Archive for February, 2011

League Tables for Five Year Olds. Front Page in the Times Educational Supplement.

Half term and like many parents I’m running to catch up. I’d done an interview with the TES the week before – came home from a trip to relatives yesterday and realised the article in question made front page news (see this article by Helen Ward)

League Tables for Five Year Olds dropped.

There’s more to say about this obviously – which I’ll share (in one way or another) as soon as I can.


Government policy and guidelines (and their implementation) equal to ‘state sponsored child abuse’?

Less than a year ago I read Sue Palmer’s comments on government guidelines to encourage boys to read and thought that the phrase she had used ‘state-sponsored child abuse’ – was over the top. I don’t think that now. Events in our lives this week have made it very clear to me that what starts life as an educational tool can very easily be misused as an institutional baseball bat to punish children and their parents for not conforming to a fantasy-world “standard”  invented by the Department of Education. This is a long post. If you care about these issues please read it to the end.

Writing this blog week-in, week-out over the past two years has often been a challenge. I’ve had my share of insults. Around a year ago on a mainstream internet chat forum someone even described me as ‘deranged’ . Yes, they really did. The message I was trying to put across was often distorted by a prevailing reductionist paradigm which went like this: “you disagree with current government policy on reading and writing and how it is being implemented – therefore you are holding your own child back – and holding all children back”. There was a slightly different but equally misguided interpretation of what I was doing too: “you want everyone to agree with you, why are you writing about this at all – it is a personal matter between you and your family”.

This blog is about freedom in education and the dialogue around it takes place in that space where the personal and the political collide.

 I kept on writing the blog. Partly survival instinct, partly bolshieness and partly because I could see that no-one else seemed to be documenting a parent and a child’s experience on the ground like this. I believed it was so important to have an authentic voice out there. As I carried on writing I learned that other parents had very similar experiences to ours – but many if not most – were not in a position to write about them and publish them.

And then there was the endless love I have for my daughter. The belief that one of the most important things I could do for her was to ensure she had space to be and space to learn. To learn at her own pace. She is now five years and five months old. Like many parents – at various points in her development in the past we have received well-meaning advice. People sometimes suggested for example, (when she was two and wasn’t walking yet) – that ‘maybe we should go and see someone about it’. We didn’t. I knew from observing my child very closely that at the age of two what she was doing was spending a lot of time sitting and watching (and learning). I trusted that when she was ready to walk, (and talk) she would. And she did.

Part of that love which informs judgement led me to use my skills to change government policy and public opinion. Some may call it arrogance I suppose, but my understanding of motherhood is not simply one which involves keeping my child safe and happy in the home or outdoors. My love is about keeping my child (and children) safe in the world. And that means nothing less than changing it for the better.

On Friday last before half term I was riding high on the possibility that such a thing might be doable. The international petition I launched to Stop League Tables for Five Year Olds had been a success. The movement was getting bigger – we had managed to change the government’s plans. Myself and my daughter had featured in the press nearly every week for the past month. I had started to think that the message was getting through. I was caught off guard. I’d forgotten how much work and awareness-raising really still needs to be done on this. I was in for a savage wake-up call.

There was a phone call from my daughter’s school with a request of a five minute meeting after school on the Friday: ‘nothing urgent’ I was told. In the ‘nothing urgent’ category I imagined some conversation about lunch money or not having labelled her uniform properly.

When I get there and pick Babes up from school a senior member of staff (who I had hardly spoken to before and who knows nothing about our family circumstances) makes me wait to see her – and then hits with the hard stuff.

It dawns on me: what is happening is not misguided abstract government policy. This is my own child being inappropriately targeted by government literacy ‘support’.

 The person in question says she knows I have ‘fixed views’ on literacy but she wants to ‘offer’ my child local authority literacy ‘support’ (i.e. a special remedial class). She appears confident in her attempt to hold what seems to be a completely patronising lecture on why she thinks this might be a good idea. I’m feeling a mixture of utter disbelief and horror.

 She seems surprised when I interrupt the planned lecture by holding up my hand in a Stop Sign and say very clearly, carefully and slowly:

“Stop-right-there. Do-not-even-go-there.”

