The government announced at the weekend – through the Sunday papers rather than directly to the profession – a new set of "times tables tests" for 11-year-olds.
The government is tripping over itself to introduce new tests. We face in 2016 significantly more demanding mathematics Sats for 11-year-olds. The design of these tests was very late, and we don’t know what the standards will be, but schools are gearing up to deliver them. Yet, before these tests have even begun, the government has announced that it is not happy with them and will be creating these additional arithmetic tests to be piloted before the results of the new tests are known and delivered in 2017. Why didn’t it get the redesign of the key stage 2 Sats right first time? Why does it need to tack an additional test on to them? This looks like very poor planning.
This is not the first instance either. The same sequence happened with the tests used to baseline primary performance. A new reception baseline has been designed but before it is properly deployed the government has an attack of doubt over its reliability and instead wishes to introduce externally reported tests at KS1 to form a more reliable baseline. We’ll ignore for the moment the fact that a test provides no more reliable a baseline than teacher assessment.
This constant churn of new tests and accountability measures is no way to improve primary performance. Primary schools have been getting better, steadily, for many years now. In contrast, the constant changes to secondary examinations, accountability measures and structures has held the secondary sector back – as noted by Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. The government now seems intent on importing this turmoil into the primary sector too. I suppose that is one way of narrowing the gap between primary and secondary performance.
No other country – particularly not the ones whose performance we aspire to emulate – treats their schools or pupils in this way; for the simple reason that it doesn’t work. If you want to improve the teaching of mathematics – and I do believe that students should learn their times tables by the way – then you should be investing in teachers’ skills and resources in mathematics. More high stakes tests won’t raise standards; they are part of what education academic John Hattie calls the politics of distraction.
There is nothing wrong with tests themselves. They are a vital tool of teaching practice. The difference is when tests are used for high stakes accountability for pupils and teachers. Few other countries use tests in this way for younger pupils. When the data from tests are used as a measure of accountability, they reduce the effectiveness of the test as a tool for improving teaching. They also narrow what happens in schools to the domain of the test rather than the wider experiences that we want as well.
The stakes at the end of KS2 are high indeed. As the government also announced, students who don’t get the results expected of them will resit the Sats in their first term of secondary school. Consider the consequences of this: inevitably these students will be placed into different sets or streams for additional coaching; singled out from the start of their secondary experience. The pressure from parents on their children to avoid this will be considerable; expect an increase in tutoring and Sats preparation for 10- and 11-year-olds. Maybe that’s what the government wants. The KS2 Sats will truly become "exams", as they were described in the government’s manifesto for the May election.
I’m all for pupils learning their times tables; it’s a useful skill that supports creativity and problem-solving in maths. I’m all for the appropriate use of tests in teacher assessment. I’m all for moderate and intelligent accountability. But the piling on of one test after another, before the previous set of tests has even been implemented, introduces a level of chaos into primary education that will stand in the way of progress.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of headteachers' union the NAHT