'I've got an austerity plan for George Osborne: stop the regime of endless testing – it would save millions.'

28th October 2015 at 15:25
Primary testing
One headteacher of an outstanding primary in a deprived area bemoans the government's obsession with data

With Movember approaching, I began to think of the thousands of schools throughout the country whose male staff will suffer the indignity of growing a very dubious moustache. I say this because I will be one of these, as will be the male members of my staff. Why, you may ask, do we do it? For me, it's to help keep up morale in the school and therefore the community in which we want our students to thrive. 

But such efforts are being undermined throughout the country. Over recent months we have continually read the stories of low morale and the recruitment crisis. How has this been allowed to happen? 

Let's start with the government and the media's obsession with data.

I can remember the time when this myopic focus simply didn't exist. Once upon a time, believe it or not, we talked of happy children receiving a balanced curriculum, who came out of schools with qualifications and a well-rounded personality, who could tackle whatever the future held. We now talk about children who pass or fail.

While levels may have gone, children are still judged to have met expected criteria or not. How sad is this? How much sadder still is it that a school's very existence relies on the aggregated totals of how many children achieved or didn't.

Not long ago I had a Year 6 child who was in care. On the day of the Year 6 Sats reading paper the child in question stole £10 from his foster parents. This £10 had been converted into sweets with more 'E' numbers than you could count. Most of Year 6 had aleady helped themselves to this ready supply before we realised what was going on and stepped in. The sugar rush was bad enough, but when the police arrived to question the individual half way though the paper, things got much, much worse. You are probably guessing my reaction. "Is it possible for you to wait another 30 minutes or so, as he's a level 4... It will affect our results."

How appalling is that?

This is, however, the system we are now in. Data drives all aspects of a school's success, and all the rest of the things we do are pared back to a minimum.

Worse still, the children's "stories" are ignored and pushed to one side. In deprived areas this is a real issue. Inspectors come ignoring extra-curricular activities – ignoring happiness – but with a clear mandate to focus on a very narrow, limited set of data.

As some schools inevitably enter a category when Ofsted arrives, we are left counting the cost of numerous teachers who have had their ability questioned. Many of these teachers seek a route out of the profession. Over my career I can't really say we have ever had a government that values a teacher's wellbeing.

By judging a school on a very limited set of criteria we miss what happens day-to-day. The little successes of getting some pupils into school, the fantastic range of activities that we still try to offer day-in-day-out, the pupils who go further then even they could believe despite the challenging circumstances. I could carry on about the thousands of success stories of children not 5 A to Cs,  or level 4s. As teachers we know these things occur.

However, we are in a period of austerity so I have a plan for the government to save millions of pounds. Let's rationalise the testing regime, scrap baseline, scrap testing throughout Key Stage 1 and 2 (why not leave it to the teachers?) and ensure the secondary system is well-thought-out, planned in advance and broader to recognise that pupils are different. There! I have saved the government millions. 

Don't hold your breath though.

Colin Harris is headteacher at Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire

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