Primary assessment is a topic that inevitably triggers alarm among teachers. Few working in education will be surprised to learn that concerns about testing, the accountability system and the narrowing of the curriculum have been at the heart of many evidence submissions to the education committee, as part of our primary assessment inquiry.
Michael Tidd wrote in these pages recently to urge the profession to engage with this inquiry, and I’m pleased so many teachers and schools heeded his words and got in touch with the committee to let us know their views. Our inquiry looks at the implementation of Sats, its impact on teaching and learning in schools, and also examines wider issues around what primary assessment is for. As a committee, we are determined to put the evidence from teachers, school leaders and others to the test in our public hearings over the coming months.
On Wednesday next week, we kick off the first public hearing with a panel of teachers, including Michael Tidd, school leaders and union representatives, as we quiz them on how the new Sats have affected teaching in their schools, the wellbeing of pupils and staff, and “life after levels”. Over future sessions in the new year, we will be looking at issues such as the accountability system and the delivery and quality assurance of tests, as well as questioning academics, subject leaders and school standards minister Nick Gibb.
This summer saw the introduction of arguably the biggest reforms in primary assessment since external assessment was introduced 25 years ago. In many ways, the primary sector had been seen as a success story and this year’s Sats have been a jolt to the system. The fact that the figure for pupils meeting the expected standard in maths, reading and writing tumbled from 80 per cent to 53 per cent was undeniably a shock.
These results would have prompted many teachers and parents to question how fair a picture they represented of the quality of their pupils’ education or of the hard work that children had put in during the year. We must recognise, though, that when almost half of pupils in England fail to meet new tough standards in reading, writing and maths, then there are unresolved issues that need to be addressed if we are to prepare our children for secondary school and help them reach their full potential.
Almost all of the responses to our call for evidence, including those from the NAHT headteachers’ union, organisations such as Education Datalab, and from teachers, indicate widespread agreement that primary assessment is an essential part of teaching and learning. The consensus from the written evidence is that there needs to be a balance of formative and summative assessment that supports pupil progress.
Primary assessment is, of course, used for school accountability measures. One of the main themes of our written evidence is that this factor makes the tests incredibly high-stakes, encouraging “teaching to the test”, as well as creating a high-pressure environment for pupils and teachers. Several submissions point to teacher and parental concerns about children’s wellbeing due to the pressured nature of the tests.
It's important we give teachers the space to teach a wide range of subjects
One of the areas I want our inquiry to examine is how the most recent reforms have affected teaching and learning. For example, are the pressures of the tests causing a narrowing of the curriculum? Certainly, there is evidence suggesting this is happening, particularly in Year 6, with subjects such as science, modern languages and art sidelined to make more time for Sats preparation.
The government is right to press ahead with a tough focus on reading, writing and maths, but it is vitally important that we give teachers the space to teach a wide range of subjects if we are to enthuse children about learning and encourage the development of well-rounded skills.
Ensuring that children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) are valued and supported in their learning is a crucial part of a teacher’s role. Written evidence suggests many believe that key stage 2 Sats disadvantage children with SEND, with the tests being inappropriate for them and also failing to differentiate well enough between lower attainers.
When the Sats results were published in September, teachers’ unions weren’t shy about calling the introduction of the new-style tests “shambolic”. From the evidence we’ve received so far – from the National Foundation for Educational Research, unions and others – it’s apparent that many in the teaching profession felt the new assessment system was brought in too quickly, leaving schools without enough time to design their own assessment measures. This had its inevitable consequence in increasing teacher workload.
Changing too quickly
One of the interesting questions that emerged from the written evidence was a debate about whether the removal of levels is a good thing or not.
Some teachers felt that levels worked well in their schools, as a good way of measuring progress for children across all years. Others agreed with the government that levels were causing some schools to focus too heavily on pupils reaching the next threshold, rather than mastering a subject. However, most teachers agreed that the pace of change had left schools confused and under pressure to design their own internal assessment systems with a lack of support.
A common feeling expressed by teachers is that they, rather than government, should be left to decide on how their pupils are assessed – an understandable sentiment given the propensity of politicians to tinker with education.
However, there was a certain degree of irony in this case, as the written evidence suggested little agreement among teachers about what this assessment might look like. Through our inquiry, we will be looking at a range of alternative national assessment systems proposed in the written evidence, for example, comparative judgement or school sampling, and questioning whether there may be better long-term solutions.
Teachers might despair when they hear of politicians casting their eye over primary assessment. But as a select committee, we can test the evidence and make meaningful recommendations to the government to help improve the system. Primary assessments are very important and I’m keen that our inquiry is able to take a close look at what is working well and examine what might be going wrong. Sats have had little evaluation since their introduction and I hope this inquiry serves as a real opportunity to make primary assessment better for our pupils, teachers and schools.
Neil Carmichael is Conservative MP for Stroud and chair of the House of Commons education select committee