Children aren't players to be ranked and wrangled over

14th December 2007 at 00:00
"I'm a nothing," explained the seven-year-old when asked to say what level he had reached at the end of key stage 1. In this single sentence, the boy concerned managed to illustrate the effect of describing children in terms of levels - an activity as dangerously simplistic as trying to reduce schools to columns of dodgy data. The progress pupils make as they move through the school system cannot be accurately summed up in this way, any more than schools can be compared with each other in league tables, for the simple reason that neither has a common starting point.

As far as schools are concerned, it would be fair to treat them like football teams if they, too, were allowed to buy and sell their "players" in order to improve their results. As it is, ranking schools against each other as if they all had similar intakes, resources and levels of parental support, instead of helping to make every school better, has been shown to widen the gap between those at the top and those at the bottom.

When it comes to targets, it is one of life's mysteries that the Government is still so fixated on them when it keeps missing its own and has lost one Education Secretary - Estelle Morris - in the process.

Of course, the Government does not actually miss targets. Instead, it gives itself more time to meet them or converts them into "aspirational targets" - an option not open to schools when Ofsted comes knocking and declares them to be failing. But there is a growing feeling that the whole panoply of tables, targets and tests is about to come crashing down as evidence builds that it is counterproductive, and that lavishing more than pound;50 million on key stage tests is not a sensible way to spend a slice of the education budget.

Both written submissions to the education and skills committee's inquiry into testing and assessment, which is now being followed up with oral evidence, and the first interim reports from Professor Robin Alexander's Primary Review, show the level of dissatisfaction with the present regime, as well as giving chapter and verse on why the system is fundamentally flawed. While listening to Ed Balls, Education Secretary, trying to explain, on The Andrew Marr Show at the weekend, how tying pupils to the testing treadmill has produced substantial increases in standards, while international studies show the opposite trend, was a further illustration of the urgent need for change.

To its credit, the Government has shifted its position by doing away with formal tests at the end of KS1 and it is talking about the extra flexibility intended as part of the Children's Plan. But concerns remain that this will amount to tinkering at the edges rather than a real move forward. This is reinforced by the targets that have already been announced for 2011, which go some way to recognising different levels of progress, but still expect all pupils to develop at the same rate - namely, two national curriculum levels over a key stage.

To overcome some of these difficulties, as well as separating the many different uses to which tests are put, the National Association of Head Teachers has recommended, in its own commission of inquiry into assessment and league tables, that moderated teacher assessment, supported by a bank of materials, should replace tests at the end of each key stage; that national sampling should be used to measure standards over time; that achievement at all levels, and in all areas, should be recognised; and that the inequitable league tables should be laid to rest.

These recommendations would go a long way towards restoring a sense of sanity to classrooms, making schools happier and more purposeful places, and they would also result in a rise in standards, as pupils would be educated to become lifelong learners, rather than being taught to pass a narrow range of tests.

Rona Tutt, past president of the National Association of Head Teachers and chair of its Commission of Inquiry into Assessment and League Tables.

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