Irresponsible? To end the humiliation of Sats?

1st May 2009 at 01:00
As his union votes on a boycott this weekend, Mick Brookes argues passionately that change has to come

We are accused of being irresponsible - an easy slur and a cheap shot. That was one of the words Ed Balls used to describe the National Association of Head Teachers because of our proposed boycott of Sats tests.

It was interesting to read the Schools Secretary's remark - and others - in the transcript of his speech to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference over Easter. It would appear that all the discussions we have had with him on behalf of our members have been forgotten.

Not only was his message ill-judged, it was also incorrect. I have to ask, what is irresponsible about wanting to see an end to a system that has been proven to mar the final year of a child's primary experience? What is irresponsible about wanting to see an end to the annual humiliation of children, their teachers and their communities in the publication of league tables? What is irresponsible about challenging authority when it subjects its employees to bullying and harassment based on spurious data? What is irresponsible about wanting to reduce bureaucracy and workload for teachers who spend endless hours rehearsing the tests - all of which have to be marked?

Surely a greater irresponsibility is either to perpetuate a system that produces these effects or to stand by and do nothing.

We do not wish to declare a formal dispute. The joint motion by the NAHT and the National Union of Teachers to our conferences is quite clear on this. We have given the Government time to change; we are prepared to wait to see what the "expert group" has to say about assessment. But there must be change.

We believe we have been - and are being - entirely reasonable and very patient. But now we have drawn a line in the sand, produced an endgame so that, at the end of this, there will be one of three results:

1) the Government puts in place a set of measures that either abolishes the Sats regime, or defuses it to such an extent that children are not subjected to endless rehearsal and are instead able to revel in a deep and broad education; or

2) the NAHT and NUT both ballot for action and the tests are stopped in their tracks; or

3) the ballot is lost, so we simply get on with the job. End of story.

The moral dilemma is that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils: to perpetuate a system that we know is wrong, or to stand up and be counted - even if that means taking action that is uncomfortable and runs counter to regulation.

We are being accused of being "disruptive to pupils and parents".

We say: "ETS!"

There appears to be a parallel universe here, as if the events of last summer's marking fiasco never happened. Clearly, the level of fury expressed by school staff and parents has been forgotten. After going through the angst of the preparation and anticipation, the disruption to parents and children was seismic.

But the world did not come to an end because children went on to key stage 3 without clutching their Sats results. Neither does the world come to an end in Scotland, Ireland or Wales, where pupils do not face those tests. They have no annual revolt of parents demanding Sats results as the only way they can be assured of their child's progress. In fact, the reverse is true - as demonstrated by an NAHT questionnaire completed by more than 11,000 parents. More than 80 per cent of them said they would trust teacher assessment. This is not to say that we could not improve assessment skills with training and the help of an expert moderator taking a light-touch check to validate teachers' judgments.

So here we have it: the only teachers not trusted to assess their children's work are in KS2 and in England. Primary education must be in a worse state than we thought.

The final insult from Mr Balls was to suggest that schools want to "return to the days where the real achievements of schools were hidden from parents and communities". Some of us will remember Chris Woodhead saying something similar when he was chief inspector - that "schools have nowhere to hide". The primary sector has always welcomed parental involvement in children's work. Personalisation has always been exemplified by good primary practice. To suggest that the NAHT or NUT want to return to some fictional past is mere nonsense.

Parents are deluged with information about their children through regular reports, newsletters, open days and evenings, by sending books home and by that most human of contact, the chat by the school gate. Parents have access to Ofsted reports and governors' meeting minutes about a school's improvement. At no time has the NAHT or NUT said we wish to abandon those information streams.

Setting the record straight is important, as is the quality of the dialogue between Whitehall and the NAHT and NUT. We genuinely want to find a way to move forward and define, with the Government - and hopefully with colleagues in other unions - what comes next. There are many good ideas out there, but it is the application of those ideas that counts.

The best kind of assessment in KS2 will accurately inform parents about their children's progress, encourage children about the progress they have made, and enable KS3 teachers to help their new Year 7 classes move seamlessly into the secondary phase.

If the Government is content to gauge the state of education at the end of KS3 by a sampling process, then the same should be true for KS1 and KS2.

What comes next is very important. But let's be clear: we do not want an alternative to Sats that will make the stress for teachers and pupils even greater - such as, for example, the "when-ready" tests, which could in effect replace one test for each subject at the end of four years with two in each subject every year. If that's what the expert group proposes, then it had better go away and think again.

Mick Brookes, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers.

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