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Hilary Wilce Headshot

Children - Not Galley Slaves

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How I hate the phrase "driving up standards".

Every time I hear it, I see primary-age schoolchildren, bent low and sweating over heavy oars, struggling to propel the great ship of education towards some distant, hazy destination that their elders and betters have deemed they must aim for.

Politicians, of course, love the phrase. It makes them seem powerful and decisive, determined to get everything ship-shape and up-to-scratch. The latest to have the phrase linked to his name is shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt who apparently intends to do it by measuring all five-year-olds if he comes to power. http://schoolsimprovement.net/labour-to-defy-teachers-unions-with-tests-for-five-year-olds/

But the phrase has nothing to do with the subtle, flexible, individual, messy, human business that is real education. And this isn't only hair-splitting semantics. Both the verb and the object of the phrase betray a mindset that completely fails to understand how education really works -- what helps children to learn, and what gets in the way of them doing so.

I've spent decades visiting nurseries, schools and colleges and among the many things I've learned is that you can't ever "drive" children to learn. You might be able to drive them towards good test results, but these results will be for show, not for the children's own good -- if only because there's no saying that they will retain and assimilate what they've been driven to learn once the test has passed.

Equally, no child goes to school to attain high "standards". Standards are something only good for public, adult consumption, in Parliament and elsewhere.

Children go to school to learn to read, write and do maths. They go to learn about the wider world, through a range of subjects, and they go to learn about themselves, about getting on with others, and about how to make the most of all the intellectual, social, emotional and physical skills that they can draw on.

If they are helped and encouraged to do this, by well-trained teachers in well-funded schools, ideally with good support from home behind them, children's attainments will inevitably rise.

If they are supposed to do it through policies designed only to "drive up standards" it won't happen -- no matter how hard they bend their little backs to the oars.