The impact of policy

I had written this before this week’s TES headlines about a tsunami of exam reform at GCSE or the damaging tests for 4 year olds. Those headlines speak to the impact on the system and on teachers – important themes – but for me I wanted to write about the impact on real children.

Before I start I should say that a) my children are in a well off, highly academic and broadly well connected family who understand ‘the system’. We can mitigate the damage of the changes. Those with less capital will find it harder despite the claims that the changes are to benefit them the most b) I asked my children if I could write about their experiences. They jumped at the chance. They feel the irritation of being treated like a giant ‘petri dish’ (the eldest is a science geek). They know that claims of the market narrowing the gap are ridiculous ‘because only the well-off can navigate choice’ (the second born is a policy wonk).

So what does the playing of politics mean in real terms – to real children?

My 16 year old academically successful daughter is doing her A Levels. Except nobody really seems to know how to deliver the most effective programme with the reformed A levels and decoupling of AS Level. Her (very good) school is doing the best it can to help her make the best choices for university entry (where UCAS says the chaos facing this year’s cohort is challenging admissions tutors).

She did 9 ½ GCSEs. Triple science and double language. But no humanity meaning she wouldn’t have counted by EBACC purposes but would she have been even vaguely disadvantaged because of this? Nope. She studied RE until 16 (still is in fact); has a great grasp on political discourse and an interest in history that demonstrates clearly that the EBACC is only about qualifications rather than what young people learn. But still the message that she somehow isn’t properly educated sits on the edge of her mind. She reads the papers. She hears the teachers. She watches the news.

Her hardest subject? Well it was recently listed by Ofqual as one of the 5 easiest. Home economics - being as it was both hands on practical but also the application of science in real world scenarios. Only subject she failed – Art – brilliant teacher and worked and worked at it but was too difficult. Our young people know that non EBACC subjects are not the ‘easy’ option and that they have an academic rigour that matches the traditional ‘tough subjects’.

She sat the IGCSE in English. A subject she had to work really hard in. And imagine her delight to hear that the IGCSE she was studying was not to be included in the league tables. Her persuasive writing piece was a letter to the then Secretary of State on how this made her and her peers feel. The constant drip drip that no matter what they do, what they achieve it isn’t good enough.

Something that made this Guardian article resonate

My 14 year old daughter works hard and achieves well. She is severely dyslexic.

Cuts to local education budgets meant that getting a formal diagnosis of this (and it does need a diagnosis not just a teacher making a judgement) was impossible.

She was the first year to do the SPAG test – introduced half way through her year 6. Until then she’d be on target for a level 4 in English, 5 in maths and loved school. But the introduction of a new set of rules, rapidly introduced by teachers under the cosh, fried her dyslexic brain. From being up with her peers to feeling a failure. Not because of her wonderful teachers who reassured her and supported her. No because the goalposts were moved just as she was kicking for goal.

She’s switched on to the media, to what parents say at the school gates, to teachers – whatever we tell children they know what level (or pass mark or SATs grade or other externally set target) they should be at. And they know what people say if they aren’t (her subsequent level 3 means technically government are talking about her when they talk about those who left primary school with low literacy skills and she feels that.) Thank Heavens she wasn’t there when phonics came in because she would never have passed and would have spent her early primary years feeling the same failure her latter primary school years threatened her with.

She is now making her GCSE choices. Fortunately she is at a school who says qualifications should reflect young people rather than government.  Her choices of Drama is a deliberate personal challenge for a young person who struggles with speaking. Her choice of D&T is because she has a ‘knack’ and loves to out design the PhD engineer in the house and her desire to do PE stems from a competitiveness that has led to A&E on more than one occasion. She is concerned though that people will think she has chosen these three because she is ‘dyslexic’ and not bright. And there are whole swathes of policy makers setting up that argument.

This may feel like a long rant. It isn’t.

It is a micro shot of what changes in policy are doing to our children. They hear the discussions between teachers about the pressures of league tables or meeting government needs. They hear the news (DD2’s particular favourite the day after getting her extra time agreed for exams was the headline about how middle class families are cheating by getting exam exemptions when not needed). This is a call to be more cautious in what we say about policy and how we describe our children.

But is also a cry for engagement.

Rather than doing to our young people we should engage them in the debate and help them find solutions. Their voices have been strangely absent in education and twitter exchanges between the oh so clever education elite and – while we acknowledge that they are a NotDeadFish client – we hope that the work of organisations like UFA in developing approaches to students as researchers and evaluators will empower more young people to inform the policy and practice agenda.

Rather than ping pong debates about policy points (the EBACC good; EBACC bad twitter to and fro has been an example of entrenched policy positions for personal prestige rather than decent policy making – politicians and policy bods on both sides have not covered themselves with glory on this one) perhaps look for the nuance. Talk to young people. Talk to the families that we claim to be making policy for and frankly they often have the answers.

And 3rd sector organisations that work with parents – particular those parents who will find these changes much too hard to navigate – need to support them through the changes. We need to highlight the impact of rapid – sometimes well intentioned, sometimes reckless – policy on the children that politicians – of all persuasions – say the changes are there to help.

Now, if you want to get me into a rant get me onto my 4 year old doing the baseline test……