Archive for October, 2008

Ed Balls’s surprise decision last week to scrap the KS3 tests is the biggest Government retreat on testing policy in the past 20 years. It is, of course, to be welcomed, in terms of the immediate implications in the classroom: teachers I have been in contact with this week are already savouring the chance to inject some creativity into their year nine lessons, although there are some more cautious voices out there.

But the implications, in terms of what the decision says about the relationship between the accountability system and pupils’ educational experiences, are also worth considering.

In a sense, as I implied in an article for the TES last week, the decision represents the Government going as far as it could in terms of conceding ground to critics of “teaching to the test”, without completely undermining the foundations of its accountability regime.

Balls was clear that KS3 tests were being removed because – essentially – there was no need for them as measures of the performance of secondary schools. GCSE and A-level results were what parents were really interested in, he said, and these could be used to hold schools to account. Heads and teachers could then use teacher assessment, augmented by Government tests which would not be externally marked –  to check on the progress of pupils in years seven, eight and nine.

This makes sense. The KS3 tests always were something of an anomaly, in that even the most ardent defender of using exam scores to hold schools to account might concede that they were not necessary. For those who believe in giving heads more freedom to run schools and then judging them on their results, either the key stage 4 and 5 exams, in secondary, or the KS2 tests, in primary, should do the trick.

That said, the decision still represents a major concession from a government which has used the KS3 tests as a way of keeping control over teaching in the early years of secondary. Evidence of this, for me, came with David Blunkett’s decision, when the key stage 3 [national teaching] strategy was launched, to publish the KS3 test scores separately. He knew that this would mean the tests – and the skills they assess -  were taken more seriously by both the media and schools, who would focus more attention on them, meaning that the test scores, by which the initiative would be judged, might rise.

Jon Coles, the second most senior civil servant at the DCSF, last month also hinted that removing the KS3 tests would be dangerous, as this period was important for pupils. The implication, again, was that the publication of the results, and the ability of the Government to monitor them,  gave ministers a lever of influence over what went on during these three years.

However, the fact that Balls went no further, and said he had no plans to scrap KS2 tests, was revealing. Removing the KS2 tests would mean essentially dismantling the architecture of hyper-accountability, since it would have left no national test to be used as an “outcome measure” by which to judge primary schools.

Yet, in making his decision on the KS3 tests, Balls conceded that a report from the Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee (here), had been important. This document, of course, criticised teaching to the test at both KS2 and at KS3.

So educational arguments – the fact that the tests can have damaging side-effects in terms of, for example, the rise of widespread teaching to the test – appear to have had some traction at KS3, but not at KS2. In other words, they have held sway when the test is not so important for school-by-school performance monitoring and accountability, but not when it is deemed important.

Put another way, when the needs of the accountability system collide with the desire to give the child the best possible educational experience, accountability – astonishingly, to my mind – wins. It still seems bizarre, to me, that this happens without any detailed check on whether the accountability system could be reformed to improve the educational experience for the child. (The Government might assert that this point is being taken on board with the single level test trial, which is continuing in primaries, and the fact that an “expert group” is now working up guidance on how to tell schools not to teach to the test. But this misses the point: single level tests have never addressed the central problem of hyper-accountability: the downsides of trying to use the same test both to check on a child’s progress and to judge the school. And advising schools on cutting down on teaching to the test…well words fail me, really: this doesn’t begin to address the pressures that have built up on schools to do exactly that).

Given the above, it is easy to see how the decision on KS3 is likely to call into question the Government’s entire testing policy, particularly at KS2. Many primary teachers, parents of primary children, and even, perhaps, some children themselves, will be furious that KS2 is not being included. Others will question Balls’s statement to the Commons that “over more than a decade, testing and assessment has played a vital role in driving up standards in primary schools.”

The KS3 decision, though lambasted as a U-turn in some quarters, drew an almost uniformly positive response in the media last week, with some columnists using it as a platform to attack the Sats more generally.

Two interesting columns were in The Times and in the Telegraph.