I’m aware that my child is sitting at the table next door to us – there is no way I am allowing her to stay seated whilst someone – anyone extrapolates on her perceived deficiencies. As far as I’m concerned that really would be the beginning of a terrible stigmatising experience for her. So my next sentence is:

“Come on Babes let’s go”.  I get to my feet and as calmly as possible promise my daughter a pizza and exit the school. There are times when it is important to stay put and negotiate and other times when it is vital to give a very clear signal.

 Readers,readers. You know that my daughter is summer-born. Still five and as such a year younger (and developmentally different) than many other children in her class. Whilst we are not wealthy, in no conceivable universe could our child be described as at a disadvantage as far as the development of her literacy and numeracy skills are concerned. We live in a house with wall-to-wall books. Babes talks constantly from morning until night, with parents, friends and grandparents. She writes and draws her own books at home. Her mum is a writer for goodness sake. She is a child whose prized possession right now is a calculator. She is so fond of and entranced by the numbers and the add and take away functions she has discovered for herself on it that she won’t got to bed unless she is allowed to keep it under her pillow. She has no speech difficulties, no special needs. My Other Half spends more than an hour each day reading long and complex stories aloud to her.  She goes to the library every week.

I phone my other Half outside the school and he says ‘well, at least they told us’.  We are aware of a case of one parent in a primary school who had their child drafted into a literacy class and they weren’t even told about it.

A possible explanation and analysis are offered by the internet community. The pressure of the targets, it is said – create a situation where pressure is created for any child who develops differently from a perceived acceptable norm  – to be shunted off into a special literacy group. So that the teacher can concentrate on the ‘mainstream’ (and fulfil the targets.)

I’ve been told that my child is better suited to a ‘Talented and Gifted’ group than she is to a group at the other end of the spectrum i.e. special needs. She’s a very clever child who is more interested in the meaning of sentences right now than she is in the artificial mechanics of phonics. As the Professor I quoted in my last post – indicated, for children to have these sorts of systems imposed on them equates to ‘forced labour’. I’m sure that is how my daughter would experience such a group. And I’ve looked at a suggested curriculum for such a course.

What really worries me is that if I had not known what I know –  had not been writing this blog and had not been in a position to raise the ‘Stop’ sign – both myself and my daughter would have been feeling stigmatised and as if we had failed. The timing of that meeting reminds me of the stories you hear of people who have been made redundant just before the Christmas holidays, or on Friday afternoon. For the average person if you hear news like that, late in the day just before the holidays – your ability to question, access support or a different opinion (because the school is closed and no other parents are around) is next to non-existent.

How many other parents across the country have caved in, believed what they were told, or felt too afraid to ask the right questions? I think there will be quite a few. Quite a few who don’t read the Times Educational Supplement. Quite a few who have had no chance to hear what experts in the field are saying about literacy and child development.

There is still so much work to do on this. For the proposed Phonics Test is not just a headline but a reality for parents and children. As yet we do not know which schools will be targeted, although we know roughly when the tests will be carried out. Unless we change government policy, the test will be carried out as a Pilot scheme in Year One classes. In YOUR class with YOUR child. Some children are six in these classes and some like my own daughter are still ONLY five.

The situation is Orwellian. With the libraries closing – and experts telling the government and the press that such proposals are not educationally sound – it almost seems as if the government is doing its best to put children off reading for pleasure altogether. Is that what they really want? As one petition signatory said: “We are supposed to love them, not treat them like employees”…

Teaching Unions unite to reject Phonics testing at six (and five) years

There is a great deal of news and not much time to tell it as the half-term holidays have started here. The Phonics test continues to make the news and here is a link to the latest article on the teaching unions and the ways in which they are resisting:  Teaching Unions reject Phonics Test. (by Helen Ward).

To sign the international petition against Phonics Testing follow this link:

Note Professor Colwyn Trevarthen’s comment on this petition:

“I am an expert on child development and learning. Children learn to communicate and want to share tasks and knowledge. Instruction in elements of language, out of (context of?F.L) creative and meaningful communication is forced labour that can break a child’s confidence. It might have some use for linguists at university. The government must try to understand and value the natural talents of young children and curb the urge to instruct and measure performance”.

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Experts demand end to phonics test in schools

Very interested to see this lengthy article in Nursery World which features the new international petition to end the reading test at six. See this link:

Experts demand end to Phonics test in schools

Professor Janet Moyles is quoted as having “criticised the (government’s reading test) consultation because, by asking what form the test should take, the questions assume that respondents want the test, rather than asking if such a test should be introduced. She said it was unclear how the Government intended the reading test to be carried out, and there had been some suggestion that nonsense words would be used to test phonics. She warned that ‘a meaningless phonics test’ would also turn children off reading.

