Does Richard Walden have a point? Are testing and league tables driving out real education?

Richard Walden was not, it has to be said, until recently a household name in the world of education. He’s head of a small independent primary school in Shropshire – though it would want to call itself a prep school so as to avoid confusion with the sweaty masses in the state system. The school is a reminder that the independent sector isn’t just the big names. Here your money buys class sizes about half those in state primaries and pupils’ destinations are local independents and state grammars.

But currently Richard Walden is chair of the independent Schools Association and that qualifies him to be described as “a leading private school headmaster” (sic). Last week he hit the headlines by telling his annual conference that “the state education system is producing a generation of “amoral” children who fail to understand the difference between right and wrong.” Whereas “many private schools help build old-fashioned values by providing extra sport, community service, collective worship, pastoral care and school trips outside the classroom”.

Now you might think this is the predictable self-interested ramblings of an out of touch representative of privilege. And in many ways it is. If you want to get into the mind-set that can produce this attitude, a few moments with the comments section of the Telegraph website is instructive. There you can read about:

“the liberal educational establishment and their drippy multi-culti, show-respect-for-ethnic-minorities RE syllabus”

“teaching our children to love the destruction and disappearance of their culture”

“And you can blame the marxist layabouts masquerading as teachers for that”

Rationally this is all nonsense. The record of products of the private system in crashing the economy, claiming expenses for moats and duck houses and above all taking to themselves an ever growing share of national wealth is hardly an advert for superior morality.

But there is one part of this that perhaps should give some pause for thought amongst the powers that be. The reason, in Walden’s view, that state schools are like they are is that “the focus on league tables and attainment levels distracts teachers and effectively disables them from providing children with a more rounded and enriching education”. When he compares league tables to the “modern equivalent of the Gradgrinds” in Dickens’s Hard Times, with “endless testing regimes and league tables replacing the birch”, we need to consider whether he does actually have a bit of a point.

We now have a curriculum based exclusively on learning facts. We have a testing regime that tries to drive out everything that isn’t going to be tested. We have teachers and heads in fear of their jobs if some inspector takes a dislike to them or their data goes wrong just once. Are we actually leaving schools the space they need to nurture, in Walden’s words “respect for academic seriousness, sport and culture, citizenship and community, service, environmental awareness, spiritual life and personal responsibility” so as to “send out into the world young people with emotional intelligence, developed moral understanding and a willingness to make a contribution to society”?

Try and find emotional intelligence in the National Curriculum. Look at the downgrading of the arts through EBacc and the derisory curriculum documents for them. Think about the gutting of the citizenship curriculum taking out anything that might help young people to know how to make a personal contribution to society. Then there is the reduction of examinations to a simple test of memory that ignores any other kind of skill or ability.

I have no doubt that state schools are doing their very best to deliver the full range of skills and qualities that young people need. Nor should anyone doubt that living in the privileged bubble of the private sector isn’t the best way of developing emotional intelligence – just remember those Bullingdon Club stories and pictures. But we should also recognise that many schools are struggling against the tide and it’s long overdue that the tide turns.

Postscript – the response of the DfE to this press coverage was that “we are also giving all schools more freedom to offer extra-curricular activities that will build character. These include sports matches, debating competitions, cadet training and inspirational careers talks from outside visitors. How many of us knew that all these things were forbidden until Michael Gove liberated schools? And how many of us think that this press release sums up the depressingly blinkered and dated view of the world that now inhabits Sanctuary Buildings?

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4 Comments on “Does Richard Walden have a point? Are testing and league tables driving out real education?”

  1. Gary Brooke says:

    Richard Walden, whoever he is, and his ilk will always get a hearing for their predictable and ill-informed comments. Has he ever set foot in a state school? Or does his research stretch to reruns of ‘Grange Hill’ or ‘Waterloo Road’?
    All the ‘character building’ activities mentioned by Richard Walden and the ‘Department For Academies and Free Schools’ site already take place in state schools. State schools do ‘right and wrong’; they do co-operation; they do caring and responsibility. It’s a pity that the ‘real world’ outside of school teaches young people an entirely different set of lessons, namely: backstabbing, dog eat dog barbarism and a thousand ways to say, “I’m alright Jack.”
    But I bet that’s the fault of state schools as well.

  2. David Pavett says:

    I strongly agree with the general point made in this piece but I think though that to make this point as strongly as possible we need to keep our analysis as sharp and accurate as possible.

    John says “We now have a curriculum based exclusively on learning facts.” I think that this an exaggeration and could therefore be used to damage what is basically a good case. In history there is a requirement “understand the methods of historical enquiry, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed”. In maths children do not learn much in the way of facts but rather they learn procedures and methods of analysis. In science the situation is similar. One cannot learn that “The sine of the angle of incidence is proportional to the sine of the angle of refraction” as a mere fact. It is not understood until one uses it to determine what happens in specific situations. It is the basis for example for understanding how optical fibres transmit information. I could go on but I guess that in thinking about English, Music, Drama, sports etc., it is easy to see how this reasoning can be extended.

    What is true is that there is a will to reduce the analytical (thinking) content of education in current educational politics and the whole apparatus of league tables and testing encourages that. But there are limits as to how far this can go. One cannot learn every possible multiplication of numbers as “facts” one has to learn a method and the more understanding there is of that method the better one will be at applying the techniques in various situation (i.e. using different number bases) as is required, for example, to understand computer arithmetic).

    The same general point goes for examinations. There is really no prospect that they can be reduced to “a simple test of memory that ignores any other kind of skill or ability”. But it is true that currently dominant thinking pushes things further, and dangerously, in that direction.

    This dominant thinking with its independent state schools, parental choice, league tables, constant testing and lack of democratic accountability is the real source of the ills of the state system as John says. And if my reading of Labour’s educational documents is anything like correct then we can expect all this to carry on under a Labour government. Only if Labour Party members assert themselves and demand a change of educational direction and reject the main thrust of the policy documents now out for consultation could there be a different prospect. I am not confident that the level of interest in and knowledge of educational issues in the Labour Party is such that there is the remotest possibility of this happening. I would, of course, love to be wrong about that.

  3. Terry Loane says:

    An interesting postscript to Richard Walden’s remarks at the Independent Schools Association meeting is that a critique of what he said was the starting point for the ‘Thought for the Day’ item on Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01zcgln). Now I do not share the religious beliefs of Saturday’s ‘Thought for the Day’ presenter, Elizabeth Oldfield, but she did say some things with which I strongly agreed, for example:

    “I don’t think it’s confined to the state sector, but I would agree that the space for ethical reflection in education is being squeezed out. As schools become more focused on measurable outcomes in a competitive market, the space to explore what a really rich, worthwhile human life is shrinks, because that does not show up on league tables.”

    I would go further than this. It is surely not just ethical reflection that is being squeezed out of schooling, but also creativity, discovery, analytical thinking (as David has pointed out in his comment) and indeed human wellbeing. The mechanistic and instrumental imperatives in school make it harder than ever, nigh impossible I would say, for dedicated teachers to develop young people as whole and healthy people.

    I agree with David that there needs to be a change of educational direction away from ‘dominant thinking’ and that this is not found within Labour educational documents. We need to move the debate a long way away from just obsessing about whether schools should be accountable to local authorities, to the Secretary of State or to Blunkett’s ‘Regional Schools Commissioners’. Such changes would be merely re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking hulk. We need to have the courage to re-imagine education, to re-imagine how to create communities of discovery that can replace our existing exam factories (to use Frank Coffield’s language). We should be exploring major structural and environmental change in the way young people experience learning rather than arguing about the details of accountability within existing managerialist assumptions.