…”we all want the same thing for children.”
Well, it isn’t true, is it?
“Everybody around this table wants the best for children” is the other variant of this that I heard at a meeting yesterday morning of Local Authority officials, school leaders, diocesan advisers and governors. It is a platitude often said by those trying to justify a particular course of action. The subtext is “what you are doing for children is not really good enough, because we know what is best for children.” Certainly that subtext was running on frenetic caffeine-induced palpitations yesterday morning, scurrying around the room silencing criticism, cowing the weak and seeming to be “right” whilst leaving you with the feeling that if you argued against it, you were committing some dreadful heresy.
Yes, we may want the best for children, but defining that best is a completely different kettle of fish from just agreeing with the statement that we all want the same thing. At the moment, the prevailing orthodoxy equates “what is good for children” with schools demonstrating improved progress scores and higher attainment outcomes at key points (5, 7, 11 years) in a child’s primary education. This is not good for children. It really is not. It is not even designed to be. The forms of summative and reportable assessment we use have no implicit benefit for children at all. They can be used, by wise and sensitive leaders, in a formative manner to help tailor and shape the task of teaching. But then that is the same with any tool for assessment that we use to improve what we do. We sharpen practice in response to what we find out about the effect we were having (at least the wise teachers do). The improved progress scores and attainment outcomes are primarily used to bolster schools, local authorities and MAT chains in their ongoing defensive work against the inspectorate and in the competition for custom. You can pick holes in this argument, sure, but that is what it often looks like and feels like. The fact that our markers at ages 5, 7 and 11 are all increasing is a matter of fact, not a matter of judgment.
Yes, you can have a professional conversation about what is “best for children” but unless that involves improving “outcomes” for children, it is unlikely that the orthodoxy will be listening. Mental health hardly gets a look in.
At the meeting I had with an officer of the LA in April where I heard that they had withdrawn their confidence in me as a school leader, the same officer said that they were unsure whether the emphasis on English and maths was going to produce the sort of skilled people that the government hoped would emerge from that. Doubtless the DfE have statistics on that to prove the case one way or another, but the narrowing of the curriculum at KS3 and KS4, and the exaltation of English and Maths as the assessable proxies at Foundation, KS1 and KS2 is a crippling burden for educators to bear in the way that it is currently defined. Until that definition is broadened and debated more thoroughly, and the orthodoxy embraces some more ancient unorthodoxy, then the answer is no, not really, we do not all want the same thing for children.