Editorial - Plan to foist Sats on secondaries gives new life to debate

19th June 2009 at 01:00
Tory mischief-making dumps troublesome tests firmly back in the arms of Government

The Tories are being very mischievous. Just when the Government had accepted the recommendations of the Expert Group and modified assessment at key stage 2, and just as the boycotting unions had boxed themselves into a rather uncomfortable corner, along stroll the Conservatives and lob in a helpful grenade: why not shift the whole problem to secondary schools (pages 24-25)? An interesting proposition and as innocent as a Canadian near a seal pup. As primary heads swoon with relief and their secondary colleagues twitch nervously, the Government is left holding the soiled and increasingly unloved Sats baby.

Fancy political footwork, however, should not blind us to the merits of the Conservative argument. For a start, scrapping the expensive apparatus of external tests would save money. Given the dire state of public finances, that point should not be sniffed at. Neither can the Tories be faulted for opening up the debate. For too long, the war between advocates and opponents of Sats has rattled across the same battlelines without much in the way of intellectual movement. The world has moved on and at least Michael Gove's proposal has opened up a novel front.

Furthermore, many secondary schools already practise what he preaches. Internal tests for literacy and numeracy are not uncommon in Year 7. A shift merely cancels out unnecessary duplication. Above all, Mr Gove's proposal has the dual merits of enhancing school autonomy - they do the testing - and allowing the primary curriculum to breathe. In the month that the Brits stormed Broadway and the creative industries reminded the Government that they were a safer long-term bet than the country's banks, the limitations of an over-restrictive and narrow curriculum have never seemed more obvious. Michael Gove is leaping with Billy Elliot and tomb-raiding with Lara Croft.

Unfortunately, the Conservative proposals suffer from one enormous drawback. Primary schools cannot be held accountable by a deferred test in secondaries. It is iniquitous to test children immediately after the biggest upheaval in their educational lives following the fallow summer months. It is unfair to deprive primary schools of their own record of achievement or to demolish a foundation on which prior attainment can be measured. And it is extremely unjust to set up a system that will inevitably tempt secondaries to minimise the achievements of primaries in order to maximise the value they can add.

That said, the Conservatives have made it clear that their proposals should be seen as an opening salvo rather than a demand for unconditional surrender. If so, then why not shift the appealing aspects of their kite-flying - teacher assessment of simple tests - back into primary schools? That would make the latter freer and accountable. As Sir Ken Robinson says (page 33), "great schools ... are great for the same reason, not because they are standardised, but because they are customised to their children, their circumstances, their teachers and their community". Who knows, Mr Gove's gambit could be the start of a rather refreshing revolution.

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

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