The Welsh spirit of enquiry

16th July 2004 at 01:00
Welsh education minister Jane Davidson is to be commended for tackling questions that dare not even be posed in Westminster. What is assessment of children aged seven to 14 for? How can it make learning better? Some argue that league tables should be abolished to counteract the narrowing of the curriculum caused by "teaching to the test". Wales does not have league tables, and yet both Richard Daugherty's independent assessment review group and ACCAC, the Welsh curriculum authority, advised that current tests were "having a negative effect on teaching and learning" for exactly those reasons.

So Wales is taking a bold step - scrapping the Sats and phasing in a system of moderated teacher assessment at 11 and 14. There will be skills tests in Year 5, mapped against national curriculum subjects, meant to help teachers pinpoint children's learning needs and improve transition to secondary school.

The intentions are good; what sort of road they pave remains to be seen.

Officials and politicians in England now have the luxury of peering over the border and watching what happens before considering anything similar.

Or do they? Are English policy-makers allowed to ask the sort of open-ended questions that are being studied in Wales? Only behind closed doors. They genuinely want more creative learning in schools, with assessment that helps children move forward, but are not allowed to think about alternatives to high-stakes tests at 11 and 14. Where is the debate on testing and assessment in England? Well, in 14 to 19 education where Mike Tomlinson's committee is asking what education for that age group is for.

Isn't that what we need for primary education? Notoriously, 21st century Britain still has what is essentially a Victorian elementary education system. Shouldn't we be getting back to the basics and asking fundamental questions about how to prepare 21st-century citizens? Fifteen years into the reign of the national curriculum, it's time for a major inquiry.

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