Sour taste of baseless accusation

19th September 2008 at 01:00

As I watch Year 6 get stuck into their final primary school year, my mind drifts back to the end of last term - and probably the nastiest experience in 27 years of headship. We were accused of possible maladministration of our Sats tests. Cheating, in other words.

On the maths test day, a local education authority officer visited my school on an unannounced monitoring visit. We weren't concerned - we'd had no problems with these visits before, and our Sats team had administered tests for years. Then, after spending 20 minutes with us, the officer announced that what she was witnessing wasn't in line with what she'd seen in other schools. She would need to report back to the LEA tests consultant, and we might be investigated by the National Assessment Agency. Then she hurriedly completed a monitoring sheet, stating that she felt we were providing inappropriate amounts of support.

Though my headship years have coated me in Teflon, I felt I'd been hit on the head with a brick. God knows how my teachers felt at that moment. Stunned hardly conveys the emotion. Soon, the hurt we felt turned to extreme anger, especially as everybody had worked so hard with that year's group.

We knew we'd kept strictly to the test procedures and done nothing wrong. However, within days we were told we were indeed going to be investigated, that there was a "procedure" for this, and that it wouldn't be appropriate for us to respond until the investigation had finished.

Frankly, I wasn't having any of that. I wrote a lengthy letter to the assessment agency, with copies to the education authority, countering every vague accusation in detail. Two days later, we learned that the assessment agency had asked two of our LEA officers to investigate. Just prior to the investigation, I met one of them at the annual deputy head's conference, because my school orchestra had been asked to open the event. I'd not met him before, and we both felt uncomfortable, knowing our next meeting would be in less pleasant circumstances.

Next morning, my teachers phoned their unions and I phoned mine. I was astonished to hear there were hundreds of these allegations every year. Not just from monitoring visits, but from disgruntled parents, pupils bearing a grudge and anonymous whistleblowers. Which must, I assumed, give rise to a massive bureaucracy.

And so it proved on reading the documents I'd been sent about investigative procedures. Panels to assess this, committees to verify that, rules and regulations that ran into the tiniest detail. I suppose this is to protect people, but the amount of money it consumes must be staggering. What a vast, useless industry Sats testing is.

Every member of my Sats team, including myself, was interviewed for up to an hour. Detailed notes were taken, compared, read back to us, typed up and sent to the assessment agency. It wasn't pleasant, but at least it was handled with sensitivity. Impassioned statements were given by some of my teachers. They were still appalled this could happen to us - one of Southwark's highest-achieving schools.

And the outcome? No evidence of maladministration could be found. Indeed, it appeared that we could have offered more reading help than we'd actually given.

In the last week of term, our test papers came back. The children had done incredibly well. But our experiences had left a bitter taste and we merely felt depressed.

Following my vigorous complaint to the NAA, I can only hope that future monitoring visits will be undertaken by properly trained staff. The hurt caused by false accusations is immeasurable.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary, Camberwell, south London.


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