The truth is that the whole assessment framework which has arisen at primary level has become an unfair, unworkable mess which is driving good people out of teaching and causing untold misery within the state school system. By reducing primary school accountability to the outcomes of tests (in Mathematics, Reading and ‘writing skills’ as assessed by the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) and onerous teach assessment (assessing ‘writing composition’), the final year of primary school has become one of revision, endless rehearsal and thinly disguised gaming of results.
The pressure on schools is such that, whether intended or not, 11 year olds are being used as pawns in a bigger game. This despite the fact that our primary education is actually very good indeed.
English primary schools get some of the best results in the world
Yes, you read that right. English primary schools are amongst the best in the world. In the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) published in 2012, England primaries improved reading scores, and maintained high Maths and Science scores.
It must be stressed that these tests are not high stakes for schools. No-one loses sleep, much their less their job, as a result of these regular surveys of the country’s primary schools. In spite of this, as a country, we should be proud of our primary schools and the children they educate.
The problems of using primary school children to hold schools account have been evident since high stakes tests were introduced just 20 years ago. It was clear even before the last major review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability, which was undertaken by Lord Bew and others in 2011. Even the narrow remit the Bew Review had to work with showed that the issues with the current assessment system were well understood:
In this day and age, schools - as recipients of large amounts of government funding - have to be accountable for the education they provide. But the Bew Report's hands were tied by a very particular reading of the way in which our schools should be held to account.
I urge you to read this report (Using student test results for accountability and improvement: A literature review), which shows that the use of test data in primary education - and the way the Bew Review was required to report - is actually very rare. As the OECD report says, ‘a minority of OECD countries publish student test results for individual schools.’
In fact, only 12 countries (including England) do this in some way, whereas twice as many publish an annual results for the education system as a whole. What is more, the current political decision to undertake assessment in primary schools to ‘improve standards of attainment and progress of pupils, and help narrow gaps’ makes the UK exceptional. This simply does not happen in other countries. As I have written before, children at primary school elsewhere in the world are simply not used to hold primary (and, in many ways, secondary) schools accountable in the way which happens in England.
So, given this, and the current crisis in KS2 assessment, in my next post, I’ll make some suggestions as to how we could respond to the current opportunity for change in a way which will improve the schooling of primary age children, and ease the mounting pressure on retention and recruitment of staff in our schools.