Wednesday, July 7th

What to make of yesterday’s announcement that just over one in four primary and junior schools took part in the boycott of this year’s key stage 2 tests?

One head I spoke to on Monday, before the final figure was announced, said he thought that overall, take-up of the boycott had been disappointing. The head, who backed it strongly, said this had been the profession’s one chance to really stand up to government on the issue, and it had bottled it.

I guess many of those sympathetic to the boycott might hold this view about the one-in-four figure, and clearly, I am an outsider to this process who has only come to be familiar with the intricacies of this debate in the last few years. Hands up here, too: I also write a regular blog, often on assessment issues, for the National Association of Head Teachers.

But I’m not sure that a figure of 26 per cent non-compliance with the testing regime as it stands is insignificant. The fact that one in four heads were so unhappy, they were prepared to take a decision which looks to me to be quite brave, in the face of reports of pressure from local authorities – and, no doubt, some governing bodies – to go through with the tests, I think says something about the level of dissatisfaction out there. School leaders, it has been argued persuasively I think, are not naturally disposed to industrial action of this sort. And the figure comes about even despite some heads’ reservations about the timing of the action: for legal reasons, the unions were unable to ballot for a boycott earlier in the academic year, meaning that many schools had already gone in for months of test preparation before being asked to join the boycott. I think this will have put off some heads who do not like the tests from refusing to administer them.

In fact, the position that we find ourselves in, in 2010, with the testing system now having been established for a decade-and-a-half, and schools having had to work with that structure since then, is quite remarkable, I think. Having seen this system close-up for all this time, one in four heads are not only still very unhappy with it, they are so unhappy, they are prepared to boycott high-stakes testing altogether.

A government which looked at these figures dispassionately could hardly conclude that the system as it currently exists (that is, not just the tests, but the tests backed by hyper-accountability) commands much confidence from those who know it best.

–          Interestingly, for those against the boycott who might think that heads took decisions on avoiding the tests against the wishes of parents, the head I spoke to said all his year six parents were asked whether they favoured administering the tests as normal and sending the results off to the government, (ie not taking part in the boycott) or teacher-controlled assessment.

They opted, he said, overwhelmingly for the latter, as had parents at other local schools. The school assessed the pupils itself, including using some Sats tests from previous years, and used teachers from another school, which was also taking part in the boycott, to conduct moderation on the marks its staff gave to pupils for some of the tests.

–          An analysis of the socio-economic backgrounds and prior achievements of pupils in boycotting schools would also be interesting. The testing authorities will need to have looked at this data to ensure that the sample of pupils taking the tests this year is not markedly different from that of previous years. If not, national results, due out in early August, could be skewed.

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