Sunday, 7 November 2010

Bew Review should end SATs and league tables

"Too many schools believe that they must drill children for tests and spend too much time on test preparation at the expense of teaching and learning."

Wow, who said that - the NUT, Green Party, NAHT?

No, the Department for Education announcing an inquiry led by cross-bencher Lord Bew.

Schools drill children to pass the tests so as to get a high position in the league table and to keep Ofsted off their backs. The only logical outcome of an inquiry would be to abolish league tables and SATs, something I have long campaigned for.

Schools are caught in a double bind, particularly in areas such as Brent where there is high pupil mobility, many children newly arrived from overseas and economic deprivation. In order to reach the nationally expected Level 4 the curriculum has to be narrowed, particularly in Year 6, to concentrate on English and Maths and additional support given in the form of 'booster classes' often after school or in holiday time. Year 6 for many children can become an arid experience. If schools don't put children through this programme their results push them down the league tables and they will lose pupils to better 'performing' schools as well as have Ofsted knocking on their door.

This is not to take away the achievement of Brent schools faced with these pressures. Krutika Pau, Brent's Director of Children and Families, this week issued a circular congratulating schools for 'their work in driving up standards' in the borough. She notes that at Key stage 2 (SATs taken by 11 year olds) scores in English and Maths are above the national average for both Level 4+ and Level 5. The question has to be asked though, is it worth the pain and the pressure on both teachers and children?

I have likened the boosting to training horses to get over jumps by a mixture of encouragement, threats and cajoling with the addition of half a dozen people placing their hands on its rump to push it over. It can get over the jump in this one off 'snap shot' but...

There is another issue that is seldom addressed. Both the 11+ examination which used to be used to select pupils for secondary modern, grammar and technical schools and the London Reading Test used to band pupils into ability ranges to ensure a balanced comprehensive intake, used different result tables for girls and boys. Boys needed a lower score than girls to get selected for grammar schools or the top band. This was to correct the perceived differences in maturation of boys and girls at this age. Girls were seen to develop intellectually, as well as physically, earlier than boys. If the results of boys and girls had been treated equally there would have been disproportionate numbers of girls allocated to grammar schools and the top reading band.

Now they are expected to achieve equally and we have an on-going crisis about 'boys' under-achievement' with all sorts of initiatives including the televised antics of a choir master experimenting with a group of boys in a competitive outdoor classroom with shades of Lord of the Flies. Not so much pushing them over the jumps with hands on rump but pulling them over by tugging on their penises!

I confess that as a headteacher I shared in the collusion whilst also protesting against it. Perhaps the comment that pulled me up most sharply was the mother of a high-achieving, creative girl who accused me of robbing her daughter of her childhood, because of the additional work and pressure in Year 6.

In answer to some of the criticisms about the crudity of pure attainment (test results) statistics, a contextual value added score has been added to the league tables. A significant measure is whether children have made the expected progress from Key Stage 1 (results for 7 year olds) and Key Stage 2. To monitor progress the National Curriculum levels are each divided into 3 sub-levels. Normal progress is to move up two sub-levels a year. Better progress than this results in a higher value added score. Apart from giving schools a whole new burden of statistical recording and analysis it can result in the paradoxical pressure on teachers of  Key Stage 1 pupils not to grade their pupils too high so that they can make greater progress measured against a lower starting point. 

In fact real learning, as most of us know from our own experience, doesn't proceed in a smooth linear progression but there are fits and starts, periods of consolidation, a few steps back before a surge forward - the model assumes a mechanical or even industrial learning process that just does not accord to real life.

Because of the drilling and boosting, secondary teachers often question children's primary school results, when they arrive in Year 7: is this child really operating at Level 4? Some secondary schools retest their children with standardised English and Maths tests, ignoring the results sent in by primary schools. Copland High School ensures a balanced intake by using a non-verbal reasoning test.

Following on from last year's SATs boycott by the NUT and NAHT, the Conservatives were suggesting during the election campaign that children should take the Key Stage 2 SATs on arrival at secondary school, rather than in the last year of primary school. It is hard to gauge what the impact of this would be: it could liberate Year 6 teachers and enable them to return to a broad, balanced and creative curriculum or instead mean that Year 6 pupils are 'boosted' right up to the end of the summer term and beyond so as to safeguard the primary school's reputation.

Anyway as Greens we should welcome the review and urge that both league tables and SATs be abandoned to be replaced by formative teacher assessment that guides future teaching and learning for each child.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, Martin.

SATs-driven education reminds me of my alternative definition of SMART targets in lesson planning.

(SATs being 'Standardised Assessment Tests' [or so I believe], and SMART conventionally being interpreted as
Realistic &

My alternative definition of SMART turns out as
ARbitrary &

Along parallel lines, the American educational psychologist Dr Haim G Ginott asked parents, "What is our primary goal as parents?"

In response to the idea that parents hould attempt to raise children to be 'bright, intelligent, and at the top of their class', he asked what parents have accomplished if they raise children who use their intelligence to manipulate others?[2]

He argued that it was preferable for parents to raise children to be compassionate and access their intelligence as good neighbours to others. Ginott was of Jewish heritage, and here it is appropriate that I should mention that Rabbi Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress said in the March on Washington on the centenary of the Gettysberg Address:

"When God created man [sic], he created him as everybody's neighbour. Neighbour is not a geographic term, but a moral concept." I wonder what Ginott and/or Prinz would think of how the State of Israel put faith into action in this day and age?

Alan Wheatley
London Federation of Green Parties Spokesperson on Disability

[1] Bert Massie adds for the 'R', Random.

Graham Wroe said...

Good post Martin. Of course SATs and League Tables should be abolished asap. I hope the ConDems are reading this!

Martin Francis said...

Anonymous adds the following footnotes to original post by e-mail:

Footnote 2 refers to the Ginott quotation/story source regarding the inadvisability of raising children to be top of their class if those children go on to use their intelligence to manipulate others. It was cited by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish in their book 'Liberated Parents, Liberated Children: Your Guide to a Happier Family'.

The Rabbi Joachim Prinz quotation about the meaning of the term 'neighbour' was from 'The March on Washington' that took place on 28 August 1963. That was the same even at which Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech