I was moved and fired up in equal measure as I read ‘This beautiful profession has been transformed into a beast that is damaging mental health. Who will break the spell?’ in Tes last month.
As a former teacher and now a politician who is passionate about education, this article summed up the fears I have long held about the damage we are doing to both pupils and teachers with the exam and league-table obsessed culture in our schools.
I know all too well, from my own experience and that of my friends and colleagues in the teaching profession, the damage that can be done to the mental wellbeing of pupils who are made to feel that all of their future opportunities in life may hang on the outcome of one short test. Not to mention what being forced to teach to the test is doing to destroy the creativity and enthusiasm of our teaching workforce. I have always believed there are better ways of doing this. Now I’m in Westminster, I am more determined than ever to fight to change them.
The reason I first joined the Liberal Democrats is that I believe their evidence-based policy can actually make a difference to the lives of children. So one of my first actions as our new education spokesperson has been to start making the case for how we can dramatically reform assessments, inspections and league tables in our schools. I want to ensure that we deliver the high-quality, rounded education every young person deserves without the stress and narrowing of the curriculum that we are seeing currently.
Education shouldn’t just be about ensuring every child gets a certain grade on a test at a set point in the year. It should be about ensuring our young people grow into happy, healthy and confident adults who are equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. In a future where the workplace will look very different, and where advances in AI mean the most important skills we can cultivate in humans are those computers find difficult to replicate (emotion and creativity), it is all the more essential that we rethink the rote-learning culture that is not just increasingly redundant but that we know can be downright damaging.
So I have three suggestions as starting points for the far-reaching reform I believe we need:
Ofsted. Yes, we need a way of identifying when schools are struggling, and supporting them to improve but I want to see inspections that are far less burdensome and less restrictive in the criteria they assess. I want to see a focus more on long-term outcomes and issues like teacher wellbeing and retention, to make sure schools are focused on those issues, too. And I want to see struggling schools given long-term support to help them actually improve. We should reform the school rating system and instead encourage and challenge schools through a regular, reflective, supportive process to make constant improvement. As it stands now the inspection is something schools fear and merely get through. It could be something to look forward to. Think coaching rather than chastising.
Assessments. I want to see a move towards placing more weight on moderated teacher assessment, which can take place in the classroom and truly reflects what they know of a child’s abilities and progress – not just the snapshot gained from a single stressful test. And the criteria should be broad enough to reward creativity. If a child approaches an assessment from a completely different angle, she or he might just be the innovative entrepreneur of the future. We should encourage this at every turn, not stifle it.
League tables. I want to see an end to any government-issued table based purely on quantitative data and compiled largely based on test scores. Every parent and every teacher knows that this is just one very small part of their child’s educational experience and that a good school is so much more than the percentage of pupils who pass a certain test. Parents should have a way to get the important qualitative information, too. The current DfE portal is far too narrow. Will their child be given opportunities to pursue creative arts subjects? What extra support will be given if they fall behind? What experience and which specialisms do the teachers at their school have? And so many other factors which go into determining whether a child will just get by at a given school or whether they will thrive there. That is, after all, what we should be aiming to give every child.
Last month's article ended with a powerful plea: “Who or what is going to save us?” As education spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, I hope I can contribute to doing exactly that.
Layla Moran is the Lib Dem education spokesperson