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8th April 2021

Margaret Greenwood: ‘damning’ that we have seven million adults with poor literacy skills

The former shadow schools minister recalls life as a teacher and thinks there might be answers for the present in the past 

Whenever you ask the government about exams they say it’s the best form of assessment, but that’s a meaningless comment which stands up to no scrutiny. When I started teaching secondary school, GCSE was 100 per cent course work. The exam board would ask us to put forward ten pieces of work for each student; two of those pieces had to be done in controlled conditions, like an exam. Pupils knew that every piece of work at the start of the year mattered. It meant pupils took up-front responsibility for their own learning. 

When they brought that arrangement to an end it was like attending a wake at my school: we were mourning the passing of this as we’d seen such an increase in quality. If you have an exam at the end of the year, you’re talking about memorising things rather than developing skills. I found the old way very constructive and flexible. If you have a situation where a pupil has missed a month of school or been ill, or something terrible has happened in the family, you could say, “Let’s get on with the next thing.” 

I’d like to move to a system where we have greater development of skills and research. In the age of the search engine, to have assessment processes in demonstrating memory seems flawed to me.  

I once taught in an adult centre reading to adults who struggled with reading. That was quite a profound experience because you were in close contact with people who throughout life had experienced that profound deprivation of not having sufficient literacy skills to make their way in the world. Today we have around seven million adults with poor literacy skills: that’s damning in a country like ours. 

That’s why in 2020, as shadow schools minister, I argued against the Reception Baseline Assessment. There was evidence it was causing children distress, and taking teachers away from settling children into school-based routines and developing relationships with pupils. We’ve got a similar issue with SATs. I spoke to a mother who told me when her daughter was in Year 6, she used to cry on her way into school as she wasn’t very good at maths. That’s why a broad-based curriculum is important. These decisions taken early in children’s lives affect employment outcomes further down the line.  

If you’ve ever been to adult education centres, you learn the hunger people have for learning when they’ve missed out on it. One class I once taught was called ‘Women Back to Work’. These were women who wanted to get back into the workplace, and needed a GCSE in English to do that. One knock-on effect was the impact on their children: they would bring them into the classes with them, and proudly stand in front of the class and give a talk while their child was there, looking up so proudly at what their mum was doing. 

When you think of women who have come out of work to look after children and then become carers, they can often lose their confidence. Adult learning is a fantastic way to open up ideas. I worry about the long-term economic impact of children who grow up in poverty. They don’t earn much, not as many go to university and they’re less likely to have good health later in life. This government has no appreciation of the scale of the problem. It was dragged kicking and screaming on school meals by Marcus Rashford, a fact which spoke volumes.  

Part of the problem is that the status of teaching is still low in relation to what it should be. At a local level, people are still immensely grateful to their local teacher so the relation between pay and status has to come from government. When I look at what primary teachers do, their skill levels are absolutely phenomenal.  

The Labour Party is in a process of development of policy, and have to include our membership in that. Keir’s been leader for a year or so, and because of Covid too there hasn’t been the opportunity for meetings or conference. I think it’s too early to say, but we need to look to the past for inspiration.  

In the 1970s, we had a big pay rise and there was buoyancy because we as teachers felt valued. This was before the national curriculum and we’d teach as we saw fit, with no testing regime and more creative time. I remember we used to put on school plays and when they bought in the national curriculum it killed it dead. I think that’s tragic. We need to look at that. Exams are not the answer.  

Margaret Greenwood is the Member of Parliament for Wirral West 

Photo credit: David Woolfall under Creative Commons License 3.0

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