Will anything but a boycott stop the tests?

The Reclaiming Schools network has played a significant role in exposing the damage caused by high-stakes testing, including our pamphlet ‘The Mismeasurement of Learning‘, widely circulated in the NUT and elsewhere, various series of blogposts carrying detailed analysis from specialist researchers, and regional conferences in collaboration with More Than A Score. Following our Oxford seminar, we are soon to publish a book on the alternatives. 

A boycott is long overdue – 25 years overdue – but the last two years have brought the system to the point of crisis. Here we are reposting from the Primary Charter an argument that now is the time to prepare for direct action from teachers as well as parents, in the face of a Government with no capacity to respond to logical argument. 

Why we need to prepare for a boycott

The system of national testing has existed for over 25 years, and has distorted primary education from the start. The current tests, starting 2016 and based on Michael Gove’s revision of the National Curriculum, have brought it to the point of breakdown.

The revised National Curriculum was supposed to make England a “global winner” in PISA international tests. 100 academics warned publicly that it would be counterproductive.

Facts and Rules – Not thinking and understanding
“The proposed curriculum consists of endless lists of spellings, facts and rules. This mountain of data will not develop children’s ability to think, including problem-solving, critical understanding and creativity.”

Too Much – Too Young
“Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation.
The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.”

The Government shrugged off this advice, throwing insults at the academic experts, but the new tests, starting in 2015-16, have indeed led to
• more teaching-to-the-test
• enormous stress on children, along with a fear of failure
• a narrowing of the curriculum
• large numbers of children being labelled failures and moving on to secondary school anxious and demoralised, with extreme effects on disadvantaged students.

Crying out for change
There is massive dissatisfaction among parents, teachers and heads. The House of Commons Education Committee is composed of MPs of different parties including Conservatives but they unanimously agreed a critical report. Unfortunately the Government keep digging a deeper hole, leaving KS2 tests intact and trying to restore a Baseline test for 4-year-olds. They have just finished a “consultation” which asked only about preferences among minor details whilst avoiding consideration of substantial change.

The tests have failed, not the children
The new tests failed almost half of children (47%) in at least one key subject (Reading, Writing, Mathematics). In Reading alone, 1 in 3 were judged to have ‘not met expected standards’. In Maths, 30% were failed.

This was even more disastrous for children growing up in poverty. 2 out of 3 children on free meals were failed in at least one test. 51% were failed in Reading, 46% in Maths, 41% in Writing.

The tests were made a little easier in 2017, and the marking scheme less stringent, but 2 out of 5 children were still deemed to have failed in at least one subject. 3 out of 10 were failed in Reading, and 1 in 4 at Maths.

The 2017 data for FSM is not yet published, but is unlikely to be much better than in 2016.
It is irresponsible to label children like this after 7 years at primary school. This will lead to enduring problems of demoralisation, low self-esteem and defeatism during their secondary education and beyond.

High-stakes testing and social justice
From their beginning in the early 1990s, it was explicit that the key purpose of the tests was not to reward or guide children’s learning but as a mechanism for creating divisions between schools. Parents were encouraged to choose schools with higher test scores, regardless of children’s prior learning and family circumstances (affluence or poverty, different levels of parental education).

An entire ‘high stakes’ system has been built on these scores. Ofsted’s headline judgement is always whether a school is above or below national average. Teachers’ pay is adjusted by “performance”, often judged spuriously. Hundreds of schools have been levered away from local authorities into academy chains.

Those living in poverty put under most pressure
Even though mechanisms such as ‘value-added’ data have been used to adjust raw scores, schools serving the poorest areas have always come under greatest pressure. This is hardly surprising since, in general, children growing up in poverty will tend to make slower progress than more advantaged children.

These schools have been driven hardest into endless test-preparation. Children damaged by poverty are facing the most restricted education and being denied the opportunity of a broad and interesting curriculum involving creativity and problem-solving.

Poorly designed tests

The Standards and Testing Agency do not have a good record. There have been major scandals involving test papers leaked and unreliable marking, but their biggest failing has been designing inappropriate tests.

