Lucy Nethisngha, the Leader of the Lib Dems on the County Council has, for the past year, been the Chair of a group looking at Education Policy across England for the Liberal Democrats.
The result of our work, a new education policy for the Lib Dems, will be debated at our Spring Conference on 9th March.
Over the course of the year, the group I Chaired heard from many working in the education sector, from charities like the Terrance Higgins Trust, to Union bosses, from professors to hands on practitioners. There was a scary message coming from all sides: the pressure of testing in the current school system is harming teachers and pupils alike.
There has been a terrifying increase in the incidence of mental health problems in young people in recent years. Some commentators have brushed this off, referring to “snow-flake millennials”. But the mental health issues affecting our young people need to be taken seriously. Suicide is now the most common cause of death for young people aged between 20 and 24, and the second most common cause of death for those 5-19. Eating disorder diagnoses have increased by 15% since 2000, and anorexia is recognised as having the highest rate of death of any psychiatric disorder.
So what is causing this epidemic of mental health problems among young people? I firmly believe that the English school system, which tests pupils at every stage, and where teachers careers rest on the results of those tests is a major factor.
Children in England’s schools are tested from the moment they start until the day they leave, and the results of the tests are used to judge the school and the teachers, so they matter a lot. Children of 4 and 5 start with baseline testing in Reception, followed by phonics and now maths checks at age 6 and 7. There are SATs in Year 2 for 7 year olds and in Year 6 for 11 year olds, (some is teacher assessment now, but still very important for the school and teachers, as OFSTED use the results.) Then the children move to secondary school where they start preparing for GCSEs, which are now final exam only, with very little course work.
Of course there have always been tests in schools, and teachers need to test pupils to see whether they have made progress. However the big difference with the testing regime in England is that the results of these tests can make or break teachers, and more especially head-teachers careers. Poor results mean the school is considered failing by OFSTED. Heads of failing schools usually loose their jobs.
We all want to see our children doing well in school and going on to thrive in the jobs and careers they choose when they leave education. As a country we also need our young people to learn the skills they will need to succeed in the industries in their area. We want young people to feel enthusiastic about education, and with technology moving fast we are all likely to need to keep learning throughout our lives. I fear that our current school testing regime is leading to young people who have had all the curiosity and imagination crushed out of them, and who leave school less enthusiastic, less resilient and less able to contribute to the economy.
The Liberal Democrats will be offering an alternative vision of education on 9th March, one based on trusting teachers to inspire our children. We will be arguing for less testing, both of pupils and of schools, and a much closer and more positive relationship between schools and the parents and communities they serve.