'The primary assessment system is an endless anxiety merry-go-round, driven by an engine of mistrust'

By participating in the primary assessment consultation, we're taking a step to act as the defenders of our children's educational experience and their mental health, writes one of the winners of the TES School Awards

Siobhan Collingwood

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I recently submitted my views for the primary assessment consultation. I found it a difficult exercise because the questions were asking for responses to things that I did not want to discuss and yet did not ask about the things I really wanted to consider.

In wrestling with this consultation, my frustrations found perfect expression in Einstein's quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The system feels fundamentally broken and simply doing the same thing with younger children will fix nothing.

The assessment consultation invites us to respond on how to measure progress – from key stage 1 or from Reception? It does not ask why a baseline is necessary. Schools are awash with data on pupil progress, none of which will be enhanced by inclusion in league tables.

Our children are at the receiving end of a system in which the reputation of the country's education system, of schools and teachers, rely upon how they perform in tests.

The government makes assurances that good schools do not transfer this pressure to children, thereby implying that if children are stressed, it is the fault of the school.  

I would like our national accountability systems to use national sampling that would provide data about how our national educational system is performing; I want the system to value teacher assessment, including summative testing that teachers are free to use at the most suitable point.

Testing everybody in a set week in May means that we test many children on what they do not yet know. Is this not a recipe for low self-esteem for many of our children?

Why is it that we have to give these tests to all of the children at the same time, regardless of readiness? Is it to prevent teachers warping results by practising papers with children before using them?

The only possible motive for such behaviour is for teachers to protect themselves from the consequences of high-stakes accountability measures.

While observing the phonics screening test in action, I watched as a very able little five-year-old boy started to struggle. His teacher said: “Let's have a break”. I gave him a hug and as I placed my hand on his chest, I was horrified to feel his little heart beating furiously and see silent tears rolling down his cheeks.

What does it prove or achieve to put such a little child whom we know to be a good reader under such pressure?

If it were left to his teacher's discretion when to use the test and not have to force everybody through it at a given time, his experience would be very different. Instead, the papers have to be kept in locked cupboards, in sealed packets, inside sealed boxes before the set date for them to be administered, so that nobody can cheat.

This feels like a neverending merry-go-round, driven by an engine of mistrust, resulting in exhaustive security arrangements and maladministration investigations, which feed the ongoing mistrust of the profession, creating fear and anxiety, preventing us from standing back and saying: "This is insane and this insanity is damaging our children."

Many children are buying into the message from the schools that they love, that they need to do well in these tests to ensure that they do well in secondary school, or to show how well they have done at primary school.

They cooperate by completing endless homework tasks and practice papers and attend cramming sessions after school and during holidays.

These practices have become widespread because end of key stage expectations have risen incredibly and schools have so much at stake if their children do not do well. I cannot find any question within the consultation, referring to accountability measures, despite their ever toxic effects on our schools.

On transition to secondary school, children's success is judged by how much progress they have made from Year 6, with many schools, therefore, feeling it necessary to assess and reassess progress, and set and reset targets that will define how each child is performing.

This is then replaced by projections and aspirational targets for GCSEs. After the pressure of their GCSEs, they then prepare for the same but heightened pressure of A levels.

The effect of stressing such young brains so intensely for such a prolonged period is only just beginning to show. The constant hamster wheel that our children are on during their school lives is taking its toll.

Is it any wonder that mental health statistics are beginning to build a frightening picture of our children and young people's stress levels and wellbeing?

We are continuing to slide down international tables that gauge the happiness of young people, in a relentless attempt to rise up the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tables, in which our position is stagnating.

The recent parliamentary inquiries into assessment and the role of schools in promoting positive mental health, both recognise the problems and make it very clear that the government needs to address them.

These issues were manifest in a recent local meeting with mental health practitioners, in which we discussed the data on children and young people entering our local hospital as a result of self-harming or suicide attempts which increase threefold during exam season.

All of the mental health practitioners were adamant that many of the children hurt themselves and attempt suicide because of exams and that this year the admission figures for May were even higher.

This brings me to a horrific question that I cannot find within the assessment consultation: are we happy to accept that our assessment and accountability system is damaging the health of our children and even threatening their lives?

On several occasions, I have described our high-stakes accountability system as the monster that stalks our classrooms. By participating in the consultation, many of us have taken a step to act as the defenders of our children's educational experience and their mental health, to behead the assessment monster and protect our children.

Siobhan Collingwood is the headteacher of Morecambe Bay Community Primary School, winner of the Creative School of the Year category at the 2017 Tes Schools Awards.

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Siobhan Collingwood

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