Primary Sats need a rethink too

17th October 2008 at 01:00

Fresh from saving the world from financial meltdown, the Prime Minister this week authorised his Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, to save secondary education from the Sats.

A collective sense of relief was palpable. While Year 9 pupils cheered the demise of key stage 3 tests on national television, Steve Munby, chief executive of the National College for School Leadership, said the move was a "victory for professionalism which will reduce the burden on heads and their schools and their students".

Messrs Balls and Brown deserve huge credit for sweeping away half of the externally marked testing system at a stroke; potentially, they have thereby saved half of the Pounds 156 million bill for Sats marking.

But for primary teachers, there are mixed feelings. Indeed, the silence from all that one-hand clapping in primary staffrooms was pretty deafening. Logically, the burden that has fallen on secondaries as a result of KS3 tests is one that will continue to fall on primary schools in Year 6.

There are good educational grounds for calling time on KS2 testing. The Commons select committee on education concluded recently that the emphasis on drilling for the Sats was distorting children's schooling, while a report from Cambridge University warned the testing regime was contributing to a "pervasive anxiety" among pupils.

Politically, the case for abolition is tricky. Ministers need to be able to account for more investment by showing higher performance in all schools. While GCSEs and A-levels will in future provide the sole "output" measure for secondaries, KS2 Sats do the same for primaries.

Yet there are clear signs that the pillars of assessment and accountability set up by the Tories 15 years ago are crumbling. The review group promised by Mr Balls to tackle the demerits of testing at 11 should consider the harm school league tables do in forcing teachers to "teach to the test".

The answer could lie in the proposed report card system, borrowed from New York, which would give all schools an overall grade based on pupil performance, progress and whole-school issues such as attendance and behaviour. Well designed, such a scheme could bring an end to league tables; poorly designed, it could prove just another way of shaming and punishing those at the bottom of the heap.

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