Primary assessment: ‘We all want standards to improve, but botched education reform has the opposite effect’

23rd February 2016 at 17:06
Primary testing
Ministers must listen to teachers and involve the profession in making decisions about the controversial new primary assessments, writes the leader of a major teachers’ union

I hope all the teachers reading this column had a relaxing half term, doing nothing, and certainly not ticking pupil progress data boxes.

The government, in comparison, had a busy half term. Following concerns raised by the unions over the late release of key stage 2 writing exemplification papers and the short time for completion, and a flurry of media attention over the unions’ meeting to talk through their members’ concerns – which, I might add, is not an unusual occurrence – the secretary of state responded by clarifying her intentions in writing, and on video – which, I might add, is an unusual occurrence.

Given the workload and the short time frame involved in this year’s key stage 2 assessments, ATL had called for teachers to submit their own judgements on their pupils’ achievements for 2015 rather than follow the guidance to the letter.

And so Nicky Morgan’s video, explaining the government’s stance on the primary curriculum, assessment and testing, had an important and welcome message when she told teachers: “If you’re confident that you can work to the ‘pupil can’ statement for your class, don’t feel that you need to use them as a template. We trust your judgement.”

Also welcome is the extension of the deadline for schools to submit their assessments, moved from 22 May to 30 June. This will give teachers more time to make secure assessments of their pupils’ writing abilities and is a tangible acknowledgement, by ministers, that the original timetable was unworkable.

It is of paramount importance that teachers are able to exercise their own professional judgement, without devoting inordinate amounts of time and wasted effort to filling in boxes of atomised statements about each pupil’s writing ability.

The Department for Education has reinforced Ms Morgan’s message to teachers by issuing a statement: "Five things you need to know about changes to primary assessment". In a further unusual move by government, I am named and I stand accused in this statement of “unhelpful scaremongering” because I concluded that, if a Year 6 teacher with a class of 30 pupils followed the instructions in the key stage 2 writing assessment guidance, they would have to undertake over 6,120 assessments.

My figure of 6,120 assessments came from the DfE’s statement in the writing exemplification materials in which teachers were instructed: “Schools must use the interim TA frameworks and exemplification materials to ensure that their TA judgements are accurate.” In particular, teachers were instructed: “For each pupil, check and record whether there is sufficient evidence for each of the statements, starting with those for ‘working towards the expected standard’ and, where appropriate, moving on to the ‘working at the expected standard’ and ‘working at greater depth within the expected standard’.”

On second reading, I realise that, if taken literally, this guidance would have required teachers to choose one of three levels, for every one of the 34 separate assessment statements, across six pieces of work, across 30 pupils, therefore potentially tripling further the 6,120 assessments.

Trust teachers' judgements

And so to reiterate, the ministerial statement and subsequent video clarifying the government’s intentions, which appear to be diametrically opposed to its published guidance, is highly important. School leaders should act according to ministerial statements and trust their Year 6 teachers’ professional judgements. It is a great pity that the written guidance was so far removed from the latterly stated intentions.

There are some very important lessons which government ministers need to learn from this debacle. In no particular order these are:

  • Curriculum and assessment reform must be properly planned and be done with, rather than against, the teaching profession. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the government’s favourite education experts, announced recently that the best curriculum and qualification reform involves a wide range of stakeholders, including teachers and employers. This has not been a hallmark of the government’s approach, which has been conducted at an eye-watering pace, without adequate consultation and with a marked impatience towards any organisation which expressed reservations;
  • Exemplification materials and guidance need to be in schools in good time so that they can be used by teachers as reference points throughout the year, against which the curriculum and assessments can be planned and referenced;
  • Teacher unions need a place at the policy table where they can faithfully report their members’ views and inform ministers and civil servants of the practical implications of ministerial intentions. What appears to be reasonable and achievable in the calm of the DfE’s offices in Whitehall can look very different indeed in schools where competing priorities can make ‘the next thing from the DfE’ the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

And whilst we are in a better place than we were last week, fundamental problems remain. When it comes to teacher assessment of writing at key stage 2, the central assessment objective – that the pupil can write for a range of purposes and audiences – is broken down into a series of grammatical exemplars: pupils must use "cohesive devices, including adverbials within and across sentences and paragraphs; passive and modal verbs; adverbs, preposition phrases and expanded noun phrases, inverted commas, commas and punctuation for parenthesis…".

What this atomisation does is drive teachers’ attention away from the central aim in development of their pupils’ writing, which is to help them gradually become proficient in a wide range of genres, expressing meaning in different ways, for different purposes and audiences. The danger of over-concentration on the technical aspects of sentence construction is that the very qualities which inform good writing are overlooked: essential questions, such as, in what ways, and how, is the reader moved, persuaded or informed, by this writing? What genres have the pupils been introduced to and how effectively have they mastered their markers? How extensive and appropriate is their use of vocabulary and is it used to good effect? All these questions are left unasked and unanswered.

So I have, today, written to Ms Morgan to ask her and her ministers to change course and to start to listen to teachers and to their representatives and to involve the profession properly in evaluating this year’s key stage 2 assessment arrangements so that next year’s arrangements can be much improved. We all want educational standards to improve, but rushed and botched education reform has the opposite effect, and no one wants that.

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

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