We Would Address Your Primary Concern: Comment

By Twigg, Stephen | Times Educational Supplement, July 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

We Would Address Your Primary Concern: Comment


Twigg, Stephen, Times Educational Supplement


If there is one document that encapsulates the problem with the government's approach to education, it is the resignation letter that two of the expert panel members of the Department for Education's national curriculum review sent last month to Michael Gove.

In it, they say that the government's plans "fly in the face of evidence from the UK and internationally and, in our judgement, cannot be justified educationally".

Bizarrely, given that Gove appointed them to the position, he tried to dismiss them as "a few professors seeking to curry favour in Ed Miliband's Labour Party".

This goes to the heart of the secretary of state's myopia. He cannot see education beyond a narrow political prism. When people raise concerns about the evidence for his changes, he simply attacks them as the "enemies of promise" or similar.

It is a depressing narrative that does nothing to advance the cause of good teaching. It is why Labour said we would focus on establishing an Office for Educational Improvement, a bit like the Office for Budget Responsibility, in order to ensure that the best available evidence is acted on by ministers.

We saw the effects of Gove's dogma-not-evidence approach in the chaotic way his plans to go back to a system of O levels and CSEs were announced. For changes to be leaked to the Daily Mail while pupils were entering exam halls to take tests he was calling "worthless" must have caused frustration and confusion.

While there is some sense in reforming GCSEs, creating a two-tier system, effectively a cap on aspiration, cannot be the solution. We need a curriculum and examination system that prepares all pupils for the modern economy and to succeed in life.

I want to focus more broadly on primary education in this article. In government, Labour put a lot of effort and investment into improving the early years and primary sector. From trying to ensure that children came to reception class better prepared for school, to reducing infant class sizes and developing literacy and numeracy strategies, we believed firmly that every child deserved the best start in life.

It sounds like a truism, but at the heart of a successful primary school is a quality headteacher, supported by professional teachers, teaching assistants and other support staff.

But it bears repeating when so much of the government's programme for raising primary standards is narrowly focused on "structural tinkering", such as converting underperforming schools into academies. Structures can have an effect, but more important is the quality of teaching.

Overall, Labour recruited 42,000 more teachers. We also made an effort to attract a wider pool of talent to the classroom, through programmes such as Teach First. Dogmatic attacks on the teaching profession will not do much to help recruitment and retention at a time when numbers are falling.

We need to examine initial teacher training, but I am aware that a lot of effective teacher development happens on the job. I have asked former London schools tsar Tim Brighouse to conduct a review of continuing professional development. …

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