Education & Family

'Give children time to really learn'

Exam Image copyright PA
Image caption There is concern about continuous testing

Do you remember the Slow Food movement?

It appealed for people to reconnect with authenticity through local produce and move away from an experience that had become highly processed and industrialised. More wonky carrots, less air freighting from the other side of the world.

Now Slow Education is here, with a similar hope of recapturing a learning experience that is somehow more personal and authentic.

Its advocates argue something crucial has been mislaid in schools.

They blame a culture of continuous testing, a push to improve exam results and standardise performance, and a large dose of inspection to ensure that all happens.

The campaign group, formally launched this week, wants to see some less structured learning across subjects, and longer-form projects that allow children to experiment and sometimes fail as they learn.

Less emphasis on teaching to the test will, Slow Education says, deliver children more able to think independently.

International comparisons

Some of this fits within the growing interest in the kind of international comparisons made by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Pisa claims to measure not what children know, but how well they apply their knowledge and skills in something closer to real-life problem solving.

But it was England's performance in Pisa tests compared with other economies that was used to justify an extensive overhaul of what children should study in key subjects.


Pisa tests:

Reading top 10 scores:

1. Shanghai 570

2. Hong Kong 545

3. Singapore 542

4. Japan 538

5. South Korea 536

6. Finland 524

7. Ireland 523

8. Taiwan 523

9. Canada 523

10. Poland 518

Source: OECD


If your children are starting to study for their GCSEs this autumn, they will be taught that new curriculum for English language and literature and maths.

Expect more maths homework, and more poetry.

The reality is that testing and inspection are here to stay, and so, to the despair of teenagers for many decades, are exams.

The results are still the key measure used by employers, colleges and universities to offer them opportunities or not.

This is a debate about the balance within schools between delivering good exam results and educating children that can function well not just in exams but in the challenges they will face afterwards.

It is territory the political parties will use to try to tease out the differences in their offer to voters in England on education in the election.

Low expectations

So in her final speech to teachers, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said giving greater freedoms to some schools and a focus on standards under the coalition was a key part of fighting a "soft bigotry of low expectations".

But she also welcomed a move towards schools devising their own ways of assessing the "real" level of understanding a child has reached.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Nicky Morgan has spoken out against low expectations

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt addressing the same audience said "children's lives are ruined by low expectations" and that he fully believed in an "interventionist inspectorate" that could root out underperformance.

But he said the idea that children's potential could be fulfilled by just raising the targets and demanding "one more heave" was approaching its "end stages".

In these speeches, we can see the outline of the battle positions of the main parties.

The Conservatives will argue they have re-introduced rigour into England's exams and given more schools the freedom to move away from the national curriculum.

Labour, which does not plan to alter the coalition's changes to the exams, will say instead the next stage needs to be one of re-introducing greater creativity and breadth to how children learn.

The Liberal Democrats have backed the focus on standards with David Laws saying only "half the journey" has been completed. He argued inspection would play a key role making sure the pupil premium championed by the party was used to close the gap for poorer children.

The Slow Education movement may not wish to be entangled with party politics, but politicians will borrow or reject its arguments selectively in order to define their position.


PISA tests:

Maths top 10 scores:

1. Shanghai 613

2. Singapore 573

3. Hong Kong 561

4. Taiwan 560

5. South Korea 554

6. Macau-China 538

7. Japan 536

8. Liechtenstein 535

9. Switzerland 531

10. Netherlands 523

Source: OECD


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