Monday, 27th September

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, today gave more details on the content of the forthcoming review of Key Stage 2 Sats.

In a letter to Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Mr Gove said the review would “consider a number of key issues”, including:

-“How best to ensure that schools are properly accountable to pupils, parents and the taxpayer for the achievement and progress of every child, on the basis of objective and accurate assessments.” 

-“How to avoid, as far as possible, the risk of perverse incentives, over-rehearsal and reduced focus on productive learning.”

-“How to ensure that tests are as valid and reliable as possible, within an overall system of assessment (including teacher assessment) which provides the best possible picture of every child’s progress.”

-“How to ensure that performance information is used and interpreted appropriately within the accountability system by other agencies, increasing transparency and preserving accountability to parents, pupils and the taxpayer, while avoiding the risk of crude and narrow judgements being made.”

Mr Gove writes of sharing the NAHT’s concern that “too many schools [are] spending too much time on test preparation in year 6 at the expense of…productive teaching and learning”. This, he writes, is “clearly undesirable”.

He says that “raising standards and narrowing gaps are the central goals of the Government’s education policy.” These goals are “best achieved through ensuring that schools and teachers are free to set their own direction, trusted to exercise their professional discretion and accountable for the progress of the children in their care”.

He adds: “Mindful that the OECD concludes that external accountability is a key driver of improvement in education and particularly important for the least advantaged, the Government continues to view a system of objectively measuring pupil progress and holding schools to account as vital.”

Some system of key stage 2 testing, league tables and the use of the data generated by the tests to hold schools to account for their performance, then, looks to be a non-negotiable part of Mr Gove’s agenda.

The key question in all of this is whether it is possible to have a high-stakes system of school accountability which avoids the problems which Mr Gove acknowledges and seeks to mitigate.

I wonder, in particular, about the notion that schools will be “free to set their own direction” and “trusted to exercise their professional discretion” and yet remain accountable for their pupils’ progress.

If high-stakes accountability is realised in the way it has been in the past, in this and other countries, then the result will be that schools are judged on pupils’ performance on a set of fairly narrow indicators. If large consequences follow, for schools, on the basis of what a narrow set of indicators reveal, then expect a tendency to narrow teaching towards what is measured in those indicators to continue, no matter how much the Government talks of giving teachers freedom over teaching methods and even curricula.

In other words, if ministers talk about handing freedom to the profession, but retain tight control over the statistical measures by which the success and failure of schools is judged, and punish and reward them accordingly, real freedom will be limited.

It may be that real pressure from Government on schools to improve their results will only be exerted on those who rank towards the bottom on the chosen performance indicators, as the letter says “the accountability system…must be able to identify and tackle cases of sustained under-performance”. But if this is the case, it risks setting up a gap between schools at the bottom on these rankings, where teaching is likely to be very narrowly focused on what is needed to improve the indicators, and the rest.

When Mr Gove talks about “raising standards and narrowing gaps” being his over-riding goals, I also take that as translating to raising test scores, and narrowing the performance gaps between particular groups of pupils, as measured by test scores. This, at least, is what the terms have meant under Labour, and I get no sense here that some of the problems inherent in this approach, around, again, the narrowing of focus on specific indicators, are being acknowledged.

Being hyper-sceptical, I also wonder whether holding schools to account for the “achievement and progress of every child”, which is a continuation of the policy under Labour, is not a step too far, in that it takes away the child’s own responsibility to try to do better. That is, if every time a child fails to make progress, the school is blamed, where is the child’s place in achieving a good result?

 Of the four bullet points, I think the fourth (“How to ensure that performance information is used and interpreted appropriately within the accountability system by other agencies, increasing transparency and preserving accountability to parents, pupils and the taxpayer, while avoiding the risk of crude and narrow judgements being made.”) represents the best hope of genuine improvements over the current system.

If the new government were genuinely committed to trying to educate parents and other users of test result data what can be read into the statistics, and what cannot, this would be a step forward.

Overall, though, it looks as if what is being proposed will still contain many of the ingredients of the current system, with weight being put on a limited range of statistical indicators, at least for some aspects of school accountability.

Mitigating some of the problems of high-stakes accountability is important. And it may be that Mr Gove, possibly working with the NAHT, will uncover new ways of trying to square the circle of having a system of high-consequence accountability without some of the downsides which have dogged it in the past. But there is no detail as of yet of how that can happen, so I remain to be convinced.

 While I understand the pressure on politicians over accountability, I still find it disappointing that some kind of statistics-based system seems to be non-negotiable, with the quality of the learning experience for children seemingly something which must be worked in around it.

- Warwick Mansell

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posted on September 28th, 2010

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