Thursday, March 10, 2016

UK: Working-class kids should be challenged, not tested

Tests for four-year-olds will only entrench low expectations

Of all the controversial policy directives forced upon schools in recent years – and there have been many – plans to introduce ‘baseline assessments’ must win the prize for being the least popular of all. The image of little four-year-olds being yanked away from play, squeezed into school uniforms and corralled into taking formal tests just days after starting school is surely only something the most child-hating of Gradgrinds could support.

Yet from this September, every child starting school in England will be assessed according to the reception baseline. Their skills in reading, numeracy and writing, as well as their social and emotional development, will be measured, scored and recorded. In fact, the development of each child in all of these areas will be combined into just one score. Complex children with emerging personalities and preferences that change daily will be reduced to one single number.

This figure, the Department for Education (DfE) tells us, will not be used to grade and rank pupils, nor will it be used to monitor individual progress. Instead it is designed to hold schools to account. When children leave primary school seven years later, the reception baseline score will be used to ‘calculate how much progress they have made compared to others with the same starting point’.  Baseline assessments provide the DfE with a means of measuring school progress that takes account of ‘schools with challenging intakes’.

Unsurprisingly, critics of baseline testing are numerous. Commentators have been vocal in condemning government ministers who, seemingly lacking any sense of what education is for, substitute measuring what children can and can’t do for actually teaching them anything. Unfortunately, many of the critics of baseline assessments similarly lack a sense of purpose when it comes to teaching; worse, they fail to recognise that this initiative is built on the very assumptions about education they themselves have been pushing for decades.

Much of the reaction against baseline assessments has focused on the disruptive nature of implementing the tests in the first few weeks of the school year and the additional stress this will put on children. A report commissioned by the two biggest teachers’ unions, emotively titled They are children… not robots, not machines, argues:

‘The start of school is a precious and important time for our children. Get it right and the seeds are sown for a love of learning that can carry on through school and into adulthood. Get it wrong and the scourge of low self-confidence and disaffection for school can set in, blighting a child’s life chances.’

The idea that there is a small but all important window of opportunity to set children on the correct learning trajectory taps into current beliefs about infant determinism. It assumes that what happens in the early years of a child’s life is all important in deciding his or her future. Of course, no one wants children to be miserable when they start school. But in reality many children do have problems settling in for all kinds of reasons; plenty of four-year-olds are simply not ready for school and would far rather be at home. To suggest that such children are doomed and their life chances blighted is plain ridiculous. There is no evidence to show that children who have a disrupted and unhappy start to school are not still learning, nor that an inspiring teacher and an exciting curriculum years later can’t instill a love of knowledge.

Baseline assessments won’t put an end to childhood as we know it. No child will be expected to sit pen-and-paper tests. Instead they will be observed taking part in various tasks and teachers will be expected to complete checklists recording what they can do. Reception-class teachers already have a very good handle on what their pupils are capable of doing – they would not be able to do their jobs otherwise. Children in nursery and reception classes are extensively observed and assessed as part of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Moving away from all forms of assessment in the first few years of school would free teachers to think about what it is they want young children to know and give them back the time to teach.

Yet the critics of baseline tests cannot make the case against all forms of assessment. At best, they argue that the pressure to complete a new set of observations in a much shorter timeframe will make the results unreliable and will fail to provide an accurate reflection of children’s abilities. The most vocal critics of baseline assessments cannot argue against testing four-year-olds because they are often the very same people who provided the rationale that underpins baseline assessments. The DfE claims baseline assessments are shaped by the principle that ‘measures of progress should be given at least as much weight as attainment’. And this principle – that progress is just as important (or indeed more important) than what a child actually knows when he or she leaves school – is exactly what critics of recent government education policies have been arguing for years.

The leaders of the teaching unions, people like Mary Bousted, have long claimed that family background is the biggest factor in determining a child’s educational progress, and that ‘a narrow academic curriculum’ is alien to the lives of children living in poverty. In other words, they claim that children from poor families cannot be expected to learn the same material, at the same rate and to the same standard, as kids from middle-class homes. So entrenched is this belief that they argue school performance is only a measure of the prosperity of the intake. They counter that a better indicator of a school’s success is the ‘value added’, or the progress pupils make. In practice, this means children can leave school knowing very little, but as long as they started knowing even less, then the school they attended can be judged to be successful.

The belief that success at school is determined more by family income than by anything teachers do holds back working-class kids who are patronisingly rewarded for making progress rather than challenged to push themselves to achieve as much as their wealthier peers. Teachers need to have high academic expectations of all their pupils and judge them all according to the same standard.

Baseline assessments are a terrible idea for many reasons. There are rumours that the DfE may respond to pressure and change the format of such tests before their introduction in September. But if we are truly interested in the education of all children then opposing baseline assessments is not enough. We need to go further and reject the whole notion that the aim of a school is the ‘value added’. We need to argue that rather than ‘progress’ being sufficient, all children should have an equal entitlement to a challenging and inspiring knowledge-rich curriculum, whatever their family circumstances. Nothing should justify teachers having lower expectations of children from poorer backgrounds.


