Jayne Dowle: A full timetable ahead for new Education Secretary

IT’S the start of the new term this week, and not just for our children. The new Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, will be sharpening her pencils and lining up her exercise books. She’s got a full timetable and a lot of targets to reach before the end of the school year, circled in red as “General Election”.

What should her priorities be then? I’m sure that David Cameron will have his own agenda, but what about the expectations of ordinary parents? Well, I have a son who is about to enter Year 8 at an academy, and a daughter in Year 4 at primary school, so I reckon I’m as qualified to comment as anybody.

My children represent true mixed ability. It’s fair to say that my son is not a natural academic, but I’m pleased to report that he made great strides last year. My priority for Jack is to build on this. My daughter, on the other hand, is showing excellent academic promise and is already tackling work aimed at older children. My priority for Lizzie is to keep her stimulated and engaged. In one family then, we have a microcosm of the challenge facing state education in general: how to engage the less-able pupils whilst ensuring that the brighter ones aren’t bored to distraction.

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No parent could realistically expect the Education Secretary to have control over this in every school. However, I would like Ms Morgan to foster a spirit of inclusion and flexibility as far as possible. For too long now, our children have been tested and graded too much and too often. I appreciate the need for both teachers and parents to gain a measure of what pupils are capable of.

However, I think that there is far too much emphasis on ongoing assessment. Not only does this put pressure on individual children, it makes the workload for teachers ever-more onerous. Talk to any teacher and they will tell you that a child’s SAT test score only tells half the story. It’s wrong and damaging for them to be judged only on a combination of letters and numbers which can mark them for life.

You just have to look at the hundreds of thousands of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) to see that schools are still failing to engage every child. Although parents have a role to play, much of this is due to youngsters being marked as “failures” from an early age. If Ms Morgan can find a way of fostering a climate which allows other factors to come into it, she will do everyone involved in education a great service.

The problem with over-reliance on testing is that it takes away the pure enjoyment of learning. Now, I’ve been around schools long enough to know that some things simply have to be drilled in. There is no escaping the rigmarole of times tables and proper grammar. And I’m not so idealistic that I imagine that every lesson has got to be fun.

However, the content of what our children actually have to learn is an important issue. Michael Gove’s revolution in curriculum content was far too prescriptive. It represented his view of the world rather than encouraging our children to explore and develop their own. Let’s hope that Ms Morgan is not out to turn our humanities curriculum into a personal political agenda; schools are not the place for politicians to unleash their own idealism.

Neither are they battlegrounds. Surely it should be the first responsibility of an Education Secretary to ensure that schools run efficiently and with the needs of their pupils put first. Any parent will tell you that this has not been the case for the past few years.

Far too many days have been lost to strikes. Far too much time has been wasted trying to find a workable compromise between an Education Secretary determined to get his own way and a teaching profession bent on fighting their corner.

Not only has this interrupted our children’s education, it caused rancour on an unprecedented scale. We’re looking forward. It’s the start of a new school year. Here is not the place to start recounting the frankly terrible relationship between Michael Gove and the teaching unions. All I can ask, as a parent, is for everyone to pull together.

Furthermore, I hope that the Education Secretary’s relationship with the wider educational establishment is a happier and more productive one. The latter months of Gove’s tenure were marred by a nasty war on several fronts – with Ofsted, the examination boards and educationalists of all political persuasions. I’d be the last person to stamp out opinion and argument, especially when it comes to something as important as education. And Education Secretary is a job which demands conviction.

However, far too much time was wasted on point-scoring and political machination. This did no-one any favours and held back progress. Ah yes, progress. It’s a word that we hear a lot in education. If nothing else this year, let’s hope that we can all achieve it.