Dropping the KS3 plate puts us in a smashing position

21st November 2008 at 00:00

It was the way it happened that was so surprising. We had watched Sats wobbling ever since the summer marking debacle, but the smash of the plate as it fell off the pole still took us all by surprise.

Then, a week later, an email from the Department for Children, Schools and Families shattered a lot more crockery: it announced the end of national indicators 74, 77, 83, 95, 96, 97 and 98. For those of you unfamiliar with target-setting bingo, these indicators were the statutory requirements to set targets for two levels of progress at key stages 3 and 4.

What was going on? There was no attempt to dress up these decisions in the usual ministerial rhetoric. There were no grand statements about how we have raised standards, so now we can move to a new method of assessment; no shining vision of how things will be different in future. Just a pile of smashed china on the floor.

This was particularly surprising given that the two levels of progress policy was fairly recent and had been pushed as a key lever in raising standards. Sure, it had its faults: it was crude, since progressing from a low level 4 to a high level 6 is hardly comparable with progress from a high 4 to a low 6; and it depended on endowing Sats with an accuracy and dependability that few ever believed they possessed.

Nevertheless, it was a better target than the percentage achieving level 5, which encouraged schools to focus heavily on the narrow band of pupils who would help the school meet the target. The two levels of progress target was at least concerned with the progress of all children, and it forced teachers to look at individuals rather than cohorts. But if you have smashed Sats, this measure had to go as well.

There are few who will mourn this poisonous toad of an exam, which stifled the creativity of secondary years. Yet its passing still leaves us with issues. We are left with a forest of poles and it is now up to schools to spin their own plates.

If you are not fond of change, you can set your own Sats: there must be warehouses full of papers going cheap and plenty of Latvian match-sellers who will mark them for you now that they have been made redundant by ETS.

We have worked hard to make sure that pupils know their current and potential levels, and have developed sophisticated monitoring systems to track progress and inform both pupils and parents. Schools now need some way of moderating their judgments to ensure consistency and challenge, but please let's have something very light touch. Even local authority advisors might be able to manage this.

Ever since Mick Waters started playing Dumbledore at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, schools have been creating wonderful curriculum magic at key stage 3. As the leaden chains of the national curriculum, and now Sats, have fallen, so classroom alchemists have been creating innovative learning experiences.

Our Year 7 is sparking with the RSA opening minds curriculum, and our teachers are enthused with co-operative learning based on the work of Dr Spencer Kagan, the US education researcher and author. We must now remember that with freedom comes responsibility.

I once worked in a school where the learning support department was run by two former PE teachers, Ken and Ray. They were tough, wiry and took no prisoners. They taught bottom sets in Years 10 and 11, and ran horticulture and construction studies. Horticulture was sweeping up; construction was building a wall, then knocking it down. "These lads will be embarrassed for life if they can't read," Ken said to me. "If they can walk into the canteen at work, pull out The Sun and read, they'll be fine." We all idolised Ken and Ray, and so did the kids.

Of course, this wouldn't wash today - and rightly so. The days when it was enough to keep low-ability kids busy and out of trouble are long gone. For that, part of the thanks must grudgingly go to the much-maligned national curriculum and Sats.

We all need external scrutiny to take us outside our comfort zones and force us to tackle the difficult stuff. For secondary schools, GCSE benchmarks, especially with the emphasis on English and maths, provide enough challenge to make sure that we do not return to the days of too many kids wandering around with sweeping brushes.

For primaries? I can already hear the sound of cut-throat razors being stropped, so I'll make life easy for my primary colleagues by loosening my collar and baring my neck. I think some form of external assessment at the end of KS2 is still necessary. Sats are too blunt an instrument, but it is reasonable that schools should be held to account for the progress of children after six years of schooling.

In his work on school networks, Professor David Hargreaves, associate director of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, reminds us of the need for disciplined innovation.

An oppressive jackboot has been lifted and a thousand KS3 flowers are bursting into bloom. Let us rejoice but tend our garden with order and purpose so that future governments never again have reason to trample us to mud.

Roger Pope, Principal, Kingsbridge Community College, Devon.

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