‘Children love stories. We’re not against phonics per se, but phonics is not the only way children learn to read. A phonics test is likely to mean that children don’t have meaning in their literacy activities.’

Say No to Reading Test at Five. New International Petition.

As readers will know by now – I have a five year old daughter. The English government has proposed the following policy: to introduce a reading test at the end of Year One at school. They say the reading test is for six year olds. However, for summer-born children – the way this would work is that a child like mine would in fact be five and not six when they are tested.

Say No to Phonics Test for Small Children – new international petition

So, I and many other parents have a vested interest in turning this plan around and encouraging the government to change their mind. There is no way that I will be allowing my child to sit through a reading test which has already been described by phonics experts such as Professor Greg Brooks as ‘a waste of money’. The planned pilot is due to take place in 300 schools this June, so parents – if I were you, I would check now to make sure your school is not amongst them and if it is start protesting now. A new international petition has been created on this theme:

Say No to Phonics Test for Small Children – international petition

There is also the point that we now know the pilot scheme will cost a minimum of a quarter of a million pounds. (See previous post).

The government has refused to tell us how much the scheme will cost in it’s entirety  – arguing that there are commercial interests involved and divulging that sort of information could endanger the wise use of public money.

Say No to Phonics Test for Small Children – new international petition

There are indeed commercial interests involved. The companies that produce phonics systems are set to make millions from this plan. On the backs of our children, as far as I can see. The money could be far better spent supporting special needs programmes, or better facilities for speech therapy in schools. Or indeed on saving our public libraries.

In response to the last post, questions are now being asked about exactly who the companies are who are designing and selling these programmes in schools. We don’t know for sure, but if you Google around this issue for long enough two huge companies stand out. One of these companies is very closely allied to Michael Gove’s drive to convert schools to academies. (Search for Michael Gove and Academies on YouTube)…

Freedom of Information Act Query: Phonics testing. League Tables for Five Year Olds.

Having just written a blog post earlier today which points towards the fact I hadn’t received a response to my Freedom of Information Act query – this afternoon I find an email in my inbox from the Department of Education. I’m publishing the text of this Freedom of Information Act Query on this blog here. I’m sure you’ll agree it is enlightening…pay particular attention to the costs of the Phonics test in schools…

Copy follows:

Thank you for your request for information, which was received on 17 January 2011. You requested the following:

a) The cost of the implementation of the proposal to introduce school league tables for five year olds using the Early Years Foundation Stage Profiles. I understand the plan is to publish these on an existing web site, but the information will still need to be collated and gathered from every school in the country, presumably. I should like to know how much this measure will cost. This data should include the cost of any feasibility studies that have been carried out or initial research costs before the proposal was made.
b) The cost of the proposed reading test for six year olds. This too, is referred to in the coalition business plan and it appears to be something which would be introduced in a pilot scheme this June. I should like to obtain what the cost of this pilot scheme would be, and if possible the cost of the implementation of this scheme. The costs mentioned should include any consultancy costs already spent in the researching of this scheme. It should also include details of the cost of any feasibility studies that have been carried out.c) Please also provide details of the cost of any publicity measures that have been used specifically to promote the above schemes including any web sites or web consultancy costsI have dealt with your request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”).

The Government has no plans to publish Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) profile data at school level and we have not made an assessment of the costs you request. The draft transparency section of the DfE business plan, published in November, suggested that achievements of children at the end of the EYFS might be published at school level, in addition to data already published on children’s attainment at the end of the primary school phase. This is not the case and will be made clear in the final published version of the Business Plan. 

We are not able to release the full costs of the pilot of the Year 1 phonics screening check. The printing and distribution of the pilot screening check materials and the monitoring and evaluation of the pilot are still subject to procurement activity, and considered to be commercially sensitive information.  We are therefore withholding this information under section 43(2) of the Act. Section 43 provides for information to be exempt, where disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person. The release of information related to the anticipated costs of these contracts could prejudice the Department’s commercial interests by adversely affecting the bargaining position during contractual negotiations, resulting in the less effective use of public money. It is therefore considered that it is not in the public interest to disclose this information.