The decision came alongside other announcements from the DCSF, including the possible introduction of school “report cards”, which would sum up the performance of an institution in a single grade; the abandonment of trials of single level tests for secondary children; and the possible launch of a sample testing system at KS3 as a check on national standards, which I may write about in future weeks.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on October 20th, 2008

It’s taken me a while to update this blog with the latest missives on teaching to the test – as ever, it’s hard to keep up with the evidence piling up on this subject, and some of these go back over several weeks now - but here goes:

- Ofsted put out a report on maths teaching which included the finding criticising “teaching to the test”. Rising exam results in the past decade were not proof that pupils were getting better at the subject, it added. Among its findings were: ”Evidence suggests that strategies to improve test and examination performance, including ‘booster’ lessons, revision classes and extensive intervention, coupled with a heavy emphasis on ‘teaching to the test, succeed in preparing pupils to gain the qualifications but are not equipping them well enough mathematically for their futures”.

The full report is here:

This is far from the first time that Ofsted, of course, has observed on and criticised teaching to the test, as the evidence section of this website shows. The irony, of course, will not be lost of many teachers, who would say that the inspectorate helps accentuate teaching to the test by making exam results so crucial to its inspection judgements. Further evidence on that, with Ofsted publishing a new inspection framework, is likely to arrive in the coming weeks.

- A paper from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which runs PISA, the most prominent international testing system, called on England to “reduce the focus on testing and targets and put more focus on supporting weak students and schools”.

The paper also warned that English schools were likely to be “gaming” the results system, focusing their efforts at particular groups of students and tactics most likely to improved their published scores, and counselled that education should be about more than success in academic exams. 

Not everyone will agree with the notion that England’s “education performance” – itself a problematic term, I believe,  - is said to be average on the basis mainly of evidence from international testing surveys. But the report is worth a read here:


- The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest charity, published reports which argued that testing was distorting science teaching. The papers were written by Professors Wynne Harlen and Peter Tymms, who have also conducted studies for the current Cambridge University-based primary review. The press release is here:

- Another report on science, this time focusing on 14-19 schooling rather than primary, from the Royal Society, was not concerned specifically with the side-effects of test- or exam-based schooling. But it did remark that year-on-year inprovements in exam results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have not necessarily been reflected in international testing studies, a point which I also make in my book. The press release for the report, which also attacks the effects of “political short-termism” in education, is here:

- The Daily Telegraph carried another leader attacking teaching to the test. It included the following telling sentence:

“Instead of rasing standards, Sats have created a culture where teachers teach to the test rather than promote understanding.”

The leader, entitled “teaching for tests fails our children”, is here:







- Warwick Mansell

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posted on October 10th, 2008

I would urge anyone interested in the effects of statistics-led schooling to read a recent paper by Cynthia Bartlett, head of an Oxfordshire comprehensive. Cynthia, who took a sabattical to research and write the 68-page report, describes hyper-accountability as a “tragedy”, for vulnerable pupils in particular.

Her paper includes findings gleaned from a survey of 22 of her fellow Oxfordshire secondary heads, and comes with copious research evidence.

The testing, targets and tables regime is setting up a sharp divide between schools, Cynthia argues. Those serving more prosperous areas, typically with better results, are able to give disadvantaged or “vulnerable” students the attention they deserve. Those with more children from poorer backgrounds cannot afford to devote too much attention to those at the bottom of the class, as they focus relentlessly on the middle-ability pupils who are the key to the statistical indicators around which league tables resolve. The paper also highlights the human cost of Ofsted inspections, and argues that the system currently offers little to recognise schools’ – and pupils’ – achievements away from the exam hall.

And key stage 2 and 3 tests ”stand in the way of progress” - children waste almost a year on test preparation, achieving results which only show that “most children can pass a test for which they are given mock papers, booster classes, revision sessions and drilling on mark schemes for months on end”.

The paper is available from Cynthia at


- Warwick Mansell

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posted on October 1st, 2008