Archive for August, 2008

Most newspapers have included opinion pieces on the testing regime in recent days, with few articles dissenting from what seems now to be the mainstream view that serious reform is needed. This, of course, has been triggered in large part by the chaos of this summer’s marking, overseen by the now-sacked contractor ETS Europe.

Ed Balls, in an article in The Independent, argued that the administrative problems surrounding this year’s Sats should not encourage people to lose sight of the “bigger picture”, which is that the tests have been an important lever in “driving up standards”.

There was also a defence of assessment and target-setting by Matthew Parris in The Times.

Actually, most commentators did not want to talk solely about ETS Europe. Instead, they wrote about what to them was, indeed, the bigger picture of the current testing system, including its downsides.

Perhaps most powerful, for me, was another piece in The Times, by Alice Miles. It explains the Government’s obsession with league tables and statistics, arguing that ”The obsession with testing…has become not a tool of policy, but policy itself. By their test results shall you praise or damn them. Imagination and good leadership have shrunk to lines on a graph.” The article adds: “[This] is a tale of children being failed by a system that turns them into numbers on a chart.” The article is undermined somewhat by its pay-off line, which alludes to four out of 10 children leaving primary school “without real competence in literacy, numeracy and science”, which of course is laying great weight on a test statistic. But the effect of treating children as statistical indicators is one worthy of this kind of attention.

Elsewhere, there were interesting pieces calling for change by Nick Cohen in London’s Evening Standard and by Peter Mortimore in The Guardian. Another piece in The Guardian by Matthew Taylor, former adviser to Tony Blair, argued that the Sats have fallen victim to Goodhart’s Law, that “a measure of performance is no longer a reliable indicator once it becomes a target”. He believes that “policymakers should not throw out the baby of accountability with the bathwater of over-assessment”, but that “Sats have gone froma solution to being a problem”. His belief that this problem will be solved, however, by the “less intrusive” single-level tests, however, is, for me, at best over-optimistic and at worst simply naive. The current two-year single-level testing pilot does not offer any analysis or alternative to perhaps the central problem of the current Sats regime – the side effects created when tests are used both to inform pupil learning and for school-by-school accountability. In fact, potentially it will accentuate the pressures on schools to teach to the test. And, with the prospect of tests every six months, it raises the spectre of more Government tests, not fewer. 

There were also anti-Sats leaders in The Guardian - “there should be more to education than arithmetic alone” and two in the Standard, one on August 5th (“Scrap these discredited Sats”, which unforunately I can’t find a link for) and the other on August 15. A blog for The Times by parent-journalist Sarah Ebner also argued that the Government should consider scrapping the KS3 tests.

Returning from a press conference on the KS3 results last week, I was talking to a colleague about the tests, this being a bit of an obsession of mine, as you might have gathered.  A parent sitting next to us as we waited for the next Tube train, asked what was the latest on the results. She expressed her frustration that her child’s KS3 scores had not been released by the end of term, but then said she and other parents at her school could not see the point of the tests anyway: they just stressed the kids out and they were for the school’s benefit, not the child’s. Parental perspectives should be kept in mind in this debate.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on August 17th, 2008

Yesterday saw near blanket coverage of concerns about the testing system, fuelled largely by a report from the Civitas think tank, which found 90 per cent of secondary teachers refusing to trust the results of pupils who took the tests in year six. Teaching to the test was widely blamed.

Admittedly, the sample was small: only just over 100 staff were questioned, as ministers were quick to point out. However, the survey is in line with research among science teachers published earlier this year for the Wellcome Trust, (a summary of which is here) which found that most were happier to trust teacher assessment judgements than test results, with teaching to the test again a widespread worry. The Civitas paper’s timing, published as it was to coincide with the release of key stage 2 national test data which themselves have been questioned followed this summer’s shambolic marking arrangements, perhaps further explains why it was so lapped up by the media.

The Civitas paper is here (albeit the link takes a bit of time to work): 

News stories covering it and the test results are here:
There was also an interesting leader in the Daily Telegraph which condemned the testing system and pointed out that criticism was now coming its way from both sides of the political spectrum: Civitas on the right and the Labour-dominated Children, Schools and Families Select Committee on the left.

The leader is here:





- Warwick Mansell

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posted on August 6th, 2008

Researching an article on the effect on schools’  test performance of special educational needs pupils last week, I came across a report written two years ago by the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee on SEN education.


I found this replete with concerns about how the standards agenda – the drive, supported by league tables, targets and Ofsted inspections, to raise pupils’ average test and exam results - may be marginalising children with special needs.


The danger should be fairly obvious: schools which are going to be judged by their results may be discouraged to take on children who might be seen to be harder to educate. Of course, many schools are inclusive and accept these pupils. But the incentives of this system are pushing them in the opposite direction.


The full report is available here:


I’ve also included some pull-out quotes below on the conflict between the standards agenda and doing the right thing by special needs pupils (to my mind, decisions on whether or not to include a child in a mainstream school should be taken on the basis of what is best for the child, and possibly other pupils, not on the school’s need to look good statistically).


 The select committee’s report says:



“The Government should give careful consideration to the impact that key drivers such as league tables are having on admissions—particularly to the most successful non-selective state schools. There is strong evidence that the existing presentation of performance data in league tables does not reflect well on many children with SEN and consequently acts as a disincentive for some schools to accept them. This cannot continue.”


It adds:

The Schools White Paper made it clear that the goal of raising standards was at the

heart of personalised learning, not SEN. It showed that raising attainment in schools is still the main agenda for the Government and, as a result, targets and league tables will

continue to drive behaviour in the education sector. In theory, it might be possible to have both raising standards and SEN at the heart of personalised learning but in practice this seems far from being realised. As Jean Salt, President of NASEN, described to us:

‘we would see the cohort of pupils being targeted under personalised learning to be a

different cohort to those with special educational needs.… the personalised learning

pathway seems to target those who are just missing those crucial level boundaries or

grade boundaries at GCSE level.’”


The report continues: “There is a recognised conflict between the aims of raising standards and SEN: raising standards focuses on the narrow outcome of academic attainment whilst a SEN focus would require a broader definition of outcomes in line with the five outcomes set in Every Child Matters—healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution, and achieve economic well-being. As Dr Rona Tutt, Immediate Past President of the National Association of Head Teachers, said to the Committee:

‘I think it is very difficult to continue to run a system that relies so heavily on tables,

targets and tests and (then) say that every child matters and we want personalisation

which fits in entirely with SEN.’


“[This was also]articulated by the British Association of Teachers for the Deaf who suggested “the inexorable pressure of the curriculum, examination/SATs requirements and league tables demand that mainstream teachers drive forward in a way that may not be conducive to good inclusive practice—causing tensions between the two.

Regardless of the theory, in practice the evidence clearly demonstrates that SEN and the raising attainment agenda sit very uncomfortably together at present.

“Furthermore, it is clear from the Education and Inspection Bill that the standards agenda still remains the much greater priority for the Government. It is the standards agenda, not SEN, that is at the heart of the existing personalisation agenda. As a result, it is difficult to see how personalisation can be the key to the Government’s strategy on SEN… Again, we recommend that the Government clarifies its strategy for SEN and gives SEN sufficient priority so that it might indeed sit at the heart of personalised learning as promised in the SEN Strategy.”





- Warwick Mansell

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posted on August 5th, 2008