Sir Humphrey saves Sats

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
`Yes, Minister, you certainly appear to be in two minds over the future of the national testing system . `

SCENE ONE: an office in Whitehall.

Minister: Come in, Sir Humphrey. With the fuss about the marking of Sats this year, I've decided to abolish them. You've read my memo?

Sir H: Indeed, Minister. Very cogently expressed.

Minister: Good. Any questions?

Sir H: If I may, Minister, I'd like to review the eight points you make in favour of abolition? You start by saying: "Sats assessment for classroom learning is useless."

Minister: Just so. The essential reason for assessing a pupil is to see what educational progress is being made, and hence determine what the pupil should do next. It enables the teacher week by week to devise targets for pupils and ensure work is geared to steady progress. It is self-evident that tests at two points over six years are of no use in assessment for learning.

Sir H: Very apt, Minister. Next you say: "Sats assessment to inform parents of their child's progress is unhelpful."

Minister: Does it really help parents to be told, when their child leaves primary school, "Your child is at level 4 in English, maths and science"? What is needed are regular written reports on the child's progress across the curriculum and the opportunity to discuss progress with the class teacher. Primary school relationships between teachers and parents support the ongoing education of the children - bland Sats numbers do not.

Sir H: Of course, Minister. What about point 3, "Sats assessment to help parents choose their child's school is poor guidance"?

Minister: Rural - and many suburban - areas rarely offer a choice of schools within easy distance of home. In urban areas there often is a choice, and the best way of choosing is to visit each school and, above all, talk to other parents. Sats results for 11-year-olds are of little help since much can change in the six years before the incoming child leaves. League tables in local newspapers do not help parents choose a school. They make for good gossip, but poor guidance.

Sir H: Very droll, Minister. And what about your next point: "Sats assessment to make schools accountable for pupils' education is ineffective"?

Minister: Since schools are funded from the public purse, they should be accountable to the public. But Sats results are a poor indicator. Schools are not on a level playing field: the social environment has a large effect. Public accountability should be through a school's governing body. This democratically chosen body should recognise the potential and problems of the catchment area, and so should judge whether the school is giving "value for money". Governors should challenge and support the work of a school while trusting teachers to do what is best for each pupil.

Sir H: Yes, Minister. Your insight is remarkable. Now, your fifth point argues that, "Sats assessment to monitor national educational standards is misleading." May I ask why?

Minister: It seems a national pastime to speculate whether educational standards are rising or falling. We politicians use the Sats results either to praise the achievements of our own party or to lambast our opponents. But academics say that the evidence is too problematic for such speculation to be meaningful. Sample testing would be much more effective.

Sir H: Yes, Minister. Very true. Now I am surprised by your point that, "Sats assessment as an indicator of pupil ability in transferring from primary to secondary school is not trusted."

Minister: Many secondary schools choose to test the children on arrival, rather than use Sats data from the primary feeder schools. It seems they simply don't trust the figures.

Sir H: Oh dear. And the logic of your next point seems irrefutable: "Using Sats assessment as a selection tool for employers and universities is absurdly premature."

Minister: Thank you. It would indeed be bizarre to use primary school achievements.

Sir H: But Minister, your final point may raise eyebrows: "Sats assessment as a tool for raising standards in schools in order to sustain future economic growth is problematic."

Minister: We are constantly being told that our workforce has insufficient people with the skills needed for our economy to remain competitive. This is a major reason for putting pressure on schools to ensure pupils achieve the "expected" levels in the Sats. But our claims that standards have risen is being challenged on the grounds that schools are increasingly "teaching to the test" and spending too much time on preparations for the tests. So, it is doubtful whether the future economic health of the nation is being aided by primary school Sats, while the needs of employers for creative workers who can collaborate and work in teams are being sidetracked. Beyond this, it is also uncertain whether competitive struggle for dominance in world markets will be a prime national concern when our young people reach adulthood.

Sir H: A profound argument, Minister.

Minister: So, I propose to abolish Sats from next year.

Sir H: Yes, Minister. As always, your judgment is impeccable.

Minister: Good. I am glad we agree. Sir H: There is one thing, Minister, if I may. We will have to make redundancy payments to many staff in the department since there will be no work for them, and we will need to pay substantial compensation to the examination boards for breaching their contracts. Also, The Daily Mail will probably say, "Government sells out to teachers."

Minister: Oh. Er . Yes. Perhaps we'll keep the Sats, after all.

Sir H: Yes, Minister. Very wise.

With acknowledgements to the writers of `Yes, Minister'. Michael Bassey is author of `Teachers and Government: a History of Intervention in Education'

Michael Bassey, Emeritus professor of education at Nottingham Trent University.

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