Break this Sats chain of failure and fear

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Such tests keep staff and pupils shackled to a narrow curriculum, argues a former children's laureate

What kills so much creativity in our children and teachers, and crushes inspiration and joy in our schools, is fear. When I was little, it was fear of being struck with the ruler, of the humiliation of failure. The ruler may have gone, but the fear of failure still runs deep.

Now it is not only children who are routinely subjected to the prospect of failure. Teachers, too, are confronted with an impossible dilemma: teach how you know, both by training and instinct, all that it is best to teach. Take time and space to encourage individual talent, to engage children deeply, to pass on your own enthusiasms. Go "off piste", go "off test" and you are in danger of failing your children - for like it or not, they will be judged by those tests. Fail to teach to the test and your own professional prospects are sure to be damaged. And individual teacher's failure leads to their schools being judged a failure in the league tables. This failure-induced anxiety, a direct result of our testing culture, has become endemic in our schools.

There really was an opportunity to break the mould in the recent review carried out by Sir Jim Rose and his team. I was filled with hope as I began to read it. At last, I was thinking, they have finally understood that a teacher chained to a narrow curriculum is at best going to be an inhibited teacher, at worst a fearful teacher. At last, I thought the chains are coming off. They are giving individual teachers the freedom and the encouragement to express themselves. The curriculum seemed less prescriptive, less constricting, more of a framework, a set of guiding principles. Fine, I thought. This is a real step forward.

Logically, I imagined, this must mean the ending of key stage 2 tests and the end, too, of the league tables based on them. Surely these new freedoms, the loosening of the heavy hand of a narrow-based curriculum, must lead to this. Wrong. The tests, I soon discovered, were still there.

So actually it was all a mirage. What they were saying was: we want you to be inspirational teachers, and you really can be. But because we don't quite trust you, we're keeping the chains on. You're not going to be shackled by your wrists any more, where we can all see it. Instead, it will be ball and chain around the ankle - not so obvious maybe, but still there.

I wish, I wish, all of us, parents and government, and actually teachers themselves, could grasp that if we wish to enhance the life opportunities of all our children, not simply those who have the built-in advantages of a good home background and a good school, if we wish really to build the self-worth of primary children everywhere, so that they go on to secondary school, knowledgeable, motivated and confident, it is only the teachers who can do it. It is the talent, flair and enthusiasm of teachers that has to be first allowed, and then encouraged, to flourish in a school.

Yes, there has to be a broad curriculum base, a sensitive means of calculating how a child is progressing, surely best done internally by teachers who know their children. But testing as we have known it cannot be allowed to continue to blight the landscape of our schools.

Teachers and headteachers are rising up to shake themselves free of their chains, not because they are being cussed, but because they are passionate about their vocation, and know what is important and best for the children they teach. I don't blame them for being angry. I hope they don't boycott the tests, because I think it will only confuse matters. Our argument for the abolition of these tests is strong and sound. It is an argument we will win. Let the argument speak for itself.

I think above all that Mr Balls (who I know is a good and well-meaning man, but like all politicians thinks short-term) should realise that if he wishes to improve the prospects for our children in school, it should be done on the basis of what children need, not what politics demands. Children need to be motivated to learn by teachers who are motivated to teach. Motivation comes from loving it. So, if a teacher wishes to encourage children to love reading, they must love the books themselves. Teachers must have the confidence to bring a love of what they do - be it reading, writing, science, maths, languages, history, geography, music, sports, whatever - into school with them.

Government is there to support that vital enthusiasm, without which very little real and lasting education can take place, with the equipment the teachers need to do the job. For instance, teachers cannot hope to instil a love of reading in their children if there isn't a designated school library and a teacher or librarian to run it. (I didn't notice a single mention of the essential importance of a school library in the report. Sadly: a library should be the soul of any school.)

If we really want to make significant changes for the better in the lives of children, particularly the most deprived and alienated, then class sizes should be halved, so that teacher contact with every child is doubled, so that difficulty can be properly assessed and dealt with. We know that we need the best of training for all our teachers. Our teachers are the greatest resource we have in schools. They should be trained, treasured and trusted. Simple. And we need to engage parents in the whole educational process, to be part of the team that creates a happy, purposeful school in which every child can thrive, can begin to find their feet in this complex world, where individual talents are discovered, nourished, where they can all be appreciated for what they are, and can become happier, more thoughtful, confident and knowledgeable citizens.

The chains of key stage 2 are not compatible with this - that's all there is to it. The time has come to take away the chains, Mr Balls, Mr Brown. You'll do yourselves, your government, parents, teachers, and most importantly, our children, a huge favour.

Michael Morpurgo, Author, poet and former children's laureate.

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