Sue Williamson, SSAT’s chief executive, explains the significance of Michael Heseltine’s message for education today, and what SSAT is doing about it – hopefully, with your help
This is how Lord Heseltine feels about Brexit, but it also resonates with me about education. I believe that education policies, austerity, and a failure by many politicians to listen to experts are forming a perfect storm to ruin the life chances of many young people, particularly the disadvantaged and the vulnerable.
School leaders and teachers strive to do the best that they can for the young people in their care, but we are now seeing the impact of austerity on children who are just starting schooling. They have missed out on the benefits of initiatives such as Sure Start, because £650 million has been cut from early education since 2010. Also, cuts in nursery funding have hit poor areas hardest. Tom Middlehurst’s blog on school budgets gives greater detail on funding issues.
The former children’s commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, believes that the UK has created a crisis in childhood. In his book, The British Betrayal of Childhood: Challenging Uncomfortable Truths and Bringing About Change, he writes:
“The unnecessary distraction of grammar schools, the consequences of cutting budgets, the narrow test-orientated curriculum, the denial of the importance of the arts, the failure to see the need for technical qualifications to meet our skills shortages and the rhetoric of ‘choice’ – when for most families this is an impossible dream – all point to a disconnect with what actually matters to families.”
Like Aynsley-Green, I believe that the government does not understand what childhood is about and views data as more important than the young person. I always remember a student at our National Conference saying: “Am I just a piece of data to you?”
I always remember a student at our National Conference saying: “Am I just a piece of data to you?”
Our system is too quick to say that a child is a failure or has fallen behind. I was incensed at Christmas to be told by a colleague that her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter had “fallen behind”, according to her teacher, who was suggesting a remedial programme over the Christmas holidays. There was no recognition of a shy child successfully negotiating her first term at school. No child is a failure at that age. The Department for Education and the government never acknowledge the stress caused by the testing regime – and yet express concern about the mental health of young people!
Needed: an adult to confide in
All young people need to have an adult to speak with them. It may be a teacher or other adult in the school. Budget cuts have meant class sizes have risen and staff such as librarians and counsellors have been cut. Librarians play a critical role in developing literacy, but they are often also a confidant for a student and can highlight children who are lonely or have emotional needs. I have experienced the impact of suicide in two schools, and it is devastating for students and staff. Listening is so important and having a full-time counsellor is essential in my view, but they have to be supported by child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS). The bar for access to CAHMS is so high that many children can’t access it, the waiting times far too long.
The government does not listen to headteachers – we have seen it with the funding crisis – and does not accept that teachers are the best people to advise on how children learn. This is deeply demoralising for teachers and school leaders. No wonder we have a recruitment and retention crisis. Like the headteachers with the Worthless campaign, SSAT has tried to influence policy by persuasion. But until now we have not spoken out forcibly enough.
We have now concluded that this is a betrayal of young people and are launching a campaign for deep social justice. This is a commitment to ensuring that all students leave school fully prepared to lead fulfilled and purposeful lives. We will be inviting school leaders, teachers and young people to work with SSAT and partners on this ambitious project. We are delighted that Rt Hon David Lammy, MP, has agreed to be the patron.
We will be seeking your views and support. A survey will be sent to schools and you will be receiving a pamphlet on deep social justice that outlines our thoughts on the campaign. As Nelson Mandela said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” We must not fail our young people. Please join us.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Nelson Mandela