It is hard not to wonder whether Andrea Jenkins, Morley & Outwood MP is even aware of the changes to primary school testing after reading her reply to my letter on this very issue. Her email which fully supported the other contentious reform – academisation, did not happen to refer to anything I had written. I did, however, find myself provoked by her response to address this other reform in a second letter. I am now curious to see whether her reply (if any) will be as irrelevant as the last or if she may actually read what I have written.
The letters of which I talk follow, and may be of interest to anyone concerned about what is happening to our education system or anyone who is curious to learn how incompetence can be simply and effectively demonstrated.
Dear Ms Jenkins
I am a parent of two children currently in Key Stage 1 (KS1) and Key Stage 2 (KS2) primary school. I am also one of a number of parents with grave concerns about the impact that new education reform will have on our children. To be precise, we are alarmed at the speed and manner by which the new assessment system for primary school children is being implemented, which appears to be inefficient if not chaotic. As our MP, I hope that you can find the time to read and digest the following points and then either speak up on our behalf or forward on our concerns to the Education Minister.
The rush to make a huge number of changes has meant that teachers and children are on catch-up which, given the rise in standards, seems very unfair. The Department for Education (DfE) issued writing assessment guidelines last month, just over four months before the end of the school year. This is very late in the day for children to practice new skills and then produce sufficient work to demonstrate the standard they have reached. Indeed, the Education Minister has had to give teachers extra time to make the assessments even possible.
On top of this, our children are still trying to get to grips with the new skills required of them in the reading, mathematics and grammar tests. And this is no mean feat. KS2 topics such as algebra, ratio and proportion in maths and the perfect aspect and subjunctive mood in the grammar may have been described by the Education Secretary as ‘the basics’ but they are most certainly not easy.
It is quite alarming just how much expected standards have been raised because evidently what this means is that the rate of progress expected of our children has increased. This year, children in KS1 and KS2 have to achieve far more in less time, far more than can reasonably be demanded given the lack of time teachers have been given to thoroughly research requirements and plan for such progress.
Besides these extra demands, our children are also having to overcome the confusion caused by changes midway through their learning programme that have required them to re-learn methodology such as the column addition and subtraction in KS2 maths, and terminology such as conjunctions rather than connectives in KS2 grammar.
What is also worrying is the controversy surrounding some content in the KS1 and KS2 grammar tests. The Standards and Testing Agency (STA) has recently tried to clarify the difference between an exclamation sentence and the use of an exclamation mark. (Please note that the explanation has not eliminated my confusion.)
Experts in this field have been openly critical of other test content and yet, the Government intends to press ahead without addressing the concerns of these language and education experts. We cannot help but worry that our children will, later on down the line, have to un-learn what they are currently working so hard to learn.
We want our children to reach their full potential, but we want to be sure that schools do this in a positive and constructive way. Requiring young children to do grammatical analysis, follow unrealistic prescriptive rules, and write to a formula does not produce good writing. We ask you to postpone the assessments until a full review can be done of the content, its age appropriacy, and its fitness for purpose. The road to higher standards must not make sacrifices out of our children.
I appreciate your time.
Thank you for contacting me about academies.
As you are already aware from the Chancellor’s recent Budget statement and the White Paper ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ set out by the Education Secretary, by the end of 2020, all schools will be academies or in the process of becoming academies, and by the end of 2022, local authorities will no longer maintain schools.
Over the last five years, the academies and free schools programmes have freed thousands of headteachers and leaders to drive improvement in their own schools and across the system. Autonomy and accountability come together in academy trusts, where leaders have more control over budgets and teachers’ pay, can take decisions they believe will improve standards and are held to account for the outcomes. The academy system is currently working well in our area with examples such as Outwood Grange Academy, Morley Academy and Woodkirk Academy achieving fantastic results.
2015 results show that primary sponsored academies open for two years have improved their results, on average, by 10 percentage points since opening, more than double the rate of improvement in local authority maintained schools over the same period. 2015 GCSE results show that secondary converter academies are performing 7.2 percentage points above the national average, with 64.3 per cent of pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs, including English and maths.
A system in which all state-funded schools are academies will deliver better results for all children through empowering great teachers and leaders with better leadership structures. The system will prioritise responsiveness and clear accountability over an arbitrary requirement for all schools in a local area to be run by the same body, regardless of its effectiveness. There will also be a new role for local authorities, who will move away from maintaining schools and focus on championing pupils and parents.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Yours sincerely Andrea Jenkyns MP
Dear Ms Jenkins
Thank you for responding to my letter regarding the testing of our primary school children. I am disappointed that neither you nor anybody in your team managed to read my letter and provide an appropriate response. At the very least, you could have pretended to read the letter and provided me with a standardised letter that related to my concerns about the tests.
There are few if any issues more important to a parent than the welfare of their child and I feel your response has shown a complete disrespect for the concerns of one of your constituents with regard to the negative impact of the tests. However after considering your response which related to the forced academisation of schools, I feel that I must explain why this second reform will further disrupt my youngest child’s education and the education of many other children in our community.
