Pride and Prejudice.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a middle class adult in possession of a child, must be in want of a boast. I confess, I do, from time to time, have little smug moments of pride and look for someone to tell. But then I get a grip. It is an unattractive trait and one I try very much to suppress. It would appear, however, that this is one trait that the government would very much like to encourage. Publishing deciles at the age of 11 is one of the most astonishingly divisive and cruel suggestions I have seen any government ever make. And there have been some terrible ones. This one strikes at the very heart of the parent and child relationship, feeding insecurity and competition and setting child against child. And I cannot see one single benefit from doing so.

I am a mother of three. One of the benefits of having one child every seven years is that you get a chance to try to put right the mistakes you made with the last one. The problem is, you just make different mistakes. Each child compares themselves with the others. My middle child wrote in an English essay recently ‘I have chosen this song because of the line ‘run as fast as you can’. It reminds me of the feeling I have had since I was little that I have to chase my brother and parents – not to be better but to try to catch up.’ It broke my heart. But I thank my lucky stars that he didn’t have to receive a letter when he was 11 laying out for him exactly how he compared, not only with his brother, but with every other child in the country.

I’ve seen tweets from many quarters claiming that this is what parents want. Really? In reality the only ones who say so are those who suspect their children are near the top. And even if it is, do we really want to pander to pride in educational policy? Are parents really the best judge of this? My husband specialises in counselling adolescents at his sixth form college. Many of them self harm. There are of course complex reasons for this, but one of the most frequently heard is the feeling of inadequacy that teenagers feel in not meeting, or in feeling they may not meet, their parents’ expectations. He cites case after case of children driven to harming themselves to the point of having suicidal thoughts as a result of the pressure they feel they are under. Have we not already done enough harm?

Sue Cowley imagined the moment Tom’s Mum opens the envelope in her heartbreaking blog Please read. Even after she wrote it, people were tweeting that it didn’t matter, because Mum wouldn’t tell Tom. She’d just do something about it.  Let me tell you three things about Tom’s Mum:-

1. If she’s attentive, she already knows he is struggling. She doesn’t need it ramming down her throat.

2. If she’s negligent, she’s probably part of the problem and getting a letter is not going to make a jot of difference. At Manchester Airport this year, I watched in horror as one mother hit her child over the head (for not being able to find the toilet) and called him ‘thick as pig shit’. Let’s hope she doesn’t get a letter. (And no I didn’t intervene, and yes I still feel guilty).

3. If she’s worried, the letter gives her no useful information. It tells her he is not secondary ready. But offers no alternative provision. It tells her he is in the bottom 10% in the country, but gives her no advice as to how he might improve. It tells her nothing of use at all. And it comes at the end of 7 years of education. If she didn’t know this already, there is a problem with the school.

But let’s pretend for the moment that she doesn’t tell Tom. She pats him on the head, gives him a jaffa cake and saves her tears until bed time. The next day Tom goes to school. He sits next to Sally in assembly. Lots of parents imagine that their Top Trumps kids don’t mingle with the bottom trumps, but they do. That’s the lovely thing about primary school.

Sally: I’m getting a bike!

Tom: Whoah – is it your birthday?

Sally: No – but Mum said I’m like in the top 10% in the country in my results and she’s dead proud and she’s going to get me a new bike.

Tom: My Mum didn’t tell me mine. Maybe she’s going to surprise me….

Don’t imagine for a moment that the children in the top 10% won’t be told. Don’t imagine that their superiority won’t be plastered all over Facebook. And when it is, don’t imagine that they won’t tell the others, even in innocence. In such ways. children will figure out where they were.

How is that different to having grades or levels you might ask? Well, grades and levels have clear criteria. If you read the criteria, you can see what you did to get the level or grade you got. This information can be shared usefully with parents and teachers so that planning for progression can take place. Personally, I’d get rid of the grade thing altogether and have pupil profiles based on competencies reached and next goal targets, but that’s something for another day. Secondly, IF the tests are criterion referenced and not norm referenced, there is the possibility that children can reach the standard required. It may take them longer; it may take several attempts, but they can get there. Norm referenced deciles will always leave a pile at the bottom with no recognition of the possibility that there has been improvement of standards even at the bottom.