However, in the interests of transparency, we are able to provide you with some of the costs of the pilot. It is intended that up to 300 schools will take place in the pilot.  We anticipate that approximately £250,000 will cover the costs of developing the items for the screening check, statistical analysis of the results, studies to determine the validity and reliability of the screening check, training teachers to administer the check, and a payment to schools to cover their preparation and administration costs associated with taking part in the pilot. These costs are only indicative and future policy decisions may alter the costs of these elements of the pilot.

The Department does not hold detailed costs for the potential roll out of the phonics screening check because the policy is still in development. Findings from the pilot and feedback from the public consultation will be used to inform decisions about the implementation of the screening check. These decisions will, in turn, determine the cost.

If you have any queries about this letter, please contact me. Please remember to quote the reference number above in any future communications.

If you are unhappy with the way your request has been handled, you should make a complaint to the Department by writing to me within two calendar months of the date of this letter.  Your complaint will be considered by an independent review panel, who were not involved in the original consideration of your request. 

If you are not content with the outcome of your complaint to the Department, you may then contact the Information Commissioner’s Office

Yours sincerely,

Assessment Division

Your correspondence has been allocated the reference number 2011/0004302.


Copy Ends.

International Petition to Stop League Tables for Five Year Olds continues.

As a real mum of a real five year old I have real issues to deal with. This week Babes was off school ill with a bad cough which gave us a chance to pull back a little to reflect. Left to her own devices (and without the unnecessary pressures of tedious homework worksheets) Babes writes whole books and letters at home – she is writing a diary and quite spontaneously constructed a poster to “Stop the Government”. (I blame the parents…smile). I explained to her that whilst we probably can’t stop the government entirely – (this might not be such a good idea – after all she might want to be a Member of Parliament herself one day) – what we can do is try to change government itself and make it more accountable. And readers, with the international petition to Stop League Tables for Five Year Olds – it appears that is exactly what we have been doing.

The international petition to “Stop School League Tables for Five Year Olds” and the many friends, supporters and alliances we have made in launching it –  have apparently prompted the government to change it’s stance on league tables. Don’t be fooled, readers. The fight is not over – and despite this apparent shift in the government’s position – I am not yet closing the petition and I am still urging people to sign.

As an important aside: there is also a question of when and where this important international petition is to be handed over. Yesterday I phoned ten Downing Street – intending to email an interim copy of the petition to David Cameron. I explained I was a mum with a poorly child and disabilities in the family and would prefer to send a missive by email (as I couldn’t get to the post office. Told you I was dealing with real issues here). Of course the Prime Minister does not have an email address (silly me, how could I even assume that) and so I couldn’t send him a link with the interim signatures. So dear readers and petition signatories, it looks like when this petition is officially handed over, it will need to be either handed in personally, or sent by post. Suggestions as to how to do this on a post card please (or in the comments box of this blog). Thanks.I had thought that it would be the handing over of the petition that would be the historically important act. However – perhaps even more important that handing it over is the very existence of the petition and the coming together of the people who have signed it.  

Back (0r forward) to that very important word – apparently. What are the facts? Well, most journalists realise that if you ask too many critical questions it’s likely that you will not be given an interview or statement by the organisation you are interested in. You contact the government press office and you don’t receive a response or they decline your request for an interview. So to find out the answers to your questions you might try the Freedom of Information Act. Or you might try asking your sources.

I have had a few questions about the proposed plan to introduce League Tables for Five Year Olds which  remain unanswered. As readers will recall the proposed plan was presented in a Coalition Business Plan last November. Some readers I have spoken to had never encountered a government business plan before. This is an important issue. The question here is: What is/was the democratic status of such a plan? It surely clearly cannot be described as policy – as it has not been discussed by the political parties in question. It has also never been discussed by the general public. It cannot be described as a coalition agreement. So what exactly IS the status of such a plan and how can it be seen as democratic? More questions than answers I know but it is important to ask them.

Then there are questions about the apparent change in the government’s position on this . The original coalition business plan was due to be reviewed in November. (Again I’m not sure how the review of proposals which have never been discussed by parliament or in the public realm, or within the machinery of a political party – can be described as democratic either – but there you go).

The original coalition business plan in which the League Tables for Five Year Olds idea was put forward – was due to be reviewed in November 2011.  But that was before the international petition to Stop School League Tables for Five Year Olds was launched and before this petition was signed by grassroots and professionals in their hundreds – and before the petition featured in the national and international press (The Times Educational Supplement, Nursery World, The Guardian and The Friend the international Quaker journal).  And it was before Early Day Motion 1258 was initiated.

