Staffrooms celebrate at seeing off exams at 14
The government's decision to scrap key stage 3 tests with immediate effect brought a chorus of celebration from across education, politics and the media this week.
For once, teachers' unions and academics united with opposition political parties and newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail, in support of the move.
Ironic cheers also rang out in some staffrooms for ETS Europe, whose shambolic handling of this year's Sats marking paved the way for the move and saw their five-year contract terminated in August.
But the announcement from Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, also prompted questions in classrooms across England, including: what types of assessment would secondary teachers have to do in the absence of the tests; and how would they motivate their pupils without national tests? Staff also called for more detail on the "report cards", a new form of school accountability to be launched from 2011, based on a scheme run in New York and other areas in the United States.
Meanwhile, primaries were left bitterly asking why the Government had decided to retain KS2 tests. David Fann, chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' primary committee, said: "From what I hear, the announcement has caused complete and utter devastation in primaries."
Mr Balls' decision - the biggest Government retreat on testing policy for 20 years - means there will be no KS3 tests in 2009.
Although there was some dissent from the majority view - with one maths teacher telling The TES that the move was "very disappointing" because there was nothing wrong with the tests - the dominant feeling in secondaries appears to be one of relief.
Rosemary Litawski, head of The Ferrers school in Rushden, Northamptonshire, said: "We are all celebrating. This makes the new KS3 curriculum far more exciting."
Simon Gibbons, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said that heads were so unhappy with this year's KS3 tests they might have boycotted them if they had stayed.
Mr Balls told reporters that the Sats marking failure this year had given the Government an opportunity to rethink the system. He said that, while KS2 tests were needed for school accountability, parents could get information on secondaries from GCSE and A-level results.
"More flexible" teacher assessment would be used instead of the KS3 Sats, he said. "My experience is that headteachers and teachers in the best schools are regularly assessing the progress of every child," he said.
"(They) do not believe that the national externally marked test at KS3 is best suited for that task. I think they are right."
However, any expectation that the KS3 tests could be replaced with the new "single-level tests" was scotched as Mr Balls announced he was also scrapping trials of such assessments. These tests could eventually have replaced KS3 Sats. But Mr Balls said serious technical problems - first highlighted by The TES in January - meant they were being ditched.
The trial will continue in primaries, however, and single-level tests could still replace KS2 assessments - although this is unlikely before 2011.
As also predicted in this newspaper, ministers are to introduce a new measure of school performance: "report cards", dubbed "balanced scorecards", which will grade institutions on a scale of A to F.
Mr Balls said the cards, which would assess schools on pupil wellbeing alongside academic performance, could be published alongside Ofsted reports from 2011.
A five-person "expert group" is to advise on this change and on others, including the introduction of "sample tests" of a small number of KS3 pupils every year to judge national English, maths and science standards.
Professor Maurice Galton, of Cambridge University, warned this week that simply removing the exams could leave pupils lacking in motivation, since children were now only interested in learning to do well in tests.
The KS3 decision, widely characterised as a Government U-turn, appears to have wrong-footed the Conservatives. Nick Gibb, the Tories' schools spokesman, backed the test for 14-year-olds only last week in a debate in Parliament.
But on Tuesday, Michael Gove, Mr Gibb's boss, said he agreed with the thrust of Mr Balls's announcement.
The Liberal Democrats called for an independent education standards authority to check school performance.
ETS shuts up shop, page 22-23
THE MAIN POINTS
Key stage 3 tests to be scrapped immediately;
Trials of new "single level tests", once seen as the possible replacement for Sats, also scrapped for secondary pupils;
Secondaries to use informal tests and teacher assessment to report on pupil progress;
Single-level test trial retained for primary schools, but Sats to remain at KS2 at least until 2010;
New "balanced scorecard" judgments for parents, which would see all schools graded on an A to F scale, to be investigated for possible introduction by 2011;
A national "sample test" of KS3 pupils to assess national standards in English, maths and science will be introduced, possibly from 2011;
Experts to advise Government on effectiveness of teacher assessment at KS1 and on how to stop schools teaching to the test at KS2.
SECONDARY SOUNDINGS ON KS3 SCRAPPING
Rosemary Litawski, head of The Ferrers School, a secondary in Rushden, Northamptonshire, said: "We're absolutely delighted! We are celebrating . We can now use the sports hall in May. No need for mock Sats in February."
David Fann, National Association of Head Teachers, said: "From what I hear, the announcement has caused complete and utter devastation in primaries. Colleagues are devastated that they are not respected professionally, as if we are not to be trusted."
"Coolasacucumber" on TES Connect said: "While pleased in some respects because (the tests) were obviously flawed, I am a little anxious that with the pressure apparently `off', the 260 Year 9s in my year group might feel they are on a bit of a jolly."
Carl Williams, deputy head of Moreton Community School, a secondary in Wolverhampton, said: "This last year, staff have been really fed up with the marking; it has been a complete shambles. We will still have tests in year nine that pupils will work towards, but they will be more focused on children's needs, rather than external tests."
Thomas Richards, 14, of Moreton Community School, said: "It's better because it takes the pressure off the students. I'll still work hard because there are still exams: the GCSEs."
"Beldo" on TES Connect, said: "Report cards (are) like the illegitimate offspring of a . liason between the Ofsted report and the league table at the Christmas party."
Warwick Mansell, TES reporter and author of `Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing'
- So why did the Government decide to scrap key stage 3 tests, but persist with them at KS2?
The simple answer is that the latter perform an accountability function at the end of primary school. By contrast, KS3 tests were only interim judgments on the work of secondaries. The Government has now conceded that GCSE and A-level results are better measures of performance.
Looked at this way, KS3 tests were redundant - equivalent to judging a football team at half time.
So, finally accepting the mounting evidence against KS3 - including months of test preparation - the Government was prepared to let it go.
In doing so, it acknowledged a report this summer from the Commons' education select committee, which centred on an attack on teaching to the test.
So far, so sensible from ministers. Yet a serious point remains: arguments about the negative impact of testing on pupils only seem to gain traction when the tests are not viewed as important for accountability.
- When there is a clash between educational considerations and the need to use tests to provide school performance judgments, the latter wins. This explains why primary school leaders are so furious. If the Government has conceded that teaching to the test is a problem in secondaries, why not accept it in primaries? And if so, shouldn't ministers be doing more to investigate changing their accountability system?
The model for this might be the detailed inquiry into testing in Wales, which replaced KS2 tests with moderated teacher assessments. Ofsted inspections could still be used to inform parents on school performance.
Other solutions, such as Cambridge Assessment's model whereby pupils would only be tested on a sample of the curriculum each year, also merit consideration. While many will welcome this week's move, those hoping for further change had better not hold their breath.