SC school nixes slavery journal assignment as insensitive

A South Carolina school district has scrapped an assignment asking third-grade students to pretend to be slaves.

Local media outlets report officials pulled the five-page handout entitled "My Life as a Slave" after a parent complained it wasn't appropriate for 8-year-old students at Killian Elementary in Columbia.

The students were to discuss being kidnapped from West Africa, riding on a slave ship and being sold at auction. The journal also asks students to draw pictures and discuss life with their slave owners.

School officials say three teachers found the lesson online and ordered it. District spokeswoman Libby Roof says one class had done the assignment, which won't be distributed to the other two.

District diversity officer Helen Grant says teachers will brainstorm about more culturally sensitive plans in the future.


Now Cecil Rhodes protesters take aim at Queen Victoria statue that describes her as the 'Empress of India'

Students campaigning for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes are now taking aim at a monument to Queen Victoria  - claiming it has racist colonial connotations.

Campaigners from Royal Holloway, University of London, object to a statue of the long-reigning monarch at the university campus because she 'sanctioned colonial exploits'.

They are expected to join hundreds of students from campaigns across Britain at the 'Mass March for Decolonisation', to be held in Oxford on Wednesday, calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Oriel College has become the target of student campaigners who say the 19th century colonialist and founder of Rhodesia was racist.

The Times reports the 'Mass March for Decolonisation' will be part protest, part 'imperial tour of racist Oxford'.

Among those present will be supporters of the campaign at Royal Holloway which focuses on a statue of Queen Victoria at the Founder's Building in Egham, Surrey.

It comes after the BME network at Royal Holloway decided to start a poster campaign documenting the daily racist encounters and 'micro-aggressions' they faced.

The pictures showed them holding up signs with some examples of racist remarks they face written in pen alongside the hashtag #itooamroyalholloway.

In one such photograph, students are seen gathered around the statue of Queen Victoria, criticising her title of 'Empress of India'. The campaign uploaded it as a show of solidarity to the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign.

Grace Almond, of the college's women of colour feminism society, wrote of the campaign: 'That some white students are so defensive over a statue of Queen Victoria, someone who sanctioned so many colonial exploits, shows you just how far white supremacy and racism is ingrained in our university.'

She added: 'Queen Victoria was implicitly involved in colonial exploits. She gave Cecil Rhodes a Royal Charter to lead an imperial conquest in Southern Africa. If she hadn't have given him this charter, he would not have been able to further colonisation of that region of the continent on behalf of the monarchy.'

The march has been officially backed by the National Union of Students' black students campaign.

The organisation claims the protest against the Rhodes statue is 'part of a wider struggle for decolonial learning, and anti-imperialist struggle' and that 'white supremacy is built into the very structures of Oxford University's buildings'.

In a statement, it said: 'It is no coincidence, that Oxford's elite classism, long history of excluding women from many of its colleges, in addition to its colonial contributions, make it one of the most male, pale and stale places of learning in Britain.

'White supremacy is built into the very structures of Oxford University's buildings, with the statues, names of buildings and physical structures all uncritically celebrating an Empire which dehumanises every student we are elected to represent. There can be no doubt, that part of Decolonising the student population, staff composition and curriculum, must involve a critical engagement with the physical relics of Empire.

'When we say Rhodes Must Fall, we are not simply talking about a statue: we speak to the philosophy of racial violence and apartheid, the myth of white superiority and the reality of white domination which were are dedicated to dismantling. Rhodes Must Fall Oxford is part of a wider struggle for decolonial learning, and anti-imperialist struggle, and we are proud to call them an ally.'

The plaque to Rhodes was erected in 1906 in recognition of the vast sum he left to the university.

The campaign to remove it, and his statue, follows the Rhodes Must Fall student protest in South Africa.

A statue of Rhodes was removed at the University of Cape Town after it was attacked as a symbol of oppression.

Oxford campaigners claim that forcing ethnic minority students to walk past the Rhodes memorials amounts to 'violence' as he helped pave the way for apartheid.

According to organisers of the march on Wednesday, it will be an 'imperial tour of racist Oxford'.

'A statement on its event page said: 'Oriel College sold out to big money. Oxford's Chancellor said students who don't like Rhodes should 'think about studying elsewhere.' A dictatorship of donors and administrators have shown no regard for the student voice, or for black life. Oxford has revealed its hand, which has only made us stronger and more determined.

'Now, we demand that Rhodes falls in all his manifestations in Oxford and beyond. We will march peacefully to various sites, and issue new demands for the fall of racist symbols, decolonisation of the white curriculum, reparatory justice, and greater black representation at all levels of the university.

'We will announce the sites to be visited leading up to the march which will be part protest and part 'imperial tour' of racist Oxford. '

Campaigners from Christ's College, Cambridge, are also calling on the university to sever a memorial fund left by Jan Smuts, the former prime minister of the Union of South Africa.


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