Time for switch to child power

13th May 2005 at 01:00
The new Labour Government needs to turn its attention from middle-class parents, says Diane Hofkins

Another election is past. Now, with a likely four years until the next one, the Labour Government can stop talking tough and do the right thing. For instance, it's time to switch from the rhetoric of parent power to child power. In an ideal world, these are the same. Unfortunately, too often it means the rights of the middle-class parent at the expense of the socio-economically deprived child. A four-year-old on a housing estate does not exactly have the right to choose their school or type of childcare.

But family power is also essential, and important social programmes such as Sure Start are bringing good quality care and education for children and genuine support for parents, based on their own wishes rather than someone else's ideals.

The Government's ongoing problem is reconciling the standards agenda with their Every Child Matters policies. Ministers need to put more conviction, and more money, into their efforts to put children at the centre of policy.

Right before the election, Ruth Kelly pledged an extra pound;430 million for extended schools on top of the pound;250m already being spent.

Now, they have to clarify what they mean by extended schools. The most recent pronouncements speak of "wraparound" childcare from 8am to 6pm - a phrase hated by early-childhood activists, who believe provision should be integrated. But the Every Child Matters Green Paper of 2004 set out a range of provision for full-service schools to offer, including childcare; sports, arts, IT facilities; health and social care and parent support.

Ministers will also have to take very seriously the conflicts that are bound to erupt as education and social services - and sometimes health - are merged in local authorities.

How will this affect schools? Serious matters of confidentiality, about which social services are scrupulous and education isn't, won't be resolved without trauma. Children's right to privacy versus their right to be protected will also come to the fore, as will procedures for sharing information, in cases such as that of the teenager who raped a teacher which came to court last week. Every Child Matters promises joint training for teachers and other public servants, and this will have to be thought through carefully and be properly funded.

Although ministers insist the standards and children's agendas do not clash, and that the right start will lead to high achievement later, teachers and heads still feel the pressure of narrow literacy and numeracy targets. And while David Bell, the chief inspector, and Kevan Collins, head of the national primary strategy, both declare that a creative curriculum is what will really raise standards - and have published multifarious documents to prove it - schools remain nervous.

One trouble is that the new, shorter inspection concentrates on the core subjects. It's up to schools to draw Ofsted's attention to what makes them special. For instance, Simonswood primary in Kirkby, Merseyside, one of the pilot schools for the new system, drew high praise from inspectors for its innovative cultural curriculum, putting performing arts at the centre of its work with children from a grim outer-urban neighbourhood. But the HMIs looked first at test results and headteacher Phil Newton had to be persistent in showing off his pupils' and teachers' artistic talents.

The problem is that creativity is fine for schools already doing well, and for those at the bottom of the tables, who have nothing to lose. The real pressure is on schools in the middle, whose results are not quite good enough. Those schools get lots of extra help from the primary strategy, which, despite its rhetoric, sometimes pushes them to focus on their literacy and numeracy targets rather than on creative teaching. Schools may then feel they have to concentrate on the children who stand a chance of achieving level 4, rather than those most in need of help. The children's agenda, on the other hand, would demand a focus on the real strugglers.

One way to resolve the conflict is to get rid of league tables, and reduce the pressure of targets. It's right that children should be assessed at the end of primary school. It's wrong to burden them with a system that's more about judging schools than individual pupils.

Now that the election is over, Labour can afford to reduce key stage 2 testing pressure in England, by doing what they have done for key stage 1.

Let teachers use tests to support their own judgements, which would be moderated by the LEA. In Wales, moderated teacher assessment is the way things are going, with tests to be abandoned all together next year.

Meanwhile, KS1 tests should become optional. (They've been scrapped in Wales). Now that the tests have been downgraded, a great deal of time and money are being spent moderating teachers' assessments, and studying fine differences between the top of level 2 and the bottom of level 3.

Assessment is so unreliable at that age; children jump forward and slip back regularly. Why not just tell the next teacher that the child is hovering? Then, we could abandon so-called "value added" measures showing children's improvement between seven and 11, which penalise those who have made huge leaps in the infants.

Most important, perhaps, is for the Government, and all the rest of us, to have a good, hard look at the national curriculum. What do 21st-century children really need to know and learn? How can we prepare them for the risky, uncertain world they will take charge of? What combination of knowledge and skills should form the core?

One thing is certain. The fate of the earth will be in their hands, and the curriculum has got to help them learn to think about very difficult issues.

Write to primary@tes.co.uk

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