Cry God for a new age of post-Sats accountability

31st October 2008 at 00:00

Before leading his soldiers to victory in the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare's Henry V rallies the troops:

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here ... that fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

This may be half-term giddiness, but it feels a bit like that with the end of key stage 3 tests. You sense that years from now, as we sit in our residential homes anticipating the afternoon highlight of a mug of milky tea, someone will tiptoe over and say: "Weren't you a teacher once? Where were you when the Year 9 Sats were abolished?"

Even at the end of this half-term break, the sound of cheering still echoes around school corridors, and bunting flaps gently in staffrooms. This is what postwar Britain must have felt like.

Perhaps the Government ultimately had little choice but to ditch the tests. In these straitened economic times, Pounds 160 million does seem a lot to spend on tests whose credibility was as fragile as the Icelandic banking system.

As battle-scarred veterans, we each had our own tragi-comic tales to tell about the testing disaster, traded like the famous footballer cards of our childhood. Our own story was that when the English results arrived, they indicated that about 100 of the 340 pupils who sat the wretched tests hadn't been there - either hadn't turned up, were playing truant or had slipped quietly off some labyrinthine database. A hundred students in one school is a significant number to lose - an indication of the scale of the assessment cock-up the Government had to deal with.

So no wonder there's much rejoicing. Now - the post-Sats narrative runs - we can focus on teaching, breathe the life back into KS3 and let pupils enjoy their learning again. Cue the community singing.

But hang on. The way some of the profession have reacted - like toddlers running amok in the nursery school sandpit - you'd think the announcement had given us carte blanche to do anything we wanted at KS3, an inducement to whip up a smorgasbord of classroom fun and frolics, and stuff the consequences. We should be careful: this is in fact a canny move by government that bounces the ball of accountability firmly back into our court.

The announcement of the abolition of the tests is not the end of testing at KS3. It's simply the end of bad testing - by which I mean bloated, bureaucratic testing that is unfit for purpose. That kind of testing.

Meanwhile the expectations remain the same, and probably higher: every learner should make significant progress across a key stage; teachers should make pre-emptive interventions with pupils who are falling behind; and parents should be better informed with more accurate assessment data about their child's progress and attendance. None of these expectations has gone away.

And quite rightly - because the KS3 tests have provided us with a convenient scapegoat for a dreary KS3 in which pupil disaffection too often sets in.

Now there is a shiny new curriculum with a strong vein of creative opportunities at its core for cross-curricular learning instead of the stultifying post-1988 emphasis on compartmentalised subjects that has left too many pupils without the range of applied skills they need.

It's a chance to prove that assessment for learning - feedback to pupils that helps them to learn more effectively - really helps pupils to achieve more. And it's an opportunity to show that we, their teachers, care just as much about standards as the politicians in the parliamentary bunker.

So farewell Sats. And - with no scapegoats and no hiding place - hello to a bracing new era of assessment for learning. The time of real accountability for standards may be just beginning.

It belongs to us.

Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

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