Dalton's Diary

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Top priority on our governors' development plan for this year is measuring school effectiveness. In pursuit of this, we have been looking at our SATs results and trying to make some sense of them. The prospect of league tables next year means we can no longer maintain our previous position which was to ignore the wretched things as much as possible.

Our small primary school has always conducted SATs, but not published the results either in our annual report or our prospectus. We have told individual parents their own child's results as part of a much more detailed and meaningful report. While the tests for seven-year-olds were being changed radically each year, and the key stage 2 tests are clearly in need of reassessment, it has been impossible to use them as an objective standard of the school's performance.

Quite apart from any concerns we may have about the value of the tests, the validity of standards set and the accuracy of the marking, the small numbers of pupils make nonsense of the idea that raw figures can measure school performance year on year.

In large secondary schools, a percentage figure of students gaining good GCSEs may give a general indication as the good, bad and indifferent students average out. The Government says it may omit from league tables the results of schools with fewer than 10 pupils taking SATs. Our year 6, who will be taking key stage 2 SATs this summer consists of just 12 pupils. A few marks either way by one or two pupils could see our position on the league table change from top to bottom from one year to the next.

We are not alone. About 70 primary schools in this county have fewer than 100 pupils, with a dozen or so pupils in each year group. Variations in proportions of boys to girls, summer-born children or special needs pupils will distort the figures dramatically. Parents seeking to choose schools on the basis of league tables will have to be prepared to move their children at regular intervals, like investors chasing interest rates, or ignore them altogether.

It is now common practice for secondary schools to maximise percentage scores by targeting borderline students, encouraging them to drop all but the crucial five subjects, concentrating teaching effort on them to the detriment of others. Should we do the same and devise practice papers and set homework in the pursuit of a neat line of level 4s?

I remember being intensively coached in the 1950's. We were drilled and tested so that we could do 11-plus papers in our sleep, and all but one of us passed. It was gruelling, tedious hard work, but to be fair, our teachers were doing it for us, to give us a chance of a decent education. The 11-year-olds in our care will go on to our excellent local high school regardless of their SATs results. We cannot justify "teaching to the test" just to enhance the status of the school.

What we must do is try to convey to our parents, and prospective parents what we have to offer their children in addition to level 4 maths, English and science. We are succeeding well in gaining the confidence of our community and increasing our numbers. I should hate to see this trend reversed by an outbreak of hay fever or the death of the class hamster this summer.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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