Education Matters: Politicians need to be optimistic for the future of schools

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. - Credit: Archant

If fag packets had feelings, then they would definitely deserve our sympathy, writes Geoff Barton.

Not a day goes by when we don’t hear sniping about them. There’s hardly a newspaper column when someone – political pundit, Westminster insider or even some wayward Suffolk headteacher - doesn’t write: ‘That idea might have been dreamed up on the back of a fag packet’.

Last week the ongoing general election campaign could almost have been renamed National Fag Packet Week. Daily, it seemed, some glossy new idea was plucked out of thin air with the frenzied eagerness of a trainee street magician.

There were proposals for national volunteering, for scrapping inheritance tax, for making tampons cheaper, and for getting children who ‘fail’ their Year 6 primary tests to have to resit them in the first year at secondary school.

No wonder fag packets get banished to the unforgiving dog-house.

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Not that I’m having a go at politicians. I believe in them. They are – like teachers – in the business of dealing in optimism. Their job, like those of us working in education, is built on the belief that the world can be made better.

That’s often against a challenging backdrop when it can seem as if any positive news has packed up, screeched hellwards in a disappearing handcart, and is now waving two fingers at us from the distant horizon.

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In these grim days, we need optimism.

Thus a great teacher believes that we can and will learn something, that our intelligence isn’t fixed, our skill-set not predetermined or constrained. Even if the pupil gives up hope, the best teachers won’t.

Similarly, politicians have to believe that certain decisions based on sound principles will improve society. They deal in optimism.

So I’m not having a go here at politicians because of the sometimes remorseless flow of fag-packetesque ideas.

My real issue is their use of language. Many years as an English teacher have taught me that tone often matters as much as content. It isn’t just what we say that counts, but how we say it.

It matters a lot in education. It matters a lot in politics.

That’s why I think last week’s pronouncement by the Prime Minister about making children ‘resit’ their KS2 SATs was so misguided.

An important principle was damaged by an apparently uncontrollable urge of clutching after a tough-talking soundbite.

First, the principle. We know children’s success in tests aged ten is one of the biggest predictors of their success at 16. If they can secure a solid level four in their reading, writing and mathematics at the end of their primary years, then gaining a C or higher at GCSE becomes much easier. The basics – the building blocks of learning – will have been secured.

That’s why secondary schools already pay close attention to children who’ve not secured the level four benchmark. They usually offer help and extra support so that these pupils have every chance of catching up as quickly as possible.

So, yes, those Key Stage 2 results are hugely important.

But that’s no excuse for the kind of language the Prime Minister used in announcing the policy. He promised parents ‘more rigour, zero tolerance of failure and mediocrity’ in schools.

At the very least, this is the glib lexicon of tabloid-pleasing rather than serous policy-making. And I suspect most parents, especially those with young children who struggle in reading, writing and mathematics, will deeply resent them being branded ‘failures’ at so early an age.

As I say, politicians, like teachers, help us to cling on to optimism. Partly it’s in the policies they promise. But it should also be deeply embedded in the language they use. This should exude integrity, precision and careful thought.

It shouldn’t feel like a few words too easily scrawled on the back of a fag packet.

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