Education update: SATs fiasco, tests for under 5s, university privatisation

Proletarian writers

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SATs fiasco

This summer witnessed a fiasco over SAT results. The Department for Children, Schools and Families, ever willing to do its bit towards the privatisation drive, had decided to outsource marking to an agency in the US, ETS. Things went decidedly pear-shaped when the results turned up hopelessly late and painfully inaccurate.

The untried and incomplete technology employed by ETS resulted in cases such as the one reported by the New Statesman on 24 July: “A 14-year-old boy … took his very first SAT in ‘Biology M’, which meant biology with a section devoted to molecular subject matter. He received a disappointingly low grade and his parents paid $25 to have the paper ‘hand-checked’, ie examined by a human. The checker quickly saw that the computer had mistakenly marked the SAT as ‘Biology E’ – which had an ecological rather than a molecular section – and had therefore completely ignored the molecular part. The result? The exam was re-marked and the 14-year-old boy’s grade shot up, along with his morale.”

The SAT results fiasco has had two useful effects: first, it has helped open the public’s eyes to the government’s obsession with outsourcing and privatisation, where profit and the ‘free play of market forces’ are considered more important than accurate and prompt exam results; second, it has re-opened the debate on the very existence of SATs.

Teachers are reporting that even seven-year olds spend much of their year being anxiously coached and drilled in SAT techniques. “They are put under such pressure because teachers’ jobs and schools’ futures depend on good results. That’s the system of reward and punishment [Ed Balls’] department has constructed”, writes Jenni Russell in the Guardian of 28 July.

For many borderline schools, the difference between good and bad SAT results is the difference between remaining open and being shut down.

A recent Commons schools select committee report claims that “teaching to the test” is now endemic, as schools have been forced to focus disproportionately on exam results rather than on delivering a rounded education. The report commented that “mastery of the examination is given priority over mastery of the subject”, meaning that “children risk missing out on access to a broader range of skills and knowledge”.

The report also linked the proliferation of tests with the increased stress, mental-health problems and lower self-esteem that are being reported in children.

However, SATs are not going away any time soon, as they fit in neatly with the government’s overall education agenda. Firstly, schools that achieve poor SAT results – overwhelmingly in working-class areas – can be branded failures and either closed down or ‘outsourced’ as city academies. Secondly, as we wrote at the beginning of this year, “Standard Attainment Tests at ages 6-7 and 10-11 exist to help the bourgeoisie ‘separate the wheat from the chaff’ at an early age, so they don’t waste money creating a class of literate unemployed.”

More tests, this time for under 5s

Not satisfied with tests at ages 7, 11, 13, 16 and 18, the test-obsessed Mr Balls is to introduce 69 ‘learning goals’ for the under 5s.

According to BBC News Online of 1 September, “The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) sets out expected standards of care in registered childcare settings … The ‘toddler curriculum’ includes being able to count to 10, spell their names, understand stories, know right from wrong and be able to dress and undress.”

There is no educational research indicating that this sort of thing is a good idea; in fact, it indicates the opposite: infant education should be focussed on play, exploration and creativity, and every effort should be made to avoid lowering children’s self-esteem. As Einstein once said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Again, this move is simply a way of breaking the spirit of working-class kids at an early age – after all, it’s the competitive middle-class parents who are most likely to focus on teaching their toddlers to count and spell; therefore it is the middle-class kids who will ‘succeed’ in nursery and it is the working-class kids who will be branded as failures a few years earlier than they otherwise might have been.

Privatisation in the tertiary sector

A new report by Universities UK, the umbrella group for vice-chancellors, warns that a massive wave of privatisation is on its way in Britain and much of the rest of western Europe.

American for-profit companies such as Kaplan Inc (whose $2bn annual revenue makes it the most profitable subsidiary of the Washington Post Company) are aggressively developing business opportunities and buying up properties in Britain.

According to the author of the report, Roger King, visiting professor of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University, Kaplan is “hoovering up institutions in the UK and Australia”. (‘Private universities and public funding: models and business plans’, August 2008)

The move towards privatisation represents an insidious attack on the right to education, especially for the working class. The lethal combination of a university funding crisis coupled with potentially massive rises in tuition fees (which look likely to rise to at least £7,000 per year in 2010) means that students are paying more and getting less; thus private colleges will try to lure students away with ritzy buildings, glossy brochures and ‘competitive’ prices.

State universities will be left with fewer students and less funding, and, once the state universities’ reputations have been tarnished and many are forced to close down due to lack of funding, the private universities will feel emboldened to increase their fees.

The private universities will not be subject to public pressure to make education available to the poorer sections of society, just as Bupa is not subject to public pressure to give free health care to the needy.

Britain is one of the wealthiest countries in the world; its corporations get fat off the misery of the masses worldwide, but apparently universal free education isn’t possible here. Meanwhile, the approximately 112,000 students at Cuba’s 47 universities do not have to pay a penny.