The Duchess and the buckets

By John Freeman

| 23 November 2015

The Duchess of Cambridge, no less, is promoting the notion to headteachers that children should be given some "space" because their "heads are too full". She was speaking at a Place2Be conference - she is a patron of the charity - to headteachers, and what she had to say was full of sense. So: "It is our duty, as parents and teachers, to give all children the space to build their emotional strength and provide a strong foundation for their future". This was all in the context of the difficulties faced by many children leading to unresolved childhood and adult mental health issues. She made the point that some children, like her, were lucky enough to have stable and secure homes, but many others were not. (Of course, some children from 'stable and secure' homes develop mental illness - but let's not go there, as I agree with her underlying thesis.)

I wonder if the Duchess had her speech checked by either the Department for Education or the Department of Health. Perhaps not, and perhaps deliberately not, as it was quite challenging to government orthodoxies. So, for example, the Department of Health is under increasing pressure for failure to deliver decent child and adolescent mental health services, with extended waiting times and raised thresholds.

More immediately, having read coverage of her speech in the Daily Telegraph, later that day I went along to a Parents' Forum meeting at the secondary school where I am a governor. The presentation and discussion was located on a different planet to that occupied by the Duchess. The Ofsted criteria, Progress 8 and Attainment 8, the GCSE reform agenda, buckets and Ebaccs, double-weighted subjects and single-weighted subjects, next year some GCSEs being graded 9 down to 1, and other GCSEs graded A* down to G, with complex statistical analysis applied to standardise scores... Parents found it incomprehensible, and made the very fair comment that both employers and students would be totally confused. (If you really want to see the more-or-less incomprehensible official explanation of what's going on, google "Ofqual postcards". Fortunately, perhaps, neither school staff nor parents had seen these travesties of communication - and I bet the Duchess hasn't either - though, to be fair to Ofqual, they are trying to defend an indefensible system - and to call it a "system" is itself a misuse of the word.

There wasn't much (any) talk of "space" and "heads too full", rather the pressure was on to squeeze yet more knowledge in, with testing on secondary entry (to replace the standardised KS2 levels that have been abandoned), and tests throughout secondary to make sure pupils don't fall behind. And if schools rebel from all this, then Ofsted will come in sharpish and put them into special measures.

So, either the Duchess hasn't thought about (perhaps, even, does not know about) the contradictions and was just speaking to the audience from a Place2Be briefing, or she is well aware of the issues and is doing her best to lobby for a more rational approach to the curriculum without being overtly critical of the Secretary of State's irrational anti-system.

I hope for the latter - we need everyone we can get to argue against the stupidities of the curriculum and assessment system. Did you know, for example, that under the present plans there will be changes to the curriculum and assessment system every year until 2024?

Sometimes my natural optimism flags, and I can only see a smear of water droplets at the bottom of the glass.

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