'To the education secretary: How are you going to restore my confidence in accountability and testing?'

11th May 2016 at 12:12
Sats 2016
In light of the latest major mistake by organisations working for the DfE, one primary head expresses disillusionment over the lack of communication between the department and school leaders

An open letter to Nicky Morgan, education secretary, and Nick Gibb, schools minister:

Dear Ms Morgan and Mr Gibb,

Following the staggering reports on the BBC this morning, I called the National Curriculum Assessments (NCA) advice line but was kept on hold for around 20 minutes before being put through to a call operator. This in itself implies that either there were not enough telephonists to deal with calls or vast swathes of school leaders like myself needed to ask how to proceed today. I wanted to ask what the guidance was around this morning's key stage 2 grammar test (to check if this was still to be carried out as although the BBC stated it was still going ahead, I wanted official confirmation). 

I was disgusted to find that the NCA associate was unable to answer my question as, in his words, he had "just got up, had breakfast and got into work" and didn't have any idea of this latest gaffe. This makes an appalling mockery of the whole assessment regime for this year, as even the NCA advice line agents were unable to get a clear message across to schools immediately (and he had to ask his superior to advise me). As this was another error on behalf of the DfE, surely it would have been appropriate for a statement to be put out to all schools confirming what procedures should take place?

As a school, we have been advised to keep the papers sealed and under lock and key for both KS1 and 2 (even signing in and out KS1 papers for those children needing to sit the test early), which we have done meticulously. This new blunder now makes the whole testing farcical. Two maladministration errors in three weeks by organisations working for the DfE is unacceptable. If a school were accused of maladministration in any way (and considering the number of updates and changes to guidance in the run-up to this year's testing period, there is an increased likelihood of this happening), what would happen to us?

I have always felt very supported by our local authority and I understand it has a quota of schools to monitor. However, I felt, following the shambles this morning, it was insulting that one of my colleagues in another school received a monitoring visit today to ensure schools were administering the tests properly (I am pleased to say that they were).

What message am I supposed to give to our children and parents to try to reassure them? Many of the children already feel like failures thanks to the woefully difficult wording of the questions in the reading test. Although we were probably one of the more lucky schools (there were many reports of children, including the more able, getting upset to the point of tears over the reading test yesterday), the vast majority of even our brightest students were perplexed by some of the ambiguous questions, and many didn't finish the paper.

In a world where English schools continue to strive to compete on an international stage, surely lessons could be learned from our global neighbours. We continually strive to be as good as partners in Finland, China and Japan; however, have you considered the implications of making these comparisons? Finland do not test their children as young as we test ours. China and Japan have significantly higher numbers of pupils developing emotional and stress-related difficulties. Is this what you want for the children of England?

I am under no illusion that my email will get little more than an automated response. I do, however, feel the need to express my own disillusionment in the way schools are often the last people to know things officially. (For instance, schools had to learn through the media about the introduction of infant free school meals and the chancellor's announcement on all schools becoming academies by 2022, amongst other issues). This makes me feel undervalued as a school leader and I am aware many of my staff also feel demoralised, not to mention the amount of stress that has been put on our children (and their families).

When you came to speak to Leicestershire Primary Heads, Ms Morgan, the headteachers there informed you that there was a recruitment crisis looming in the teaching profession. I have recently advertised a teaching vacancy on E-Teach. I have also forwarded details of the vacancy to our local teaching school ITT provider as well as sending them on to local university contacts to share with their final year ITT students. So far, I have had four people show any interest in the vacancy. This is indicative of the morale within teaching at the moment. Teaching is no longer an enviable (or respected) profession. 

Prior to taking up my position as headteacher at this school in January, I was headteacher at Stathern Primary, a very successful small village primary, for seven years, taking on the interim executive head position of Scalford Primary for a year of this while they sought to appoint a new head. As a more experienced school leader, I wanted a fresh challenge and looked for the right place to move to.

'Regime plagued with controversy'

In my hunt, I found Highgate Primary, which serves a very different community to my previous schools with a significantly higher proportion of children with additional needs and deprivation. High-stakes accountability with ambitious floor standards and increasing the challenge within the curriculum (and therefore the assessment as well), together with now considering what makes a coasting school, do not make the prospect of taking on a new school leadership position an enviable one. While I feel, as many other headteachers do, that we are given a challenge to rise to, we aim to do this, and do this well. This year, particularly in light of the assessment regime that has been plagued with controversy, I feel the goalposts have been moved but we have no idea where they have been moved to.

In conclusion, please can you help to answer some of the questions I have below:

  1. Can you look into a way of ensuring clear communication with schools (and, in particular, school leaders) so that we can be prepared to meet the growing number of demands and concerns that our parents (and children and staff) have?
  2. How will you help restore my confidence in accountability and testing to enable me to support the education system and feed this back to parents?
  3. What evidence do you have to back up that testing children to within an inch of their lives truly makes them fully prepared for secondary school? 
  4. How do you envisage, as a department, helping schools to deal with this low morale and recruitment crisis in the future, when even I as a headteacher cannot understand or explain some of your policies or rationale?

From speaking with various other headteacher colleagues that I know, I am aware they have similar questions and feelings of bewilderment. I am therefore also copying in Ann Mroz, the editor of TES, in order to share my thoughts with others in the profession nationally. Perhaps it may be worthwhile you sharing your answers to my questions with TES too. To keep my chair of governors in the loop, I have also copied her in too.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

Troy Jenkinson

Troy Jenkinson is headteacher of Highgate Community Primary School in Leicestershire

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