Will Lord Bew finally kill off the Sats controversy?

8th July 2011 at 01:00
Analysis - The long-awaited review has called for teacher assessment to replace the Year 6 writing test. But will it go far enough? Helen Ward reports

Farewell, then, Pip Davenport, the fictitious Victorian fairground ride inventor whose life story hastened the almost certain demise of the key stage 2 writing test.

News last week that the Government-commissioned review of Sats led by Lord Bew would recommend the end of the much-hated writing test for 11-year-olds and its replacement with teacher assessment means that the controversies surrounding the tests, such as the one that engulfed poor old Pip in 2008, are likely a thing of the past.

Certainly, for many teachers and heads the writing paper was what angered them most - considerably more than reading and maths, mainly because the marking was so unreliable.

"Writing has been the major issue," Janis Burdin, head of Moss Side Primary in Leyland, Lancashire, explained to The TES after it emerged that it was likely to be on the way out. "If it is now going to be teacher assessed, that means we don't have to teach to the test for writing.

"I think the standard of writing will go up - children can do longer writing and poetry. They won't have to sit and practise doing a short writing test for 20 minutes and a longer one for 45 minutes."

Generally, school staff and heads are quietly happy with Lord Bew's most significant recommendation, but will it be enough to end the dispute over KS2 testing and league tables that has rumbled on for more than a generation?

Since 2003, when the writing tests were last overhauled, 600,000 Year 6 pupils have sat down each year and been told to write for 45 minutes on topics such as Pip's biography, pet-care manuals, or queuing.

And each summer, thousands of teachers would get their pupils' marks back, say several rude words, and appeal. But in 2008, Mrs Burdin was so angry that she sent two versions of Pip's story to the media - to illustrate a marking scheme that resulted in a higher mark for the less well-written story.

The essays were reproduced in the national press and acted as a graphic example of the complaints surrounding the problems with the marking of this type of work externally.

Mrs Burdin's exposure of these inconsistencies coincided with the now notorious failure of the national testing system that year, with widespread late and missing papers. In the immediate aftermath, the American company running the exams, ETS, had its contract terminated and the head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority resigned.

Another repercussion was that the then Labour government shelved KS3 Sats altogether and introduced teacher assessment for KS2 science. But this only served to anger further the critics of the tests - if science could be assessed by teachers, why not reading, writing and maths?

It was no surprise that a boycott of the remaining KS2 national tests went ahead in 2010. An estimated 25 per cent of primaries joined the action.

But with a change of leadership at both the Department for Education - enter, stage-right, Michael Gove - and heads' union the NAHT - new general secretary Russell Hobby - a truce of sorts was unofficially agreed last summer. Primary heads would not repeat their boycott in May 2011 so long as the Government backed an independent review of the current system.

So has Lord Bew, professor of politics at Queen's University Belfast and a cross-bench peer, done enough to keep all parties happy?

The official Government response is due later this month, but if his proposals are accepted, writing will be marked mostly through teacher assessment, with some weight also given to the results of a new test in spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary (known as SPAG).

Lord Bew is quite clear that he believes these changes are about placing trust in teachers. But his recommendations can - and have been - read by some as a tightening of the current position on testing, with traditionalists pointing to the new SPAG test.

They are also pleased that there is no suggestion that teacher assessment should be introduced for reading or maths.

The Government's remit for the inquiry was founded on its belief that external accountability - publishing performance data in league tables - is a key driver of improvement, and objectively measured pupil progress is vital.

The task for Lord Bew and his eight-member review panel was to find a way to square that central tenet of Government policy with proper consideration of 4,000 consultation responses - half of which called for the end of league tables and 33 per cent for all testing to be scrapped.

There was no solution, Lord Bew said, that everyone would agree on. The report states: "We have been surprised that every suggestion has generated substantial drawbacks and risks and that every proposal that enjoys any significant support from some respondents can prompt a negative reaction from others."

Lord Bew's recommendations only tinker with league tables - something else that is likely to please traditionalists - although he suggests that tables should be made fairer by including measures such as a rolling three-year average. The high-stakes nature of testing is acknowledged. And one of the most odious effects of this - asking pupils who are unwell to come into school and sit tests - is to be mitigated by allowing absentees to sit the test up to a week later. But none of this is game-changing.

