Ofsted’s chief inspector has called for national tests to be brought back for 7- and 14-year-olds.
At the launch of the watchdog’s annual report today, Sir Michael Wilshaw argued that it had been “a mistake” to abolish formal external testing in Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 3.
At present, pupils in Key Stage 1 are assessed in English and maths by their own teachers.
National Key Stage 3 tests were abolished by the previous Labour government in 2008, meaning the only remaining sets of external national tests take place at the ages of 11 and 16.
Ironically, it was a 2002 report by Ofsted – arguing that English and maths should not be allowed to dominate the curriculum – that paved the way for tests for seven-year-olds being removed in 2003.
But this year’s Ofsted annual report argued that the removal of exams had resulted in teaching standards dropping during the earlier years of the primary phase, with better teachers seemingly being deployed to prepare pupils for the tests.
At a press conference in London this morning, Sir Michael said that he would “strongly urge” the government to bring back national testing at the ages of 7 and 14.
“Talk to any good headteacher and they will tell you it was a mistake to abolish those tests,” he said. “That's because good teachers use those tests to make sure every child learns well.
“In getting rid of the tests, we conceded too much ground to vested interests… If we are serious about raising standards and catching up with the best in the world, we need to know how pupils are doing at 7, 11, 14 and 16.”
Sir Michael cited the example of Poland, which had demonstrated significant improvements in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tables published last week. This, he said, was down to the country’s introduction of “more national testing and strong accountability systems”.
More frequent testing would lead to a “better distribution of staff in primary schools”, the chief inspector added.
“We think that the in-school assessment… is unreliable, and on occasions there’s a depression of results at Key Stage 1 to ensure that Key Stage 2 looks a lot better. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen
"If we really want to be one of the best jurisdictions in the world, we’ve got to make sure that this most vital stage of a child’s education from pre-school to Key Stage 1 is good.”
Baroness Garden of Frognal, the former education spokeswoman for the government in the House of Lords, asked Sir Michael whether he was concerned that the move would lead to excessive “teaching to the test”.
“I don’t subscribe to that view at all,” Sir Michael replied, stating further: “If the teaching’s good [or] outstanding, the results will follow.”
When asked about the likely backlash from the teaching unions, Sir Michael insisted that it was “a battle worth fighting”.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that the “attempt to pass off tests of seven-year-olds as an objective measure of performance when they have such a high level of variability shows an ignorance of the primary sector”.
“We spend £100 million a year on sending inspectors into schools to do lesson observations,” he carried on. “If they can’t work out from that whether a Key Stage 1 class is any good, why are we spending that money? If they rely on data, we don’t need Ofsted.”
The Department for Education closed its consultation on tests for seven-year-olds in October. It asked for proposals on a new baseline measure for primary schools – either at age four or age seven.
It sets out two proposals: retaining the tests at age seven but having them internally marked, or introducing a baseline check at the start of reception year with the tests at age seven potentially becoming non-statutory.
Reporting by Stephen Exley and Helen Ward