Clearly, I am interested and involved in my children’s education but I am far from alone here. Parental involvement has always been valued and encouraged at our primary school and I have felt part of a collaboration that joins together parents, pupils, teachers, governors and the head for the benefit of the children. Understandably then, I am deeply concerned that the government intends completely reshaping parental experience by splitting this partnership.
Firstly you will allow the removal of the elected governors that represent our voice.
Secondly, the school is likely to become part of a trust and that means we may not have any meaningful contact with any decision maker.
Thirdly not only will we potentially have an invisible decision maker but our local authority will also be taken out of the equation. Our local authority who is accountable to local voters including, of course, parents. As I understand it, decisions and complaint handling will be dealt with by the Local Commissioner. Our Local Commissioner covers all of Lancashire and West Yorkshire – this certainly does not fit my definition of local!
Furthermore, whereas our local authority has an obligation and a budget to support all children including those who require extra support for learning, emotional or physical needs, academies only have a duty to support the children at their academy. As all schools are now part of a competitive system of education based on Ofsted inspection outcomes and test results, and indeed your letter states that ‘academies are held to account for the outcomes’, then surely any child who may bring down a school’s ratings in the league tables is a liability. Although a school cannot overtly discriminate, academies do have budget freedoms that allow for tactical spending. In other words:
Will they choose to spend their money on services that support children with different needs?
Who will they choose to source services from?
How much will they spend?
And if they don’t?
Parents will not place their child in a school that does not cater for their child’s needs and so where does that leave such children?
And where does it leave our community? Will our community be split? I am happy that my children have spent their early years in an inclusive environment and I believe the diverse friendships they have established have helped shape them into the caring, empathetic and tolerant little people they are.
Your letter stated that local authorities will have a new role with a focus on ‘championing pupils and parents’, please do explain how this will work. Will they or the Local Commissioner have the power to support concerned parents and override academy decisions should that academy choose to use its new freedoms (such as employing unqualified teachers or withdrawing a national curriculum subject) to the detriment of its pupils?
As I mentioned above, I have felt happy to have been part of my children’s education thanks to the approach of the school. This is no accident. In 2008 my son began his first of eight years at primary school. I reviewed and visited several schools before choosing the school that would educate my child. My choice was based on several factors, not least the culture within the school and the head’s approach to education. Unfortunately, that luxury of choice that I had in 2008 has already become a thing of the past because primary schools in this area are over-subscribed yet I have seen no new primary schools being created in this area. New houses are being built even as we speak yet a school to accommodate new demand is not. Why spend money and time on converting perfectly good schools (all seven Morley primary schools were rated good or outstanding at their last Ofsted inspection) rather than doing what is best for the needs of our community and matching supply with demand?
Not only does academisation not alleviate the lack of school places but in this area at least, it has further reduced choice.
Following the open evening of one particular local academy we were left absolutely appalled at the lack of respect shown towards prospective parents and pupils by the academy trust’s executive principal. Our interpretation of his speech was that we should be grateful and compliant or choose another school. I understand that this followed the quite public break down in relations between a number of parents and the academy leadership but this aggressive ‘welcome’ alone was enough to scare us away from the school. You can therefore imagine our dismay to discover that the other school in our catchment area had just become part of that very same trust that we had decided against. We were left with the much diminished choice of an over-subscribed academy out of our catchment area or the local selective grammar school.
Your letter cites Morley Academy and Woodkirk Academy as examples of academies ‘achieving fantastic results’ and states that ‘2015 GCSE results show that secondary converter academies are performing above the national average’. The implication here is that academisation correlates with school exam success however in the 2009-2010 league tables both schools were already performing above the national average before conversion to academy status. In fact the 2009-2010 school year saw 60% of pupils at Morley High achieve at least 5 A*-C grades including maths and English, 5 % above the national average. Following its conversion, Morley Academy results have been inconsistent with a 2013 performance 16% above national average dropping in 2014 to 1% below average and rising again in 2015 to 9% above average. Woodkirk High school, has consistently achieved results above the national average and although its 2015 results saw 74% of pupils achieve at least 5 A*-C grades including maths and English that still does not match the 15% above the national average it achieved in 2009-2010, before it became an academy.
My son has not only thoroughly enjoyed his time at primary school, but he will leave the school this year socially confident, curious and with a desire to learn. He has been allowed to develop his strengths while receiving a well-rounded education. He will head to secondary school with a mature and logical mind but also a creative one, for his vivid imagination has been nurtured as can be seen in his writing and in his play, and his fascination for nature, science and numbers has been cultivated. I have utmost faith in the school and its teachers but I fear that academisation will turn what has been a positive and life shaping experience for my son into something completely different for my daughter when she is only just beginning her journey.
I have better things to do than to keep writing letters about harmful reforms that are not necessary especially when they are not read. I have therefore decided to openly share our correspondence for although it appears that you have already chosen to adopt the party stance regarding this issue, I live in hope that you will take the time to look at the facts and do what is best for the children in your constituency.