The unions’ reaction to the outcome of last year’s Sats boycott

 Monday, 18th July, 2011

This is just a quick reflection on union reaction to the Government’s proposals on the future of assessment at Key Stage 2.

Ministers published today their response to last month’s final report by the Bew inquiry into this subject, the review which itself was triggered by last year’s Sats boycott by the National Association of Head Teachers and National Union of Teachers.

The unions’ reaction is interesting: four different associations produced arguably, three or four different positions in response.

This could be viewed as surprising, given that, for all the changes put forward in Bew, the fundamentals of the high-stakes testing regime remain in place, despite widespread concerns within the profession. Or it may simply reflect a beneath-the-surface belief that, whatever the problems with current structures, essentially the basics of the system are in the end unchallengeable, and therefore the argument must be confined to the detail as to how it works.

In terms of their reaction to the Government response to Bew, the heads’ associations were more upbeat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the National Association of Head Teachers, which called off the possibility of a repeat of last year’s boycott in 2011 in return for the Bew inquiry, and which was allowed to recommend head teachers who would sit on the Bew committee, was broadly positive about its outcome.

Its press release was headlined: “Bew recommendations are a significant step forward towards fairer accountability system, say school leaders.”

But the NAHT said the Bew recommendations – every one of which has been accepted by the Government (always an interesting development for any inquiry which is billed as independent from ministers, I feel) – were only a “first, positive step on a long journey towards a system which reflects the achievements of all pupils and the contribution of all schools”.

Longer-term goals included a far greater role for teacher assessment and more trust in the profession, and the NAHT said it would be on the look-out for ministers breaking with the spirit  of the Bew recommendations.

The Association of School and College Leaders was also accentuating the positive, headlining its release: “KS2 assessment moving in the right direction.” I will come back to this.

Both the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers were less optimistic.

The NUT argued: “The positive steps in this review will be undermined by keeping in place school performance tables, despite the fact that the majority of those who gave evidence called for their abolition.

“While league tables exist, teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum will remain…The Review and the Government should have been bolder.”

The ATL said: “There is some good news in the government’s changes to key stage 2 testing, but so much more could be achieved if the government was not insisting on remaining judge, jury and executioner of schools by setting targets, closing schools, and forcing through its naïve free market policies on academies.”

I haven’t received a press release from the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, but we know that that union has long favoured tests over teacher assessment, amid concerns about the effects of TA on teachers’ workloads.

For me, having looked at – and written about – the changes proposed by Bew (blog here), this feels like a very muted end to what has been years of pressure building on ministers over testing: the NAHT itself conducted a review into the architecture and effects of the current system, to which I contributed, and which dates back to 2007. Part of that pressure was exerted, amazingly perhaps as it appears now, by Michael Gove when he seemed to accept, in 2009, that test-driven teaching can be bad for children’s education. It also built through the testimony of the unions, subject associations and reports from organisations such as the Children, Schools and Families select committee, the Cambridge Primary Review and the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood inquiry.

One could look at the positive reaction with which many teachers are likely to greet the move, recommended by Bew and accepted by ministers, that the current writing composition test in KS2 English is replaced by teacher assessment, and take a different response to the quick verdict I’ve offered above, of course.

Or, for critics of the high-stakes regime, there is the fact that, since 2008, the following Sats tests have bitten the dust: English, maths and science at KS3; science at KS2; and creative writing at KS2. This might be considered a good outcome of all that pressure.

But, on the negative side, Bew put forward, shockingly, I think, the unbalanced assertion that “strong evidence shows that external school-level [presumably statistics-based] accountability is important in driving up standards”. And the essentials of our system – that test and exam results will remain the main mechanism by which both secondary and primary schools are held to account, with high stakes including closure to follow for “underperformers” – remain unchanged.

The underlying argument must be that this high-stakes system has been good for English education, and that it is a key to continuing progress in the future. If this were not the underlying assumption behind Bew, we would not be proceeding on the current basis, for it provides no fundamental attempt to re-engineer assessment and accountability so that the system gets the accountability it needs without the knock-on washback effects on teaching and learning.

As ever, the basic architecture of test- and exam-based accountability seems to be the unalterable fact of education in England, to which everything – including, I’m afraid, a fair-minded and rigorous consideration of its overall effects on children’s education – must come second. More than 15 years after the introduction of national testing in England,  there has still been no detailed Government inquiry into the nature, extent and effects of test-driven teaching in this country: how many schools go in for it, the detail of how children’s learning is affected and what pupils alongside teachers think about it. This is astonishing, really, if you believe that the quality of the child’s educational experience is to be looked after above all else.

Just finally, I want to return to ASCL’s position, which I think is the most curious.

Brian Lightman, ASCL general secretary, is quoted in its press release as saying: “There must be a robust but fair process of assessment for pupils as they move from primary to secondary school. This is important not only for pupils and their parents, but also so that their new schools have accurate and reliable information about their level of progress.”

