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Primary Education News
News Primary school tests follow the Piccadilly Circus rule | Peter Wilby
Wait long enough and every education policy comes round again. New exams for younger pupils is the latest example
When the government announces new schemes for raising children's attainment, strengthening accountability, lifting aspirations, making schools "world class", etc, I think back to my own schooling in the 1950s. At my state primary school the headteacher stood before a hushed and expectant class with a pile of certificates to be handed to those who had passed the 11-plus. He read each name in turn; if yours wasn't called, you had failed. At grammar school we were placed not only in ability-based classes but, after termly exams, ranked in order of attainment within the class, from 1st to 30th. A teacher read out the positions in reverse order. We all knew exactly where we stood, the limits of our hopes and ambitions (and those our parents cherished for us) defined in detail. Childhood was stalked by the fear of failure.
As one education professor used to remark, education is like Piccadilly Circus: stand there long enough, and everything comes round again. By degrees, we are returning to the world of my childhood. Under proposals announced by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and his Lib Dem colleague David Laws, the schools minister, parents of 11-year-olds at English primary schools will be given their child's precise scores in newly minted English and maths tests, told where these place the child in the national range of attainment, and also told how much progress he or she has made since the age of seven.
The consultation document issued by Clegg and Laws gives two examples. The parents of "Sally" may be told she scored 126 in reading, putting her in the top 10%, with above-average progress. Bully for Sally, surely bound for a top university and perhaps a six-figure salary in banking. The parents of "Tom", however, may learn that he scored 87 in maths, placing him in the bottom 10%, with below-average progress. Poor Tom, probably destined for the dole queue and no spare bedroom.
Clegg and Laws say such information will be available only to a child's parents and teachers. But there will be school-gate exchanges; think of the chagrin of Sally's father when Jemima's mother reveals that her daughter scored 128 in reading. No doubt secondary schools will get the scores and use them to stream children on entry, perhaps even to determine which pupils they admit. Tory backbenchers must be salivating at the prospect of a test that officially scores every 11-year-old in England from 1st to 600,000th. One more heave and they've got grammar schools back, with a ready-made 11-plus exam.
Tom's biggest problem is being labelled not "secondary ready", so that he sounds like a badly packaged turkey that isn't oven-ready. (It isn't a coincidence that, talking about the mass testing of 11-year-olds, ministers borrow the terminology of mass-market food manufacturers.) "Secondary ready", for which a child will need a test score of at least 100, is a concept invented by Clegg and Laws to denote that a child is sufficiently proficient in English and maths to flourish at school over the next five years.
Humiliating Tom is just a by-product. "Secondary ready" is mainly designed to strengthen government control over teachers and schools or, as ministers put it, establish "high expectations". Schools that don't get at least 85% of their children (excluding those with special needs) to this standard will be "prioritised for rapid improvement"; in other words, publicly shamed and made to undergo an Ofsted inspection, leading to the head being sacked and the school perhaps converted to an academy.
Ministers claim they are giving schools more autonomy, easing the burden of constant external monitoring and allowing them "the freedom to design their own systems" of "ongoing assessment" (which, since Ofsted has to be satisfied a system is fit for purpose, means, in practice, the freedom to buy standardised commercial packages). But children will still sit national tests at 11 in maths, reading, spelling, punctuation and grammar. These will be the basis of judging "secondary readiness", a standard which will be more demanding than the "unambitious, too broad" level 4 on which schools and pupils are currently judged.
The importance of these tests will therefore be greater than ever – for schools, teachers, parents, children and, indeed, ministers desperate to show ever-rising standards. It is hard to believe Clegg and Laws don't know the arguments against "high-stakes testing". Such tests narrow the curriculum and encourage unimaginative teaching. They are not even particularly good at improving English and maths because (as any teacher will tell you) children, having been drilled in the rules of, say, grammar, often forget or ignore those rules once they are doing anything other than a grammar test, such as writing a story.
Standardised national tests are in any case unreliable as performance measures because they cover a small range of items and must be taken on particular days at particular times. Giving scores rather than levels or grades gives tests more authority with the public. But it is a spurious authority. The unfortunate Tom, with his 87 in maths, could have scored well into the 90s if he'd taken the test on a different day: still secondary unready, but not quite so unready.
In many other countries, including Scotland and Wales, governments accept these arguments. In Finland, which always comes near the top in international school performance comparisons, children don't even start school until seven and face no externally set tests or exams until 18. Yet to allow them to measure later "progress", Clegg and Laws propose to test five-year-olds. English ministers are addicted to tests, and to setting schools and children ever higher standards.
It is an area where they can give the appearance of being in control. Economic and fiscal policies are dictated by financial markets and supra-national bodies such as the EU and the IMF. Foreign policy has long been abdicated to Washington. Multinational corporations forbid a wide range of safety, consumer protection and health regulations.
But schools, like the NHS, have been brought firmly under central government control. Targets can be set and, if they are carefully calibrated, triumphantly exceeded, without trouble from the pesky "headwinds" that so often blow economic policies off course. Future governments, perhaps unable to boast of cutting unemployment or increasing wages or reducing obesity, can at least hope to announce that more children are "secondary ready". Whether that will help Tom is another matter.