The anti-racist activists at the conference agreed that despite the achievement gap between white students and students of color in England, the national curriculum and testing system were part of the problem, not the solution. Chris Searle, a lecturer at Godsmith's College at the University of London and noted author of several books about inequality and racism in British schools, described the education system in Britain as a "curriculum prison" with the "national curriculum as the prime criminal." He noted a lack of international voices or literature by people of color in the curriculum and pointed out that when the curriculum was released there were no Black writers on the list of literature in the national curriculum . Searle also said that between the ages of four and 18, students take approximately 75 examinations. "Examinations have ceased to examine children's real knowledge," he said.
But the people I met on my trip were not resigned to the fact that their schools were being strangled by the national government. Martin Francis, head teacher (the equivalent to a principal who does some teaching ) at Park Lane Elementary School in London took a decidedly defiant attitude. He was brought into the school to help "turn it around" after it was designated as "failing." The school of 210 students serves many immigrant children and has 28 different language groups. Martin's general attitude was: We know what's best for children - not the central authorities - and we aren't going to stop teaching in a way that affirms their heritage and engages them in meaningful learning.
He conceded they spend some time specifically preparing kids for exams, but for the most part he felt too many educators in Britain were overly intimidated by the national curriculum and examinations. He lamented that the new generation of teachers that has been trained in the last 10 years has known nothing different than the centralized system of curriculum and testing. "Teachers have become technicians and deliverers - not creators," he said. "The authorities don't monitor what we're doing most days in our schools and classrooms. Why not teach in ways we know that are best for the kids?" Martin challenged. It was refreshing to witness such defiant leadership in a head teacher. We could use more of that attitude in U.S. schools.
As we were leaving Britain there were new reports in the press that members of the United Kingdom's biggest teachers' union, the National Union of Teachers, are likely to vote on a boycott of the national curriculum tests that are scheduled for May 2003. The union decided to conduct the vote after a survey showed that teachers felt the tests were having a "narrowing" effect on the curriculum.
Martin's attitude and the union's planned action are good lessons for educators here as well. Even though the increased testing pressures engendered by the ESEA are real, we as teachers and principals need to be more willing to expose - and at times oppose - the consequences of that pressure in our schools. When the testing mania undermines good educational practice, we need to work with our colleagues and parents to continue teaching in ways we know are sound. School communities of parents, teachers, principals -- and in some cases, students -- should become centers of resistance.