'If education ministers are really acknowledging major problems with primary assessment, 2017's Sats have to be suspended'

If the DfE is truly acknowledging our concerns, why are this year's children taking the same tests that have produced invalid data and initiated a national consultation, asks one primary head

Siobhan Collingwood

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The Department for Education has finally issued a statement about primary assessment arrangements, following a tumultuous year in primary schools and unprecedented levels of confusion and dissatisfaction. I really want to believe that change is afoot and that the DfE has truly listened to the very real concerns expressed by governors, parents, teachers, children and academics, because I do not know how much longer many of my colleagues and I can continue to make our broken education system work.

I have the privilege to work with an incredibly committed and professional team who have high expectations of themselves and their pupils, who encourage children to ever greater heights, despite some of them facing impossibly difficult and myriad barriers to progress.

Each day we deliver a school experience that sees our children skip into school with an enthusiasm for learning and thirst for progress that is wonderful to be part of. We continue to aim high and dream big, despite the ever more impossible demands that we are under and the ever increasing workload that we face.

We want to make learning thrilling and demanding, we want to raise standards of attainment and progress; that is our reason for teaching. We want to use assessment and testing to ensure that children reach their true potential and are happy to judge our own performance based upon how the children in our care learn and develop.

During the course of the previous academic year, all of our efforts to attain these goals were made harder. We witnessed the removal of levels, which through a flawed system, provided a language and numerical scale to which we had all become accustomed.

In the vacuum that remained, we and many other schools worked incredibly hard to reach agreement on key progress indicators in each year group and to develop robust systems to assess and monitor how much progress children were making through their new curricular expectations.

We carried out baseline tests from one of three selected providers, moderated these judgements and submitted them during the first few weeks of inducting children starting their learning adventure. It damaged their induction and produced no information until a full term after their arrival, which, by that time, was outdated and was then discarded by the DfE because their decision to use three different providers meant that their data set was too disparate to be of any use.

An outcome which had been widely predicted during consultation arrangements for the new baseline and the department had chosen to ignore.

Preparation, preparation, preparation 

We implemented new interim assessment frameworks for writing which were published far too close to the test season for the children to be fully prepared and insisted upon all outcomes being met rather than a best fit approach.

This meant that handwriting could prevent an otherwise excellent writer from securing a level, or that school standards minsters Nick Gibb's peculiarly individual stance on exclamation sentences would have to be reflected in the writing of all 6 and 7 year olds, or that the newly invented fronted adverbial must be used confidently in the writing of all 10 and 11 year olds.

Due to the tight time frame, teachers had to make up to 1,500 judgements within a matter of weeks and collect evidence for all of them.

We prepared children with newly published practice papers, drilling and hot-housing them to reach hugely elevated expectations. Though we adopted this approach reluctantly, we were driven to do so by a department that kept turning up the heat around “coasting” schools, floor levels and forced academisation for schools that failed to hit the required levels.

Numerical targets for levels of attainment continued to dominate school improvement conversations, but due to assessment without levels nobody was able to predict or describe such targets confidently or consistently. 

Weeks before key stage 1 sat their much contested spelling and grammar paper – for which they had been prepared to within an inch of their lives - the tests were found to have been published online by mistake and withdrawn.  The night before key stage 2 sat their Spag paper it was published online and an apology was issued.

When the tests came all of the preparation did not prepare the children for what they faced. The tests that they sat were shockingly poor, ill conceived, irrelevant and badly implemented.

The end result was that nationally, nearly 50 per cent of children began their secondary school life branded as not having met required standards and Ms Greening still tries to claim this as a victory saying that schools and children rose to the challenge.

In order to come close to attaining these elevated expectations - that have very little tested research or evidence base to commend them - how much experiential learning and breadth of curriculum has been sacrificed, masked by the non-existent national curriculum requirements for subjects such as art, DT and music?

How many children have started high school with an inaccurate label attached to them?

Unfit for purpose 

Nowhere within Ms Greening's statement do I find reference to the litany of errors that the department, that she presides over, inflicted upon a nation of children and their teachers. Yet she does indicate that the data from the tests is not to be used in judgements made by external bodies, which must mean that they acknowledge the data to be unreliable and unfit for purpose.

If it is unreliable then why are we to do the tests in their current format again this year? As Russell Hobby says in his response on the NAHT website: “The government has announced more constructive use of data for the future and some reassurance for 2016, but it still fails to fully recognise the inadequacies of last year’s data when it comes to judging school performance. We await more detail on the government’s plans.”

Ms Greening states that she needs to engage with parents, teachers and governors in a full consultation around assessment and accountability systems within primary schools and this, alongside the current parliamentary inquiry, gives me hope that real change could come about; change that would repair the damage to children's learning, redress the balance within children's curricular experience and prevent the exodus of teachers from the profession.

If this is to be a true consultation and not just a smoke and mirrors exercise to distract the profession and deflect a possible boycott of Sats then it must be truly independent, draw from a real cross section of schools, parents and academics and have sufficient breadth in its remit.

I hope that it manages to live up to its promise and deliver the very real changes that need to happen.

Yet hanging over all of these hopes there is a nagging question: if the DfE is truly ready to acknowledge the concerns within the profession and beyond, why must this year's year 2 and year 6 children take the same tests that have produced invalid data and initiated a national consultation?

Ms Greening could show us that she is listening and suspend the tests for this year at least, then we will know that she is serious about making assessment work for our children and teachers.

Having taken part in test boycotts in previous years I can assure her that nobody would suffer: secondary schools and Ofsted inspectors would use teacher assessments; teachers would have time to learn how to teach the new curriculum; children would not have incomprehensible and degrading labels attached to them on transition and the profession would feel valued and positively inclined to take on board the fully thought out recommendations of a well-researched, thoroughly conducted independent consultative body.

As I am writing this paragraph it feels like the impossible daydreams of a fairy tale, totally detached from our current reality, but is it really so implausible and if so, why?

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School​

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