'Like a horror show: It is difficult to comprehend the government's stupidity over testing in schools'

16th February 2016 at 16:06
Teacher workload and assessment
The assessment burden on teachers says all that you need to know about ministers’ duplicity over the workload crisis, writes the leader of a major teachers’ union

I return, once again, to the absurdity of national testing of primary school children. It’s a subject to which I return with fascinated horror because it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the problem combined with the stupidity of the government’s policy.

The latest stage in the assessment saga is the key stage 2 teacher assessment exemplifications for writing, which were released last week. Many teachers, who had been waiting anxiously for these materials, must, when they opened them, have despaired. Not only has the standard for reaching the expected level been very significantly raised (more akin to an old level 5 rather than the promised 4b), but also the assessment burden placed on Year 6 teachers is huge and unworkable.

If schools follow the government’s guidance, a teacher of a Year 6 class has to make 34 separate assessments, for each pupil, for six different types of writing. So, a teacher with a class of 30 pupils will have to make 1,020 separate assessments for each type of writing, and that number needs to be multiplied by six (one for each type of writing) – making a grand total of 6,120 assessments. And that is just for writing.

The assessment burden on Year 6 teachers says all that you need to know about the seriousness of this government’s pledge to tackle teacher workload. Ministers are following a well-worn, and duplicitous, path. They fulfil their promise to give teachers a year’s notice of future changes to the curriculum and qualifications (because making sweeping policy announcements can be done at the drop of a pen), but then fail to provide the essential, detailed information, such as the writing exemplifications, which teachers need in order to plan, teach and assess the new curriculum with confidence and professionalism. 

The madness of teacher assessment at the end of primary education in Year 6 is replicated in the government’s arrangements for assessing pupils as they start school.

In their first few weeks in school, as they adjust to all the unfamiliarity of the school day, and to new and unfamiliar teachers and classroom assistants, as well as to their classmates, pupils as young as 4 are being assessed by their teachers across a wide range of abilities, such as their recognition of the alphabet and numbers, as well as their creativity and resilience. This assessment is designed to form a "baseline" against which each child’s progress to the end of key stage 2 will be measured.

'Meaningless' assessment

As any early years expert will readily assert, very young children react differently to starting school. There are a wide range of variables – whether they did, or did not, go to nursery, for example; or whether English is their first, or an additional, language. Reception children are not all at the same developmental stage – a nine months age gap between a child who has just turned four, and one who is nearly five, can make a huge difference to their confidence and their ability to respond to the more structured classroom learning environment. As one teacher, responding to the recently published ATL/NUT research study into baseline, said: "Many young children are not yet confident enough to show their new teacher what they can do when put on the spot." These differences in experience and the young age of the children invalidate the results of the assessment and therefore make the measurement of progress meaningless.

It is not just the age of the children that makes baseline assessment so problematic, it is also its format: a series of yes/no statements which fail to capture the complexity of the learning process or the child's developmental stage. Can it really be possible to judge, on the basis of observation in the first six weeks of children starting a new school, whether they are or are not "risk taking", whether they have or do not have "curiosity" and "persistence"?

Perhaps most worryingly of all, parents don't know their child is being assessed. Some, when told, are supportive, but others worry that it might create a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly if the baseline is used to group very young children by ability.

The testing regime begins at baseline then continues throughout the early years of education. We have the looming threat of "robust tests" at end of key stage 1. No details are confirmed yet, just ideological guff from ministers. These tests would be introduced next academic year and would be added to the long list of current key stage 1 tests – phonics, phonics resit, maths assessment, reading assessment and writing assessment.

And what effect will this tsunami of testing have on young children? I will end with a conversation I had recently with a colleague. Her 5-year-old daughter is in Year 1. My colleague said, in a rather worried tone, that her daughter "quite liked" school, but she got far too much homework, and she often came home upset and worried that she could not do the sums she was given. This 5-year-old girl knows she is on the "top table" for literacy and numeracy. With just over one year in formal education she is worried about her ability to do the sums she is set. Her confidence in her own abilities, and her enjoyment of school, are being affected.

Will someone, anyone, please tell me how this is any way to promote enjoyment in, and a desire for, lifelong learning? And can anyone explain how the balance between teaching, learning and testing has got so badly out of kilter in English primary and secondary schools?

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES on Twitter and like TES on Facebook


Related Content

Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today