The simple fact is that Lord Bew's most important recommendation is the writing test. And heads, teachers and the majority of their unions are pretty happy about that, including Mr Hobby from the NAHT. They would, it seems, give Bew a "good, but could do better" rating for his report.

"I would say our judgment based on that range of evidence over a year's work is going to be more reliable than a test in certain cases," says Jeremy Doyle, headteacher of Redhills Community Primary in Exeter.

"Maths is not quite the same as writing, but I think there are enough similarities to make teacher assessment very reliable, so I'm disappointed that is not recommended for teacher assessment."

Mr Doyle did not join the 2010 boycott because he felt the action was taken at the wrong time, and he pointed out that with existing changes, such as Assessing Pupil Progress, teachers are becoming ever more accurate at assessing children's work.

But for Mr Doyle, one of the biggest issues is the way the test results are used, and he believes it is naive to think that adding new measures to the tables will reduce the impact of the raw scores.

"I think Ofsted would say the perception in education is that the Sats results are all-important, whereas, in fact, the Sats results are important, but other factors are important as well. And I think most heads would say in disbelief, 'yeah, right'.

"We know how important raw results are in terms of being judged and headteachers do put pressure on staff, and staff put pressure on children to get as good a result as possible, to squeeze every last level 4 out of that cohort."

Mr Doyle says the "vast majority" of parents focus on exam results: "They look at reading, writing and maths scores. I think it is a flipping scandal that those figures are out there and the context is never stated."

Many of these points are echoed by Mike Kent, head of Comber Grove Primary in south London and TES columnist. "We had a kid who wrote a wonderful piece for the Sats test about his mum's spaghetti bolognese, which we thought was a good level 5. When it came back it was a level 3 - because he had got carried away and not put in full stops or paragraphs.

"Another kid had written a turgid bit of prose and peppered it with speech marks and ended up with a high level 4.

"I would like to see the whole lot as teacher assessment, but I think this was a fair enough result for the boycott. It was right not to boycott this year."


'I'd give the review a B+'

Michael Morpurgo, former children's laureate and award-winning children's author, took the KS2 writing test for The TES in May 2003. He described it as bland, his reaction as panic and called for a move towards teacher assessment. He welcomes the Bew review's call to scrap the test.

What's good is that it does give teachers more responsibility and trust. It is a huge improvement. It takes the pressure off teachers so they can be genuinely creative. They can spend time reading to children without having to be concerned that they must practise writing for 45 minutes afterwards.

I think every teacher there ever was wants their children to be able to write. An assessment of spelling would be easy for the teacher to decide, so I'm not sure why they assess for one and not for the other. If the logic is to trust the teacher to assess the children, what is the point of doing a test? They (the review team) have gone half the way. I'd give them a B+.

I still wake up thinking about my own school exams. I was prepared for exams through fear, the fear of not passing. But we have to remove fear from our places of education. I was in a rehearsal room in New York recently where they are doing (the stage version of my book) War Horse.

One of the directors said to the cast that the one thing she wanted them to have in this room during our months of rehearsal was no fear because they were all doing this together. I thought this was a great lesson.

This is what we should come across in every classroom in the country, because that's when you get the best results out of people - when they feel trusted to do their best, when the fear is removed.


What it means


Old: Long task, short task, spelling.

Bew: Teacher assessment of writing composition. Test of spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary. Assessments to be moderated, preferably through groups of schools working together. Year 7 teachers to be involved.


Old: Reading booklet.

Bew: Test refined to ensure there is not too much writing. Future tests will be designed to bring out the skills of accuracy (decoding familiar and unfamiliar words correctly), fluency (speed and confidence) and comprehension (drawing meaning from text).

Speaking and listening

Old: Teacher assessment.

Bew: No change.


Old: Three papers: mental maths, maths A and maths B.

Bew: Test refined to ensure there is not too much reading.


Old: Teacher assessment plus tests in a sample of 5 per cent of schools (since 2010).

Bew: Current system to stay at least until review of national curriculum is completed.

League tables

Retain: Annual measure of attainment.

Retain: Annual measure of progress.

Scrap: CVA.

Include: Three-year rolling average.

Include: Measures of attainment and progress for children in school throughout Years 5 and 6.

Include: Mobility measure for Years 5 and 6.

Separate: Reading and writing. Retain current overall teacher assessment for English.

Context: Suggests including proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals or the pupil premium.

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