“The thing about politics is to plan 10 years ahead and assume every year is your last,” said Ed Balls, once secretary of state for schools.
Life is full of surprises. This autumn, he’s set to waltz on to Strictly Come Dancing while we quickstep into a new academic year with a new secretary of state for education, a new, expanded Department for Education and an education system sorely in need of a 10-year plan.
Justine Greening takes over from Nicky Morgan, who certainly seemed to behave as though this year was her last, ushering in a tsunami of changes, not all of them well thought-through. So here’s a few Ms Greening may like to quietly drop or rework.
Times tables tests
Times tables have always been taught in primary. No one needs a computerised check. Luckily, this has already been shelved for next year, so no one will notice if it’s never mentioned again (except the TES news team, of course).
New-look key stage 1 Sats
It’s not been completely clear what Ms Morgan intended here when the harder tests were floated. I suggest Ms Greening shouldn’t waste time trying to work it out and should instead concentrate on sorting out a sensible baseline by which to measure progress.
Sats Spag test
Once upon a time, small children were tested on fronted adverbials and subordinate clauses. Let’s hope that sentence appears in future history books. When not only Pie Corbett, who worked on the Blair government’s National Literacy Strategy on introducing grammar teaching into primary schools, but also Tim Oates, chair of the government-commissioned review that led to the introduction of the new curriculum from 2014, think that the content is too complex, it desperately needs a rethink.
Sats resits in year 7
Deeply unpopular and wisely shelved for next year, these could be dropped quietly. Apart from making pupils feel like failures, they are likely to force schools to put Year 7 (or, to ape Len Goodman, “SEVERRRN”) resitters on a separate stream to other pupils, meaning they will have extra literacy and numeracy but miss out on other subjects, thus falling even further behind.
Good secondary schools are already doing a good job of helping pupils catch up in Year 7. Let’s learn from them instead.
The 90 per cent EBacc target
It is looking increasingly unlikely that schools will meet this, because entries for MFL GCSEs are declining. This year, the number of pupils taking French fell 8 per cent and the number taking German fell 7 per cent. Turning this around would require heavy-handed interventions from Ms Greening. That would prove unpopular. Better instead to lower the target.
Overall GCSE grades have fallen; ASCL’s subject experts believe this is in part because pupils who would have scored higher grades in creative subjects are instead taking humanities, in which they score lower.
More emphasis should be placed on creative subjects. Entries in these have fallen sharply this year since the introduction of this measure (for example, music down 9 per cent, art and design down 6 per cent).
Heads are concerned that a narrowing of the curriculum is alienating pupils. Ms Greening, however, should be concerned about social mobility; if this is allowed to continue, the arts could become the preserve of the wealthy and privately educated.
So in the coming weeks, as Mr Balls steps out in sequins (a glittered Balls vying for the glitterball, if you will) and Ms Greening dons a softer, social justice blue, both will face some harsh critics – but only the new education secretary will need to remember to see beyond the short term point-scoring.