Bill Watkin at SSAT NC15 – Making sense of change

new-blog-bannerAn irreverent examination of official pronouncements on education, contrasted with the values espoused by teachers and school leaders.

At the SSAT National Conference 2015, Bill Watkin, SSAT’s director of policy and public affairs, gave an overview of government changes in education and some of their implications.

This sounds a dry topic, but delegates vociferously appreciated his in-depth knowledge and cool irony in showing up some of the illogicalities and challenges presented by recent official pronouncements on education.

For example, he quoted the Secretary of State’s initial criterion for coasting schools in the Education and Adoption Bill: ‘if the Secretary of State has defined it as coasting.’ He added: ‘And then she said, “a school is coasting if the Secretary of State has not said that it is not coasting”.’

‘Period of stability’

While the government had called for a period of calm and stability, Bill Watkin demonstrated why it feels anything like that for teachers.

The huge scope and scale of changes to the curriculum, assessments and accountability measures mean that teachers are working as hard as ever to keep on top of the changes and to implement the developments as they work their way into the system.

What the Secretary of State describes as a rigour revolution involves teaching new and more challenging content; and tests at all levels.

He pointed to the Ebacc consultation, the still-awaited new GCSE specifications, assessment without levels, the Education and Adoption Bill, the new national curriculum, decoupled AS and A-levels, new ITT routes into the profession, new funding arrangements and several other examples of a period of change and churn rather than calm and stability.

juggling on beach cropped

And on workload issues, Bill made reference to the workload challenge, in which the Secretary of State asked teachers what it is that stops them achieving a work-life balance and focusing on classroom delivery.

Some 44,000 teachers told her (through responses to the DfE survey). So she responding by saying there would be no more changes to government policy, curriculum or the Ofsted framework in mid academic year.

Then, she added ‘– unless it’s absolutely necessary.’ So presumably it was absolutely necessary on June 22 2015 to change the rules entirely about early entry for a number of GCSEs in 2017, which threw a large number of schools into turmoil.

Bill did note the Secretary of State’s positive response to the College of Teaching, which he thought was ‘enormously important.’ He commended the profession’s overwhelming support for this development, to which SSAT had devoted considerable effort and commitment.

Primary tests and resits

The proposed new requirement for pupils failing to achieve the expected standard in their Y6 SATs to resit them in Y7 also came in for some stick.

Bill pointed out all the ways in which this could present problems and concluded by saying that the Sutton Trust’s thorough analysis had shown that, from a wide range of interventions, repeating a school year was the most costly and the least effective.

Indeed, recent additions mean that primary pupils now have to sit tests more often than ever before:

  • as 2-year-olds
  • as 5-year-olds
  • in the phonics screening test at the end of year 1, repeated in Y2 and Y3 for those who fail in year 1
  • KS1 SPaG and national tests
  • KS2 SPaG and national tests.

Knowledge curriculum

Next, he examined the ‘knowledge curriculum’, so favoured by schools minister Nick Gibb, and influenced by the work of ED Hirsch.

The government, he suggested, is driving a curriculum and pedagogical ideology that allows little room for autonomous learning, instead identifying the teacher as expert didact.

‘And did you know that all kids in KS3 now must be taught how to cook a repertoire of predominantly savoury dishes for themselves and others? That would be a challenge for many adults!’

In KS2, children must now be able to use the subjunctive and adverbial clauses in English. Another challenge for some adults.

And in KS4, maths will have much more content, and will count double in the performance measures. ‘How will you respond to that? By putting more maths on the timetable? But how will you manage that? Either extend the school week or take time away from other subjects.’

Bill noted the emerging hierarchy of subjects, where some such as maths matter more than others, typically arts subjects.

He recalled the story of Winston Churchill in a WWII Cabinet meeting discussing the need for more funds (eg for tanks and warplanes). A minister suggested cutting the arts grant. After a pause, Churchill growled: ‘What’s it all for, then?’ Bill concluded: ‘so I hope you’re all fighting hard for proper breadth and balance.’

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