We seem to be living in a world where the rights of children to a childhood, to being accepted and loved for who they are right NOW are trampled on in the name of The Future. To appeal to parents’ basest and most primal fears and instincts in order to win votes is, in my opinion, a form of abuse. It is an abuse of power. It is an attack on innocence. It marks the end of childhood. And I pray that it shall not come to pass.

In case you didn’t read the suggested wording of the recommended reporting, here it is:-

In the end of key stage 2 reading test, Sally received a scaled score of 126 (the secondary ready standard is 100), placing her in the top 10% of pupils nationally.  The average scaled score for pupils with the same prior attainment was 114, so she has made more progress in reading than pupils with a similar starting-point. 

In the end of key stage 2 mathematics test, Tom received a scaled score of 87.  He did not meet the secondary readiness standard (100).  This places him in the bottom 10% of pupils nationally.  The average scaled score for pupils with the same prior attainment was 92, so he has made less progress in mathematics than other pupils with a similar starting point.

These proposals are out for consultation. Please respond.

21 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice.

  1. I remember the competitive parents when ‘gifted and talented’ was introduced, even though at my school we tried to do it quietly. This has the potential to be SO much worse and is such a badly thought out idea…

  2. A passionate argument against one of the most damning and divisive policies yet to come out of the fetid brain of Michael Gove.
    It is meaningless when looked at rationally – more statistics to baffle and blindside parents into believing that their children are actually being educated (or not) rather than indoctrinated with the materialist manifestos of our so-called great and good.
    My sympathies lie with the many, many dedicated teachers who have to fight this kind of nonsense daily whilst still expected to deliver engaging lessons to a classful of children.
    The country’s parents should rise up against this Government’s sustained attack on our children’s future, and demand a system that cherishes childhood and welcomes wonder.
    Keep up the fight!

  3. Thanks for writing this. Deciles are a truly awful proposal; as you say, they give no useful information and it would be entirely possible for a child to make good progress and remain in the same decile. In addition, guess what, half of them will always be in the ‘bottom’ 50%!

  4. This needs to be opposed not just for reasons of kindness. (This decile system has been used for literacy and numeracy tests for aeons in the US and I get the impression nobody takes it too seriously – they still give their students As and Bs.). The real issue is what it’s for: further stratification and social division. (Cf the raising of the GCSE boundary by 10 marks). We need to contest the spurious certainty of these numbers and demand to know their purpose.

    1. Comprehensive schools came in because too many middle class parents saw their children going to sec mod schools. Maybe this too will fail when too many middle class families find their children placed in the lowest deciles.

  5. All teachers and parents should read the above. I’m so worried for my profession at the moment. I feel we should be shouting our feelings about the demise of children’s childhood from the rooftops, about the gradual erosion of primary education, about this constant need to turn primaries into secondaries, turn children into data facts. I want to shout loud but are we too tired/too worn down/too apathetic or is it that lots of headteachers actually believe all this. A few years ago some headteachers were protesting about children actually sitting SATS at 11 at all. Now that’s by the by and it seems we accept without protest. As a head teacher and teacher at heart I didn’t come into primary education for this. We seem to be losing sight of our children over a data driven, creating a workforce ‘hill’. Where are they in all this?

  6. I know too little about the specifics of the above to comment in detail. However, I would warn against just turning a blind eye towards available information or trying to hide such information for fear of hurting someones feelings.

    Further, your main beef seems to be in the direction of “the rights of children to a childhood, to being accepted and loved for who they are right NOW”, which is only tangentially related to the issue at hand. If you look for a cure for such problems, there are better places to start.

    Finally, as a matter of course, I would recommend that you use less rhetoric and more ad rem arguments so that the reader has a better chance to actually understand and critically judge the issue.

    1. Thank you Michael, and I take your point. This is a very emotive issue over here in the UK and adds little value to the child’s educational experience. It is also not simply about hurting feelings, but about undermining confidence which recent research by the LSE states is critical in securing successful outcomes. Their study of over 2000000 children found that only the most successful at this age benefitted from a competitive ethos, the rest fell behind. Perhaps I should have added that to my article!

  7. I’m raging. I feel so angry that we teachers are tolerating this. I feel furious & badly let down that the Labour Party are not opposing. I feel impotent as I watch good teachers giving up the ghost. I feel despondent that yet again we are letting our children down.

