Those who cheer Labour’s plan to end primary school testing forget how we failed pupils in the good old 90’s
A few years ago, not long after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party, I took part in a packed fringe meeting at the Labour conference. The subject was “Where next for Labour party education policy?”
In response to speeches from the panel, an impassioned young mother spoke movingly about how pressure to perform in primary school tests was destroying her daughter’s love of learning. If only we could get rid of testing, she pleaded.
This week, year 6 children are yet again sitting the tests, more than 20 years since they were introduced and less than a month after the Labour leader did indeed announce that Sats would be abolished if he came to power.
To a rousing response from the National Education Union conference, Jeremy Corbyn explained that a Labour government would introduce alternative forms of primary assessment that would mark an end to overworked teachers and stressed pupils. Children would be prepared for life, not exams, and standards would rise by freeing teachers to teach. Really?
Evidence that the school accountability system has gone astray keeps coming. In the last month alone there have been reports of primary children being Sats-prepped in the Easter holidays. We have seen four-year-olds marching on Westminster to protest against tests in reception. The Education Policy Institute exposed the extent of “off-rolling”, and the government has announced new measures to ensure schools are held accountable for the growing number of pupils they exclude.
The high stakes and intensely competitive nature of English schooling drives unethical behaviour by some school leaders and degrades the education experiences of too many children. Problems with recruitment and retention are inevitably fuelled by a negative culture in schools, where exam performance trumps all else.
But none of this is new and the problem for Labour and other anti-testing campaigners is that Sats don’t exist in a vacuum. They are just one cog in a deeply rooted choice-based public education system that also comprises judgments about the curriculum, qualifications, and what we mean by a good education. The principal secondary school performance measure, progress 8, rests on the foundation of Sats. Is Jeremy Corbyn planning to rip that up as well?
When I described, to the young mother at the Labour conference, the culture in my children’s primary school in 1993, before league tables and Ofsted, where some teachers believed a diet of music and art was sufficient, and more than half of children left school with inadequate levels of literacy and numeracy, she was temporarily lost for words. It seemed an unrecognisable world.
Remembering what many schools were like turns me into a crusader for accountability, which has almost certainly contributed to the fact that we have far fewer failing schools today. Hideous as being “named and shamed” by Ofsted was – when the first league tables were published our school was third from bottom and fewer than 40% of children achieved an acceptable level in maths – it was a powerful incentive to improve.
It is too often forgotten that Wales opted out of primary school tests and league tables in the late 90s, to the delight of many English education campaigners. Ten years on, the Welsh assembly had to quietly reinvent [pdf] systems of accountability when it became clear children were falling behind because there were no systems for measuring performance or progress.
I look forward to hearing more details about Labour’s alternative assessment proposal and hope it doesn’t disappear into a policy black hole, in which random unconnected announcements appear and go nowhere. Too much about the party’s National Education Service remains vague – reforms to academies and admissions were announced last year and haven’t been heard of since.
The state spends more than £45bn every year on education. Taxpayers, parents and local communities have a right to know that money is well spent and that all pupils can flourish, master the basics, feel intellectually stimulated, and progress to the next stage of education or life without losing a love of learning.
But balancing accountability with integrity, equity, wellbeing, and high-quality teaching and learning will almost certainly mean a wide range of reforms. Abolishing Sats may be a crowd-pleaser but alone it won’t change enough.
Source: The Guardian