Naughty boys will fail if we trust teachers

28th May 2004 at 01:00
English education is a rollercoaster affair. We lurch from too little government interference to too much, from traditional to progressive methods and back again. After most councils dropped the 11-plus in the Sixties and Seventies, primary schoolchildren could spend their time weaving baskets, mastering long division or doing the Romans every year and the rest of us were none the wiser. Now, we have a good idea how they are spending each minute of every literacy and numeracy hour.

The story of testing is the same. After selection at 11 disappeared, there was no external check on primary schools until the present national tests were introduced in the Nineties. Now we test hapless primary children at five, seven and 11 and and give them "optional" tests, which nearly everyone takes, in between.

Time for a switch back to sanity, teachers say. Trust teachers to assess pupils. The Daugherty report agrees. It has just recommended that the Welsh should abandon national tests at 11, to enthusiastic applause from heads and teachers on both sides of the border. We are off, headlong, back to the Seventies.

It is a mistake. Every educational fashion swing has its catchphrases.

"Trust teachers" is a reaction to more than a decade of government intervention in the classroom. Even ministers feel obliged to use it, though their actions often belie their words.

But any parent whose child has incurred a teacher's dislike knows that trusting teachers must have its limits. We cannot expect teachers to be free of everyone else's prejudices. Barry Hines, author of Kes, describes how, as a working-class lad, he tried to escape the C stream at his Fifties grammar school. He came second at the end of the year but the boys who came first and third went up to the B stream after a staff meeting which decided Hines' promotion would be a waste of a place as he would probably leave at the age of 15. Later, when some liberal schools decided to use headteachers' references instead of the 11-plus to select children, the proportion of working-class pupils making it to grammar school went down.

Could it happen now? The latest research suggests that it could. It is just the prejudices that are different. Naughty boys often get worse marks than they deserve, according to Professor Wynne Harlen's analysis of 20 years of research into teacher assessment. The schoolboy story about the C-grade pupil who hands in the A-grade pupil's essay and still gets a C turns out to be true: teachers tend to mark individual pieces of work according to their knowledge of a child's overall ability. They also underestimate special needs pupils.

Put this alongside the TES's recent revelations about teachers helping pupils cheat in GCSE and A-level coursework and the longstanding concern that middle-class parents are contributing to their children's coursework grades. The dangers of a system based on teacher assessment are clear.

I do not support the non-stop testing that children endure at present: the Welsh are right to leave the assessment of seven-year-olds to teachers and it is time we stopped setting teenagers public exams at the ages of 16, 17 and 18. Nor do I think that the publication of national league tables leads to higher standards. But league tables and tests are separate issues. An external national check at the end of primary and another at the end of secondary school are sensible acknowledgements of human frailty. Anything else is unfair to children.

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