The refusniks of Nottingham

4th July 1997 at 01:00
The head of Southwark Infants is passionate about standards and assessment. But her school has held out against national tests for two years - and its pupils are doing fine, thank you very much. Gerald Haigh reports

Not many infant heads and teachers, I guess, are in love with the key stage 1 national tests. They would probably agree with Sue Aldridge, head of Southwark Infants in Nottingham, who suggests they are "entirely erroneous and we do not need them".

The difference between Sue Aldridge and most other heads, however, is that not only does she dislike the tests, but her school - with a number of others in Nottinghamshire - does not do them. In 1995, when local authorities were invited to bid for GEST (Grants for Education Support and Training) money to provide staffing supply cover for schools during the tests season, Nottinghamshire declined to apply. Under GEST regulations the county would have had to find 40 per cent of the total cost; elected members felt that if the Government wanted the tests, it should foot the whole bill. At the time The TES reported education chairman Fred Riddell as saying: "This is an aspect of the national curriculum which Nottinghamshire education committee has consistently opposed as inappropriate and educationally unsound".

Two years ago, about 80 per cent of Nottinghamshire primaries did not administer SATs. Since then - largely, I am told, through anxiety about OFSTED - a number have reverted to giving the tests using their own staffing resources. But some - including Southwark - continue to hold out.

Sue Aldridge is at pains to point out that her policy is not based on any sort of soft-centred philosophy that backs away from either measuring achievement or challenging her pupils. "I take standards and assessment very seriously - I'm passionate about both."

Instead of SATs, she and her team have introduced a programme of classroom assessment, which she believes provides something considerably better than the national tests. There is nothing magical or particularly new about the assessment methods she and her colleagues use.

What the visitor sees is careful observation, recording and - importantly - checking and monitoring by other colleagues, especially in cases where there is some debate about the level at which any particular pupil is working. Finished work is carefully checked and compared. There are also meetings with other key stage 1 teachers in the same family of schools. In individual cases, one of the SAT papers might well be used to add to the evidence for a particular judgment. In the end, says Sue Aldridge, she and her governors "feel secure that we have done a good job".

Looking at finished work - the product - is only part of what goes on. Southwark staff also pay attention to judging "process" - children at work on classroom tasks. I watched, for example, a session of "process observation" in maths. In this, a group of about four or five children of differing abilities are given differentiated tasks designed to explore their ability at investigation in either science or maths. Two teachers observe them as they work: one works with the children, giving suggestions and guidance, the other observes without comment. Each comes up with a level for each child and, at the end of the session, the two confer, referring closely to the relevant parts of the national curriculum document.

Where there is disagreement, another teacher - head or deputy, assessment co-ordinator or special educational needs co-ordinator - might be consulted. It is a labour intensive, concentrated and demanding task for teachers, but to observe it is to see that it provides a remarkable depth of insight into how each child faces up to a problem.

Significantly, assessment is used not only to shed light on the ability of each child, but also to explore the effectiveness of the teaching. "In September we take every teacher's results and compare them with the whole school's results. It's a very challenging thing to do," says Sue Aldridge.

Thus, where a child - or a group of children in one class - has fallen short of standards achieved in other parts of the school, the teaching team will explore the reasons. Sometimes the answer is straightforward - a long absence with illness perhaps. At other times there will be further probing. Sue says the staff ask themselves: What did you do with them? Could I have helped you more? Can you see that's where you need to put your efforts? "We're very honest with ourselves," she says.

Sue Aldridge is transparently convinced of the rightness of what she is doing. But surely national tests give a reliable externally applied measure, making possible national comparisons? She replies that her measurements are as good as or better than anyone else's. "I am convinced that we are giving a very fair picture of our children's abilities, using the Government's levels. And we don't waste teacher time, or pupil time, or taxpayer's money."

So far no one has really pressed her to change. The Department for Education and Employment has deliberately avoided confrontation with Nottinghamshire over the matter. Southwark parents were never keen on the idea of key stage 1 SATs anyway, and they support what the head and her governors are doing.

OFSTED inspected the school two years ago and pronounced itself satisfied with the way pupils were being assessed. It made nothing further of what was being done. Next year, however, Nottingham becomes a unitary authority. Perhaps then the authority policy will change. If it does, Sue Aldridge will clearly be faced with a difficult question of conscience.


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