Dear Secretary of State,
I am writing to you partly as an educationalist but perhaps more importantly as a fellow parent of a primary-age child.
I want to spend a few moments to talk to you about Ben. He is our third and final child, and has just completed his Reception year.
However, importantly it is not on Ben’s behalf that I am writing to you. I write instead on behalf of all the children who will follow him through the Early Years Foundation stage, where from next year schools will be forced to purchase a baseline assessment test from private companies (who will make a handsome profit from them, though that is a side issue).
Last week we celebrated Ben’s fifth birthday. This means that over 95% of his time at school has been as a four-year old. Like many four-year old boys, he was not yet ready to write, barely ready to read, and in many ways still a very young but happy person.
Due to having two older brothers, a mother with an English degree and a father who speaks for a living, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Ben’s vocabulary and communication skills are excellent for his age.
Like most parents we take care to read with him and to him every day (some days we slip due to the realities of life but he knows that we value reading and he enjoys his nightly stories).
Due to the care and attention of Ben’s teacher and teaching assistant, he has started to learn to read and write, and due partly to playing with Numicon shapes in the bath and messing around with Cuisenaire Rods at home he has managed to keep well up with the mathematics in the class.
This afternoon Ben’s end of year report came home. Given the amount of time that goes into these documents, I have no doubt that this was written while Ben was still a four year old.
We told him of course that he had done extremely well, and that we were very proud of his efforts, as would any parent of a Reception child.
The truth is however that the teacher, who is experienced and has been very supportive, has had no choice but to measure our son against a crude set of fixed criteria.
Ben will never know just how disappointed we were, Nicky: not in him, but in a system that feels the need to label him regardless of his age, simply because we chose to put him into school.
To see that he is, apparently ‘sub-standard’ (officially referred to as ‘emerging’ of course) in listening and attention, reading, writing and being imaginative, to name but a few is heart-breaking.
Especially since we know that he is no such thing – Ben regularly imagines incredible scenarios which he discusses with us at length, and with considerable eloquence. So much so that to find he is graded as ‘expected’ for speaking is fairly absurd; I know of few four-year olds, (and I meet hundreds every year), who can approach Ben’s level of creative language, occasionally breath-taking turn of phrase and detailed explanations of complex ideas.
So – am I simply a parent bitter that their ‘bright’ child hasn’t got the grades they hoped? Nothing could be further from the truth, Nicky; in on the contrary, I believe that he does not need any grades at all!
But the new baseline will, if anything, make this situation worse. Not, as I said earlier, for Ben, but for the thousands of children who will follow. For the thousands of parents who will be forced to cross-reference their precious children against someone else’s criteria, as though they are little more than data sources which can hold schools to account. And for schools, forced to ignore children’s age, some of whom have been alive fully 25% longer than others when they are assessed.
With the best will in the world, I simply cannot understand who will benefit from this, but would love to hear your views, both as a parent and as Secretary of State. I know you are both a pragmatist and a Christian, as am I, so I have no doubt that your values are sincere, and rooted in the need to nurture and value our young people.
I realise that you have a hugely busy work schedule, so I very much appreciate in advance any time you are able to set aside to respond to this letter rather than pass it to a DfE officer to reply.
Finally, I would like to reassure you that this is NOT a dig at you or your department, and I hope that you will take the time to see it for what it is.
Yours very sincerely,