There is little that strikes more fear into the heart of a parent than the thought of their seven year-old, still more comfortable at the playground than at a desk, having to sit crucial tests while still in infant school. While this doesn’t completely represent Nicky Morgan’s intentions, the recent assertion of her desire for tough and rigorous testing does signal the direction in which the government’s education policies are heading. They threaten to replace running around with stressful revision as the top priority for the education of the country’s youngest students, and have been met with considerable dismay.
Draconian though these measures may seem, we must spare some sympathy for Morgan, for whom, in a role still much tainted by her divisive predecessor and serving in a government haunted by its “nasty party” image, braving the inevitable tide of criticism to pursue decisive education policies is a courageous move. This is simply one branch of the wide-reaching “toughening” of teaching which Morgan seeks to implement, a plan which also includes more classics, more English literature and a retreat from “meaningless” vocational qualifications. If these policies sound familiar, it’s because the removal of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education last year actually meant very little in terms of real change.
In fact, the proposals are unsurprising: from a purely economic perspective, Britain’s flagging productivity is a worrying long-term issue which requires a robust educational response. Morgan justifies more tests by arguing that Britain must educate its children for a modern, competitive world, and the Conservative victory on 8 May suggests that the wider public agree with her. But it isn’t just their shiny new mandate from the general election that gives the Tories the confidence to pursue this policy; compared with the muddled constellation of alternative qualifications introduced by their Labour predecessors, this government needs only to take an assertive stance on education to look competent.
These proposed tests are designed to help Britain trump world leaders like Singapore and Switzerland in international league tables. Labour’s introduction of vocational qualifications was well-intended but failed resoundingly in this respect, and so perhaps the Conservatives should be given a chance to pursue their own, remarkably different, approach to education. In 2013, Britain came 23rd out of 65 in the OECD’s Pisa ranking of global education, which measures children’s problem-solving skills; this rank was not just a disappointment but a worrying indicator that Britain’s children are being let down by their education and thus left behind in the global jobs market. Where Labour fruitlessly tried the “softly, softly” approach to improve our international ranking, the Conservatives are now employing tough love.
More tests and less curricular freedom do not sound like policies which will give children a lifelong love of learning, but they are pragmatic responses to a world increasingly divided by league tables. We truly are Thatcher’s children – the league tables schools compete in and the Ofsted reports we read are a product of her government – and David Cameron’s choice of education ministers shows that he would let today’s youth be her grandchildren, too. The government sees a disaster of British productivity on the horizon, and Morgan’s tests policy is a distinctly Conservative plan of prevention.
Unfortunately for our seven year-olds, Morgan’s proposals are the answer to a crisis which doesn’t exist.
Could Britain seriously be considered a failing country in education? With a 99 percent literacy rate and over two million graduates a year, we need not fear that our children will fall behind without these tests, and it is not worth jeopardising the mental health of the nation’s seven year-olds for a few meaningless assessments. Regardless of the impact this policy might have on international league tables, it has been met with repulsion simply because it suggests formalising a child’s education at a level when it should be at its most fluid. If we must sacrifice a few abstract points in the world rankings for the well-being of our children, many parents would argue that that sacrifice is one worth making.
Besides this, there is no reason to believe that less frequent testing entails a poorer education. Other European countries, like Switzerland and Denmark, have created academic success as well as high student satisfaction by taking a more holistic view of education; indeed, their pursuit of personal development over good grades has arguably produced a happier nation of adults than the league-topping countries like China, where excessive testing has led to a remarkably high teenage suicide rate.
The most successful education systems in the world are either East Asian or Scandinavian – the fact that these two very different styles can co-exist harmoniously in the production of conscientious, scholarly citizens suggests that there is no single formula for academic success as the Conservatives’ rigid policies assume. Finland has earned international renown for its philosophy of “whatever it takes” to get children learning, whether this means greater testing for one child at the same time as more pastoral care for another. With a greater population and perhaps greater global expectations, Britain may not be suited to Finland’s particular approach, but Cameron must not be afraid to build on other countries’ successes to carve his own educational legacy; trying to create a distinctly great British educational system need not mean avoiding the unorthodox triumphs of our neighbours.
But the willingness to learn from others does not mean we should attempt to excel where other countries have educational dominance. While China is renowned for its mathematics education, the UK is superior in the humanities and social sciences, areas of study not traditionally encompassed in primary school testing; perhaps it is worth adapting our tests to suit the strengths of our system, rather than attempting arbitrarily to adapt our children to the strengths of other countries.
We live in a globally competitive world which demands academic success from its students, and there is only so much one can do by crying, “Won’t somebody think of the children?” However, it must be asked whether pushing more tests on younger children is truly justifiable in a liberal democracy charged with competently and compassionately teaching its youth. Results-driven régimes might win top marks in the league tables, but in relegating holistic teaching to the detriment of our children’s emotional development, we could be creating academically successful yet personally dissatisfied adults; more importantly, we risk educating an entire generation without really considering what that education should be for.