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Primary Education News
News Testing five-year-olds: why a blazer and an exam cannot fix everything | Polly Toynbee
Nick Clegg's proposals sound good, but the reasons why some children don't learn are many – and failure can scar for life
Children who leave primary school unable to read, write and add up well rarely find their feet in secondary school. Numbers reaching the right standard at age 11 have been rising over the years, but the question remains, how can we let any children pass through primary without gaining the basics? To a politician, it looks so simple: test the kids; rank the kids; and slam a school into special measures if too many children fail. Nick Clegg is unveiling more proposals along these lines today.
But the reasons why some children don't learn are many. Some schools are not good enough and need prodding, but most of the reasons why are caused by things beyond a school's reach. Schools in deprived areas often have a huge churn of pupils coming and going, speaking English or not. Some only arrive a year before their final test. The great uprooting of children through the bedroom tax, benefit cuts and the benefit cap will accelerate the churn. Already, some primary children are commuting an hour and a half each way, as their family is moved but parents struggle to keep their school place.
As social conditions worsen, as the poor get poorer and more insecure, and as some children go hungry, schools are the great place of safety and calm. But they need to offer wraparound services, from free breakfast to after-school clubs, with community services inside the school. The value of all this has been downgraded by Gradgrind Gove.
Some children who fail to learn are from the most chaotic families, and have barely been in school. Welfare officers are thin on the ground or nonexistent, due to local authority cuts. The plan for a national register of all children to stop them disappearing from one authority to another was struck out by this government. The amount of help available to families on the edge through depression, mental illness and addictions is almost nonexistent, unless they reach a stage of abuse where a child may go into care. The quality of nursery teaching is even more critical than what happens in primary – yet Sure Starts are closing. Excellent that the pupil premium is to be to raised – but remember how many fewer pupils are eligible as the government lowered entitlement to free school meals to families on less than £16,000 a year.
Nick Clegg, David Laws and Michael Gove treat schools as entities floating above the turmoil of society, where a blazer and an exam fixes everything. To test schools' achievement with their 11-year-olds makes sense – though only if each child's length of time at the school and social condition is weighed in the balance. But to grade individual children in 10% ability bands is the worst idea yet to come from the Gove stable. Bad enough that some children do go to secondary without basic skills – but how much worse to arrive with failure branded on their soul.
Failing the 11-plus scarred children for life, and it still does in the areas where it's still used. I should know, I failed, being a chaotic child – and that failure still hurts, despite recovering later. Since I wrote about it ages ago, I still get taunting comments saying it proves I'm an idiot, so plainly others regard that test as omniscient, despite multiple studies showing otherwise. Teachers, parents, other 11-plus failures – what do you feel about a return to sheep-and-goats division of young children?