Does Richard Walden have a point? Are testing and league tables driving out real education?Posted: May 20, 2014
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?