The SATs bashers are patronising the poor

State-school kids are being denied the knowledge-rich education they deserve.

Tom Slater
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It’s been a bad few weeks for the Department for Education. From the academies u-turn to Nick Gibb’s on-air grammar blunder to the accidental leaking of the answers to an upcoming SATs exam – for the second time in three weeks – it’s been a parade of gaffes and cock-ups.

Running into SATs season, the timing couldn’t have been better for the DfE’s many enemies to have a pop. Sure enough, the newly rebranded ‘key-stage tests’ have drawn the ire of teachers and parents across the country. Despite the fact that SATs are only a means of assessing a school’s performance, which previous pupils probably barely remember taking, the tough new standards, we’re told, are driving children to the brink of despair.

‘Like my students, I went home and cried’, read an anonymous Guardian letter, addressed to education secretary Nicky Morgan. ‘This time because of the shame I feel through supporting your regime.’ In Brighton, a ‘kids’ strike’ was staged. One fully grown participant told the Mail that ‘our kids are being left disengaged and stressed’. The tougher exams, he said, had the potential to ‘turn into not just an educational crisis, but a mental-health crisis’.

Time and again, the image of damaged, sobbing and – at one point in the Guardian letter – terminally ill children were presented as the victims of the DfE’s exam-happy, ‘1950s’ regime. Most of the fuss is over the new grammar paper that asks 10-year-olds to isolate language features in sentences. When school’s minister Gibb came unstuck on Radio 4 – failing to distinguish between a subordinating conjunction and a preposition – it was held up as yet more proof that the tests were irrelevant and unfair.

Now, let’s get a few things straight. First, SATs are designed to test schools, not pupils. If some teachers are burdening their pupils with their own workplace pressures, that’s not on – but it’s hardly the DfE’s fault. Second, there is no such thing as a kids’ strike. Just because you put a placard in their hand it doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing. And third, I’d have a lot more truck with the idea that the new SATs are incomparably difficult if vocal, state-sector teachers didn’t act as if all rigorous schooling was some form of abuse.

The state education sector is plagued by low expectations. And the outrage that met the Coalition and now Tory DfE’s efforts to inject some rigour and knowledge into state education has shown why. Children are seen as too fragile to be tested; too easily distracted to read a door-wedge classic; and too 21st century to learn the Queen’s English. In part, this is driven by a flimsy, bourgeois view of education that talks up creativity and letting kids be kids. But there’s also a deeply patronising logic at play.

After this year’s SATs were administered, some teachers took to social media to decry them not only as difficult, but as some form of veiled class warfare. One teacher, quoted in TES, said the reading test ‘would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills’. This echoes a popular idea among educationalists that knowledge-based education is, as union head Mary Bousted has put it, ‘alien to [poor children’s] lives and their interests’.

The idea here is that middle-class kids, with a swelling bookcase at home and parents with the time and/or resources to tutor them, will thrive while poor kids struggle. Not only does this make some pretty crass assumptions about working-class families, it also undermines the transcendent, egalitarian essence of education – that is, that anyone can appreciate the best that’s been thought and said, and that, with enough hard work, they can excel.

The SATs debate reflects this patronising desire to dumb down education in the name of working-class kids. Whether it’s what books they’re being taught or the tests they’re being given, poorer children are treated as fated and incapable due to their circumstances. Their education must therefore be ghettoised – made easier and more ‘relevant’. This is particularly intense around spelling and grammar, as it is so often held up as a kind of ‘cultural policing’ in our multicultural, relativised age.

When you wipe away the crocodile tears, the SATs outrage is another expression of the idea that poorer students are just a bit dim and shouldn’t be made to feel bad about it. But that doesn’t mean we should let the government off the hook. The post-Michael Gove DfE’s worthy desire to bring up the standards and content of state education has always been undermined by its obsession with testing and league tables. While trendy educationalists want to patronise children, the DfE all-too-often just wants to test them.

As the children’s author Michael Rosen has pointed out, the obsession with grammar tests belies a desire to turn English into something more quantifiable – like maths. While grammar is essential for children to learn how to read and write with confidence and coherence, the sort of technical terminology they are now required to learn is not only difficult – it’s also very contested. Where they could be encouraged to read great literature, English lessons are weighed down by these overwrought concepts, purely because they slot neatly into a marking criterion.

School is supposed to be challenging. Education isn’t about making kids feel good about themselves. But it isn’t about treating them as digits on a spreadsheet, either. Caught between the bean-counters and ‘the blob’, state-school students are being denied the knowledge-rich, challenging and transformative education they deserve.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked.

Picture by: wecometolearn.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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