Getting ready for the ‘rigour revolution’ in primary schools

6th November 2015 at 00:00
As national tests for seven-year-olds look increasingly likely to return, we bring you the key information

This week, education secretary Nicky Morgan announced the government’s intention to instigate a “rigour revolution”, starting with primary school assessment.

Ministers have already unveiled proposals to bring in tougher key stage 2 tests and resits in Year 7. Now they are considering reintroducing national tests at KS1. Here’s what you need to know.

What was announced this week?

Ms Morgan said the government would “be looking at the assessment of pupils at age 7 to make sure it is as robust and rigorous as it needs to be”.

“We’ll be working with headteachers in the coming months on how we get this right, holding schools to account and giving them full credit for the progress they achieve,” she said.

What does that mean?

The clear signals are that the process will lead to the introduction of new national tests for Year 2 pupils. Ms Morgan said this week that seven-year-olds should see tests as just “part of their schooling”. She added that it was for parents and schools to manage expectations around them. Schools, for example, should not hold “after-test parties”.

How are children currently assessed at the end of KS1?

At present, Year 2 pupils are assessed by teachers through a mixture of set tasks and compulsory tests selected by the school from a central bank of papers. The internal tests are used to inform teacher assessment results, which are collected and moderated externally by local authorities. But individual schools are moderated only every four years.

How would this change?

The proposals may mean pupils are assessed solely through national tests. These could be internally marked by teachers, but the results would be fed back to the Department for Education for external moderation and would be published on a school-by-school basis.

Has this come out of the blue?

No. TES revealed in June that schools minister Nick Gibb was seriously considering bringing back national tests for seven-year-olds owing to concerns about tracking pupils’ progress (bit.ly/TestsAt7).

What are the concerns about tracking progress?

The government introduced new non-statutory baseline assessments for four-year-olds this September but gave schools the option to choose between formal tests and teacher assessment. Thousands of primaries plumped for the test-free assessments, and officials are now concerned that “loading up” on two sets of teacher assessment to track progress could be problematic.

Haven’t we had national tests at KS1 before?

Yes, they were introduced in 1991 and were taken by seven-year-olds every year until 2004. The Labour government abandoned the tests in favour of teacher assessment because of long-standing concerns about the pressure they were placing on infants. A TES poll of parents found that a third of pupils were suffering from stress as a result of the tests, and one in 10 was losing sleep.

So why could they be brought back?

There are fears within the DfE that teachers may “depress” test scores for seven-year-olds, so it is easier for primaries to show pupils have made progress by the time they leave at 11.

Experts such as Durham University’s Robert Coe – a member of the government’s Commission on Assessment Without Levels – have also voiced concerns about relying on teacher assessment. In June, Professor Coe told TES that it could become “reductionist” very quickly, with children being taught what to write to reach a certain level. “It literally becomes writing by numbers,” he said.

Who’s in favour of the tests returning?

As well as support from within the DfE, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke out in favour of formal KS1 tests in 2013. He branded the decision to scrap them a “mistake”. To catch up with the best in the world, Sir Michael said, “we need to know how pupils are doing at 7, 11, 14 and 16”.

Who’s against it?

Headteachers’ leaders and almost all the teaching unions oppose the idea of additional testing. The NUT said more standardised tests would turn schools into “exam factories”. Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, warned that the union “cannot support the unilateral imposition of any more poorly thought-through tests and measurements”.

What happens next?

It is understood that there will be no formal review body or commission. The DfE is expected to open talks with headteacher representatives and teaching unions early next year to discuss proposals for the tests.

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