I find this statement, which reflects what has been ASCL policy for a while, strange because of the contrast with the somewhat ambivalent relationship secondary schools have with KS2 assessment data, as documented in the Bew report (and elsewhere).

The final Bew report says: “We have heard widespread concern that secondary schools make limited use of the information they receive about their new intake. Many secondary school respondents have expressed concern that national curriculum test results or primary schools’ teacher assessment are not always a suitable proxy for the attainment of pupils on entry to Year 7.”

If many secondary schools don’t trust pupils’ Sats results (or test-influenced TA judgements), why does ASCL want them retained as “robust but fair” measures?

I’ve not put this to ASCL, but I believe the answer is that the union, while it doesn’t particularly trust Sats results as measures of pupils’ underlying understanding, doesn’t want them replaced with teacher assessment because secondary heads worry that primary schools would inflate TA judgements. This would leave secondaries’ results looking less good, because it would mean pupils would appear to be making less progress at secondary school.

So while secondary heads might have reservations about the value of the data provided by Sats, the implications in terms of the accountability system for them mean they back them. As usual, the demands of the accountability system, then, seem to trump other concerns.

This may be a scandalous explanation for ASCL’s position on this issue, but I am struggling to think of another one.

All of which leaves me slightly saddened. There is still an awful lot of evidence that this system is not serving at least a large proportion of children’s needs well. It is a shame that the unions have not seemed able, in the end, to come together to continue pressing home that point.

– Is this really the end of the story for assessment at KS2, though? The current national curriculum review may throw things up in the air again. I expect to write more about that in the next few days.

PS: It is interesting to play “spot the difference” between the stated purposes of national assessment, as laid down by the Bew report, and the previous attempt at this, by the Labour government’s “Expert Group” on assessment, which took in the fall-out to the 2008 Sats marking crisis and reported to the former schools secretary Ed Balls in 2009.

Bew lays down three main purposes of statutory end of Key Stage 2 assessment data as follows:

a Holding schools accountable for the attainment and progress made by their pupils and groups of pupils.

b Informing parents and secondary schools about the performance of individual pupils

c Enabling benchmarking between schools, as well as monitoring performance locally and nationally.

The “Expert Group” report came up with the following definition of the purposes of “assessment”, up to the end of Key Stage 3. It came up with four:

-To optimise the effectiveness of pupils’ learning and teachers’ teaching.

-To hold individual schools accountable for their performance.

-To provide parents with information about their child’s progress.

-To provide reliable information about standards over time.

As you can see, Bew’s top two purposes are extremely similar to the 2008 report’s purposes two and three. The 2008 report’s purpose four is a subset of Bew’s purpose three. The largest difference between the two is that the first purpose mentioned in the 2008, which in my view is correctly placed at the top of the list, does not feature in Bew’s list. Otherwise little, it seems, changes.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks again Warwick for your work on testing.
    These are comments that i regularly hear in secondary schools, which in my opinion is not based on any factual evidence.
    1. That KS2 assessments are flawed because all ‘they do’ in Yr6 is teach to the test.
    2. a, for example, Level 4 at KS2 is not the same as a Level 4 KS3 because it assesses different skills
    3. A student with a level 3 on entry will not make the same progress at those with a L4
    4. We find that a student graded at a L5, isn’t a level 5 when we start to work with them
    With the new 3 levels of progress measure these debates are becoming more passionate in secondary schools. I disagree with all of the statements above because I worked in an all through school and could see for myself the work that Yr6 students and their teachers made.
    Interestingly the same arguments as number 4 are made by sixthform colleges and universities. All of us forgetting that there could be a gap of 4 months from sitting the test and starting again in September and students just forget what they have learnt, which obviously raises the question about how ‘deep’ the learning is when you have summative tests.
    I have started to ponder the issues with 3 levels of progress based on a flawed system. However, I believe that this kind of progress measure is far more useful to make a judgement about a school than raw attainment, but:
    Firstly, that having some form of knowledge of where the students are when they enter secondary school is very useful, but as pointed out in students have a much more holistic education than we give credit for.
    Secondly, that there are some extremely useful tests that the students can take (CEM Centre’s MidYIS or NFER’s CATs) that can give you some information on students. These also show up interesting differences between test results and ability. For e.g a student with a low SATs score, but a high non verbal reasoning score can show someone with a higher intelligence, but issues with literacy. You can also discover hard working students who do well in SATs, but raw ‘ability’ might cause them issues in GCSEs and A Levels.
    Thirdly, secondary schools need to rapidly improve their knowledge on what is actually learnt in primaries, so that we don’t just end up repeating what has been taught.
    Fourthly, the high risk testing (the flaws of which are well put in the blog I have listed above) does encourage shallow learning to ‘get through’ the test.
    Conclusions??? Well I am not sure without fence sitting in the extreme and suggest that we start to use more than high risk testing to inform conclusions about student’s abilities and therefore good/bad progress.

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