Editorial - Even if Sats go, accountability must stay

8th May 2009 at 01:00
Any suggestion that teachers wish to avoid scrutiny does the profession no favours

Now that the National Association of Head Teachers has voted to ballot for a boycott over testing at key stage 2, the profession has a brief interlude to consider what the substantive issues are before they are obscured by a blizzard of writs and political posturing. The debate may be affected by the Expert Group's report, officially published after The TES went to press, but it is still worth sketching out now because it will inevitably degenerate into a squabble over the disadvantages of boycotting, rather than those of Sats.

The injustices of testing have been endlessly repeated. Not since the Death of Little Nell have so many tears been shed over tyrannised children. But however unconvincing some of the hyperbole has been, it is undeniable that many teachers find Sats restrictive, unimaginative and damaging. A fetish for testing has displaced a love of learning. They are also pretty useless - they measure the measurable, not the valuable, as has been famously said - and their results are soon discarded. Sats may or may not be unpopular with parents - they tend to answer "yes" to both "Is your child tested too much?" and "Do you want a means to assess how your child and your child's school is doing?" But initial claims that they raise basic literacy and numeracy have become increasingly muted as serial annual improvements dwindle into insignificance.

The obvious solution is to replace them with internal teacher assessment. That has the dual advantage of being uncomplicated and accurate - most teachers can predict how well their pupils will fare at KS2 and do not require a huge bureaucratic machine to help them figure it out. Those who believe that standards never rise without external prodding could be reassured with a system of regular sampling or peer review augmented by the kinds of basic numeracy and verbal reasoning tests that do not require extensive preparation.

If this were the only issue, a reasonable compromise might be achievable. But the debate has been supercharged because pupil performance is used to rate schools. Feelings run particularly high when a single metric - test score - is used to compare like with unlike - schools in well-off and poor areas. Any system that fails to take account of the context in which a school operates is patently unfair. Report cards mooted by the Government that look at a range of measures could be part of the solution here, as could Ofsted inspections designed to be a counterweight to crude test data rather than an unthinking extension of them.

However, the profession cannot afford to embrace any argument that suggests schools should not be accountable to the public. This only reinforces the impression that teachers want to avoid scrutiny rather than have their expertise properly acknowledged. If a school serving a disadvantaged area has not improved the education of its pupils over time and after mitigating circumstances have been taken into account, what is it for? To point this out is not shameful - it is responsible. The most reactionary position is the one that leaves the disadvantaged to their fate.

Gerard Kelly, Editor. E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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