Most readers and signatories I’ve spoken to understand that the international petition has galvanised a change in the government’s position. It is however not a change that has been publicly or democratically discussed. Instead of discussing the issue publicly the government appears to have ‘leaked’ the news to a strategically important professional newspaper in early years. Nursery World. Here is a reminder of the statement that was given to Nursery World:

“A spokesperson for the DfE said last week, ‘We will not publish Early Years Foundation Stage Profile data at school level. The draft transparency section of the DfE business plan suggested that achievements of children at the end of the EYFS might be published at school level, in addition to data already published on children’s attainment at the end of the primary school phase. This is not the case and will be made clear in the final published version of the business plan.’

Nursery World comments: The revised version of the department’s business plan is due by April.

Can we look at the words of this statement (assuming it is correctly recorded) very carefully for one moment? The education business plan is now being referred to as a ‘draft transparency’ plan. This is significant. The words ‘suggested’ and ‘might’ are used here. My understanding of this situation is as follows: the democratic status of this plan was unclear to start off with as I said earlier in this post – I believe it was never described as policy and never properly democratically discussed. As part of these never-democratically-discussed-plan a proposal was put forward (which was not labelled as provisional or subject to democratic debate) – to introduce School League Tables for Five Year Olds using Early Years Foundation Stage Profile data. I cannot see any evidence which suggests that this proposal was a draft proposal or subject to democratic debate. I might be wrong on this one, if I am please let me know…indeed feel free to pick me up on any factual inaccuracies or typos –  that is what my Strikethrough button is for after all…

So according to Nursery World this plan is now due to be reviewed in April. WHY? Why suddenly April and not November as was originally planned?

More questions:  a few blog posts ago – I shared a Freedom of Information Act query with readers that I sent to the Department of Education. I wanted to know how much this proposed plan would cost. To date I haven’t received a response. So just to recap once again – the (now-described-as-a-draft-plan) – was not democratically discussed in public using accountable democratic procedures. It is questionable to describe this plan as ‘policy’. The proposed plan which originally had a set review time frame (November) has apparently now been changed. This hasn’t been democratically discussed either, to my knowledge. Or is there something I’m missing? After all, I’m only the mum of a five year old – and brains of mums-of-five-year-olds are often rather foggy aren’t they? (more than a hint of sarcasm there).

And then there is the question of costings. To date, we have no idea how much this proposed plan would have cost us. And the government is refusing to tell us.

Readers if I haven’t convinced you yet that it is really important to carry on keeping this petition in the public eye (and to keep asking people to sign it) – then please read Pat Gordon Smith’s comment on the last blog post which I’m including here. Pat had an excellent insert in last weeks Nursery World which I really enjoyed reading. It was about ‘Listening to Children’ and made a link between this petition, government policy and listening to children. Pat reacts to the news of the government’s apparent change in approach on league tables for five year olds by saying:

That is, of course, great news in terms of the immediate future. But there’s a deeper and still worrying implication here. While the DfE spokesperson says that school league tables will not now happen, there is no reassurance about how the EYFSP is to be used. The Department’s initial proposal for league tables suggests that children’s profile ‘results’ will be monitored for their progress towards the government’s outcomes – measurable early success in literacy and numeracy – not for their intended purpose as a tool by which to celebrate each young child’s achievement and provide a helpful signpost for teachers in KS1. The EYFS was designed with children’s needs and outcomes in mind (see Wendy Scott’s comment on the petition); the government’s approach suggests that they’re not interested in this. What this implies is that EYFSP results are likely to form the basis for future policymaking that will be to the detriment of young children – probably at the beginning of a second term should the government or just the Tories win the next election. Use of the profile or any other form of information-gathering as a tool for policymaking is to be expected, and is one of the reasons why the profile was always problematic. I am now very concerned that it will be used to further political aims that are manifestly against the best interests of young children. This is all speculation and so very difficult to act on – potential league tables are much easier to protest against – but I urge everyone to keep their eyes firmly on this. With a stated government policy to have all children reading by age 6, young children have been targeted as the fall guys in the drive to fix low attainment levels further up in the school. Their freedoms are under attack.”

Here is that petition link once again, please don’t leave this blog without signing it and adding a comment. Thanks (F.L)