    So what can we do?

    Well personally I’d like an all out strike – every school closed down while we invite parents in to explain what we are in danger of losing & why we are taking such drastic action. This would be an apropriate response but not one I am confident of pulling off.

    Failing that here are my suggestions for action.

    1. Email a link to this blog & link to consultation to your head & chair of governors & exhort them to write.
    2. Plaster this over FaceBook and persuade 10 parents to write
    3. Reply individually to consultation

    If only 50% of staff, heads & governors objected to this consultation this proposal would be dead in the water.

    Thanks Debra.

  8. Hi Debra, this clearly hits a nerve and you’ve captured that well here. My reading of comments from meetings at DFE is that this won’t actually happen. They won’t say as much until the consultation is over but I think it is already pretty clear that the deciles idea will be dropped.

    I do think we need to be able to discuss what is essentially a technical assessment issue in an appropriate way. For me, L3c to L6b isn’t that far from deciles anyway and they were always awarded with an norm-referenced underpinning. Really they just mask what has always been basically a norm-referenced ranking system like deciles. If parents didn’t see it that way, that’s only because it is less obvious. The link to criteria is highly approximate…like an A* at GCSE which is a purely statistical construct yet has some sense of being linked to absolute stds.

    Wouldn’t it be better to be discussing alternatives. I always think it is better to argue for a specific better idea rather than against a bad one and I’d be interested to see the detail of an assessment system that you would support at KS2. The competence statement approach would need to be very detailed if it were to remove all traces of norm-referencing. There would be no way of using a system like that to give a data measure for progress or outcomes so the accountability framework would have to be very different. If, on the other hand, there is any form of testing in Y6, it will inevitably have a norm-referenced dimension.. just as all tests do.

    A debate around some well constructed alternatives would be good to see. I hope people are putting these things forward in the consultation…

    1. Hi Tom,

      That’s a huge relief to hear and yes, I completely agree that we need to move forward with a plan of action – you’ve already made a good start with your own consultation document. I know this is not a popular view, but I always found APP useful – I think that’s kind of what I had in mind with the notion of competency statements, but I also know how problematic that is and I agree that levels are also divisive. As a parent I also found the foundation stage grids useful – there were clear statements of what my child could and could not do. Just seeing these highlighted made it clear for me to understand what I might be able to do to help him and it’s this proactive communication between assessment structures and parents that I think we need.

      Having spoken to a few Level 6 reading paper markers this Summer, the criteria based marking system they used was also deeply flawed, penalising ‘better’ answers in favour of more explicit and simple ones. And indeed, even then, as you say, a norm referenced system is used in the final analysis to decide the cut off point. This also concerns me – it allows for norm referencing to potentially be used to hide flaws in new policy – for example, if a measure impacts negatively on pupils, the line can be drawn at the point where the policy looks like it worked. It’s all very complicated. I’ll get my thinking cap on and try to offer some constructive ideas. Thanks for taking the time to move this forward.


      1. Sorry to go off on a sub-point, but reviewing my Level 6 reading papers has been hugely frustrating for that very reason. Do you know if the format is being looked at? I see today that level 3-5 has had some changes made. The Level 6 certainly needs an overhaul to properly reflect exceptional performance.

        1. Hi Martin,

          I’m not sure what the plan is. I know that many of the examiners thought that the marking scheme was too rigid, but I’m not aware of any plans to adapt this in future.

        2. Thank you. Just wondered if the context in which you spoke to markers might have offered some clues. I know that the initial review of the reintroduction of level 6 tests pointed to the reading results being out of step with Maths and writing. It seems to be another case (like the level 3-5 grammar test – “now is not the time to show off!”) where we have to reign in the brightest a little or rather make them explicitly aware of what the test is expecting from them and how to be successful in it. Seen some genuinely thoughtful and analytic responses to last year’s last line of poem/semi-colon question denied a mark – where the answers were far more sophisticated than those in the mark scheme.

          Thanks for the reply Debra.

    1. I think we need to get as many people as possible responding to the consultation, but it is particularly obscure for parents to navigate their way through – perhaps deliberately to put them off? I took heart from Tom’s comment that he thinks the plan is dead in the water, but it worries me because it makes huge assumptions about the idea that education is basically a competitive sport.

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