'The assessment and accountability system shouldn't undermine the broader purposes of education'

3rd November 2016 at 12:05
We need a coherent approach to assessment that effectively hold schools to account without the perverse, curriculum-distorting incentives of the current system, writes one primary specialist

Education secretary Justine Greening recently made a number of important announcements about the way in which children are assessed in our primary schools. Thankfully, she has decided to drop the misguided proposal to require children who don’t reach the (new, much harder) expected standard in their key stage 2 Sats to resit them at the beginning of secondary school.

Her announcements also included making the grammar, punctuation and spelling test at KS1 optional, and updating the guidance around teacher assessment to make this more consistent.

These changes are welcome. The education secretary has listened to concerns raised by teachers, school leaders and parents, and moved quickly to address some of the most glaring issues with the current system.

However, there are still many problems with the way in which we assess young children in England. The high-stakes nature of the Sats tests seriously distorts the primary curriculum, and the education that children receive.

The current assessments don’t always focus on the most important things, leading in some cases to too much time being spent on peripheral aspects of learning, and reducing the time available for more worthwhile learning.

And, perhaps most importantly, the government’s decision to significantly raise the bar on assessment (and particularly the rushed way in which these changes have been introduced) has put children under tremendous pressure and runs the risk of contributing to a rise in mental health problems.

High-quality assessment is essential. Teachers need know how well children understand what they have been taught in order to plan future learning which builds on this understanding. It’s also right that our schools are held to account for the effectiveness of the education they provide.

In the most effective education systems, however, these aims are achieved in a way which supports, rather than undermines, the broader purposes of education.

'Focus on the most important aspects of learning'

Assessment and accountability should encourage and incentivise schools to focus on the most important aspects of learning within a broad, balanced curriculum, and to send children on to the next phase of their education prepared, engaged and motivated to embrace the challenges ahead.

As well as the short-term changes announced last month, the secretary of state has also committed to launching a consultation on primary assessment early next year, in order to “set out a longer term, sustainable approach”. If this consultation is to achieve this laudable aim, it needs to confront the issues with the current approach head-on, and ask some big questions about the purpose and structure of assessment in our primary schools. These questions should include:

  • How might we design an assessment system which focuses on the most important knowledge, skills and understanding primary-aged children should develop? How might it actively encourage schools to develop and deliver a broad, balanced curriculum? How can we ensure it is appropriate and proportionate to the age of the children being assessed and that it enables us to accurately demonstrate what all children can do?
  • Are we expecting the national statutory assessments at KS1 and (particularly) KS2 to fulfil too many purposes?
  • Do we need to find ways to separate assessments used for checking pupils’ understanding, planning future learning and reporting to parents from those designed to hold schools to account and potentially trigger intervention?
  • How can we effectively hold schools to account without the perverse, curriculum-distorting incentives of the current system?
  • How might we design a coherent approach to assessment across the early years, primary and secondary phases?

The new secretary of state has shown she is willing to grasp the nettle on primary assessment, to listen to children, teachers and parents, and to make some difficult decisions. The upcoming consultation is an opportunity for the government and the teaching profession to work together to address the thornier issues with the current system, and to design a long-term solution which is fit for the 21st century.

Julie McCulloch is a primary specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders

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