Pedantic heads are best placed to steer schools through choppy waters of pilot assessments
THE GOVERNMENT believes that schools with "fussy" heads will thrive under changes that could lead to a massive increase in high-stakes testing and a return to payment by results.
Ministers announced this week that they are pushing ahead with a large-scale pilot of a new assessment system, despite widespread opposition from heads, examiners, assessment experts and at least one exam board.
From September, 484 primary and secondary schools in 10 English local authorities will spend two years trialling "progression" tests on pupils in key stages two and three.
Pupils are expected to be allowed two attempts a year to move up one national curriculum level in English and maths. In some schools that could mean a seven-fold rise in the number of times tests in the subjects are sat.
Targets will be set for the number of pupils expected to move up two levels during a key stage, with extra funding in the form of "progression premiums" for schools that achieve this.
But unions argue that this amounts to a return to the Victorian system of payment by results.
The pilot schools will share pound;20 million in extra funding next academic year, with more to come in 200809. Part of this money will pay for 10-hour "bursts" of one-to-one tuition for 21,500 pupils who are making slow progress in maths, with the same number benefiting in English.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, said: "We think that good tracking by teachers, confirmed by shorter, more frequent tests, will help schools to personalise each child's learning.
"This will motivate all pupils to move on and up by recognising what they have achieved and showing them where they have to go next."
But critics have warned that the system will increase teaching to the test, provide unreliable information on pupil progress, and crush schools'
enthusiasm for personalised learning.
A Department for Education and Skills study of 20 successful primaries has been published to help guide schools through the pilot (see box, below left).
The study found that methodical planning, efficient use of time, and fussy heads with a pedantic attention to detail were behind pupils' excellent progress.
Successful heads were thorough about small things, such as the tidiness of books and coats, which they "pursued with a zeal that could be construed as a fussiness, which, however, often has a profound impact on the smooth running of the school and its focus on achievement".
The model stands in stark contrast with work by the National College of School Leadership and headteachers' associations, which have emphasised the need to move away from "hero heads" who try to oversee everything themselves.
At Lyndon Green junior in Birmingham, one of the 20 schools studied, staff believe children should face as few distractions as possible.
To achieve this, Judy Burgess, the head, insists on consistent and tidy classrooms. Each has similar layouts, from their literacy and numeracy wall displays to computers, projector screens and storage.
"I don't like to be described as fussy," she said. "But it's paying attention to detail, isn't it?
"As an example, every child's exercise book has their name printed on it and is in a laminated cover, so they will value it for a long period. It means they take pride in their work."
SIGNS OF A TIGHT SHIP
Teaching is pacy, orchestrated and well-signposted. One-word answers are discouraged. Teachers are provided with professional development in pedagogy and their subjects.
An achievement culture driven by the imperative that all children, irrespective of background, will succeed. A culture that inhibits bullying of "boffins". Minimalist classrooms.
The leadership of long-standing heads, decisive and uncompromising, seeing leadership as their prime job. They spend time watching over the details, from presentation of work to the tidiness of books and coats.
Assessment and monitoring is done with rigour, tracking pupils' progress closely. Schools identify pupils who have shown early potential, and those with untapped promise.
Resources are unimportant, except for one: the staff. Teachers are assigned to groups of pupils with whom they can "add value" - not necessarily the least able.
Source: Making Great Progress, www.dfes.gov.ukpublications