It supports much of what socialists and trade unionists, and a wide range of educationalists, have been warning over many years.

Unfortunately for a generation of children - and their teachers - everything we said has been borne out. It bears out with evidence based on research that the narrowing of the curriculum is not good for children; and that the biggest contributor to under-achievement is poverty.

It condemns the current system of SATs. But in the end it will be down to the unions to get SATs and all their ramifications thrown out.

The unions, particularly the National Union of Teachers (NUT) have had chances to do just that.

In 2003 the union, under a right-wing leadership at the time balloted teachers in primary schools to stop Key Stage 1 and 2 tests. Although the result was over 30,000 in favour of a boycott, the leadership buckled and stepped back, leaving teachers even more isolated.

This gave the green light to the government to pile on more of the same, with one diktat after another, one literacy strategy after another.

Earlier this year the NUT conference voted again to call another ballot to stop SATs with delegates on their feet chanting enthusiastically: "No more SATs." The NAHT, the headteachers' union followed up by passing the same motion at their conference. It seemed that this time it was for real. Then absolutely nothing happened.

Recently the heads, not unexpectedly, backtracked, and the now Left led leadership of the NUT fell in behind them. What has taken place is only an indicative ballot, not a real ballot for action.

If strong action is not taken soon, the matter could be left to David Cameron and his crew to sort out. According to the Conservative shadow education minister Michael Gove, their view on less interference by central government is, true to Tory form, to hand over schools (including primaries) lock, stock and barrel, to all manner of private outfits. In other words they propose the complete dismantling of state education.

Support is out there

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Martin Powell-Davies

Lewisham edutcation protest, photo Martin Powell-Davies   (Click to enlarge)

The recommendations of the Cambridge Review, with some exceptions, are on the whole very welcome. However, the current system of testing and league tables will not fall down through evidence alone. Trade union action is the key.

If teacher trade unionists take the first step to boycott they will find a huge pool of support from parents, other educationists, academics, and even the media, who could all be drawn in to bring about real changes for the benefit of children.


Ofsted - bad for children?

It's not just socialists, trade unionists, school students and parents who are critical of Ofsted managers and policies. In new and forthcoming reports, local authorities, headteachers and MPs have woken up to the fact that Ofsted is a disaster. Even its previous head Sir Mike Tomlinson has said: "Inspection systems that rely too heavily on data and tick-box systems is not what we need."

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders has also said: "It's brought in a climate of great anxiety because you don't know whether the inspector will trick you on safeguarding." This was after instances of schools failing their inspections for trivial reasons like the playground fence being too low.

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