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Education: You Don't Fatten a Pig by Just Weighing It

03/01/2016 19:48 GMT | Updated 03/01/2017 10:12 GMT

What test should you set for a bird, a chimpanzee, a penguin, an elephant, a fish, a seal and a dog? The tree climbing test, of course.

It is challenging, to say the least, to fully comprehend the deconstruction and redesign of England's education system since 2010. From the flagship academies and free schools programme to the abandonment of vocational education in favour of a narrow curriculum of 'traditional' subjects, the Conservatives have been unapologetic in their pursuit of what they claim is a crucial overhaul of an ineffective system that has left countless hundreds of thousands of children perilously unprepared for life.

Of course, education has always been a governmental cause célèbre. The last Labour government's tenure was characterised by the Every Child Matters agenda and the core principles of inclusion and differentiation; the notion that all children have the right to a broad-based, inclusive education that caters to their individual needs and talents. Crucially, those 13 years also saw the introduction of the Sure Start programme, in addition to a National Workforce Agreement that enshrined teachers' pay and conditions in law and shored up the profession to face the challenges of a growing, evolving population.

This week, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced plans for on-screen times table testing for all 11-year-olds by 2017. This, she claims, will "allow us to target those areas where children aren't being given a fair shot to succeed". This, combined with the aforementioned overhaul of the curriculum, shines a blinding light on the ideology at the core of Conservative education policy. To them, 'success' is defined by a simple percentage score or a grade at the top of an assessment (in a STEM subject, naturally. None of that vocational nonsense, thank you!). For them, it is reasonable to judge pupil achievement in, for example, a German GCSE course on the basis of the level they achieved in English upon leaving primary school five years earlier.

The theory that rote learning and memorisation of non-contextualised knowledge is the key to success is both erroneous and dangerous. It is ludicrous to assert that rhythmic regurgitation of times tables is an accurate measure of mathematical ability, just as one would not suggest that the flawless recall of a verb table is a rigorous assessment of linguistic capacity. Instead, it is in the application of stored knowledge over time that we find the most scientific yardstick of progress. This is not to say that memorisation is not a pillar of learning - to the contrary, the recall of key knowledge is a crucial educational component, a skill that must be painstakingly honed over time. However, it is just one cog in an incredibly intricate wheel. This is an unwelcome reality to those that believe that you can fatten a pig by merely weighing it.

There is a very human truth that negates the pontifications of those that would force all children into an academic straightjacket with the sole aim of churning out mere units of economic productivity instead of fully rounded global citizens. When a teacher stands in front of a class of 30 children, they are confronted with a plethora of highly complex, individual personalities, inclinations, backgrounds, talents and needs. To the vocational teacher, this joyously colourful patchwork of humanity is among the key drivers in their professional life. They recognise that assessment-focussed academic uniformity is detrimental to a great many students with Special Educational Needs.

The acceleration towards educational homogenisation, together with the disastrous, inexorable attacks on teachers' pay, pensions and conditions, have lead to a recruitment and retention crisis of truly terrifying proportions. A 2015 survey carried out by the NASUWT teachers' union found that over two thirds of its members had considered leaving the profession over the previous twelve months. Those seeking an exit route will undoubtedly be largely composed of holistic practitioners with a human view of their role as an educator, unwilling to prop up a conveyor belt system that refuses to acknowledge, let alone accommodate, the wonderful individuality of each and every child.

Despite all of this, Morgan and co. will soldier on defiantly, blinded by arrogance and convinced of their righteousness. Meanwhile, those young people for whom unrelenting testing and its associated pressures present greater difficulty will increasingly buckle under the weight of unrealistic - and utterly unfair - expectations. The emotional impact of this can be profound. In May 2015, the NSPCC reported a 200% increase in students seeking counselling specifically for exam stress. This one-size-fits-all approach to education is wreaking potentially irreparable damage on the health of England's young people. Moreover, through its excruciating narrow academic focus, it denounces the artists, dancers, photographers and musicians in our nation's classrooms as frivolous and creativity as superfluous.

Schools have become simmering cauldrons of tension, with teachers forced to tow this line of educational orthodoxy for fear of the perpetual looming spectre of Ofsted and a deregulated pay system that hands power over your income to your individual headteacher. The situation as it stands is unsustainable in every aspect. Past experience makes it highly unlikely that the Department for Education will heed the very genuine concerns of those at the chalkface. Instead, they will continue to constrain teachers to 'weigh pigs' ad nauseam, rather than nurture them to their full potential, whatever that may be.