The 2016 Reading test was completely remote from children’s experience. It began with a passage about two children attending a garden party in a large house. The garden was so big that it contained a lake. The girl asks the boy to row her across to see the statue erected in honour of her ancestor.

Not a fair test

It’s fair enough to extend children’s horizons through their reading, but to imagine that this was a fair test when a quarter of our children are growing up in poverty?

For children to tackle any of the detailed questions, they needed to imagine themselves into this elite social environment within the first few minutes. The second passage required a similar leap: a girl riding a giraffe in an African game reserve, a smiling warthog! The third required children to understand that volcanoes can occur under the sea and create new islands, and that extinct dodos had suffered from an image problem.

The writing assessment was marked by teachers, but without any trust in our professionalism. Rather than providing adequate training and moderation, rigid criteria were imposed which turned the Writing assessment into an extra test of Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar. Writing was judged not for ideas and expression but according to whether it displayed use of semi-colons and subjunctives, however inappropriately.

The Government’s lack of trust in our profession results in poor learning.

KS2 tests are part of a package
There are of course problems beyond the KS2 tests.
• The phonics check relates poorly to reading for meaning. National scores have gone up and up without any change in KS1 reading assessments a year later. It is designed to coerce teachers into a single approach to literacy teaching. It is no substitute for proper diagnosis of reading difficulties.

• The proposed new multiplication tables test creates a further distortion. Times tables are no more important in maths than number bonds, place value, different forms of fractions, and so on.

• Baseline testing in Reception is supposed to provide a reliable means of judging each school’s effectiveness. Tests designed by the most experienced provider make incorrect and misleading predictions of 6 out of 10 children. In particular, many summer-born children, boys, children with EAL or SEN or growing up in poverty, will be labelled “low ability” or “limited potential”.

A boycott is long overdue

We are not against assessment, but want assessment that supports children’s learning and development. We need to restore formative and diagnostic assessment, observation, portfolios and challenges.

Persuasion alone will not sway this Government. Change will only come by building a boycott.

We cannot expect parents to go it alone, or fall back on the excuse that it is the head’s responsibility.

This union, and its successor National Education Union, have to take a clear ethical stand. Like the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession, our starting point should be “First do no harm.” We owe that to the children we teach. After all, the children have no choice but to go to school.

It may not be possible to make a boycott stick in the majority of England’s primary schools, but solid union organisation even in a small minority would be enough to make the system unworkable.

Appendix : extracts from the Primary Charter

Children’s learning
Successful learning and development takes time. Good primary teachers are aware of different children’s ages, developmental levels and learning processes. They pay heed to children’s existing knowledge and understanding and cultural backgrounds.

Learning never takes place in a vacuum. Learning in symbolic forms (abstract language, mathematical symbols, scientific rules etc.) should build upon and work with the child’s experience, use of the senses, and creative and experimental activity. Rote learning without understanding lays a poor foundation.

Children develop an understanding of the world around them through play. It is through imaginative role play that children gain a realisation of possibilities. At play, children are most free to talk.

Children have the right to a broad and balanced curriculum that allows children to develop all their talents. The arts, humanities and physical education are vitally important.

It is through talk that children are most able to deal with problem solving and interpretation of the world around them. It is a central role of schools to help all children become fluent and effective communicators, in speech, writing and other media. Children learn to communicate in an environment based of trust and cooperation, not where there is a fear of failure.

Primary schools should promote values based on human rights, equality, democracy, diversity, environmental viability and peace. They should develop positive attitudes associated with mutual respect and support, personal fulfillment, critical understanding, creativity and hope.

Assessment and data
The quality of education, and the capacity of teachers to relate to children, is distorted by a draconian surveillance system.

The current system of assessment and inspection, performance pay and performance review, must be replaced by staff development networks and learning communities which encourage peer observation, teacher research, critical questioning and collaborative planning.

The time-consuming and expensive system of data collection, designed for punitive purposes, should be dismantled. Data collection and monitoring should be focused around the need to provide support discreetly and respectfully, to pupils, teachers and schools, and particularly to assist disadvantaged young people and others who may be underachieving.

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