Dramatic variations in the moderation of this year’s controversial primary teacher assessments of pupils’ writing jeopardise the validity of the entire process, headteachers are warning.
Moderation is supposed to ensure that the results – used as high-stakes accountability measures – are produced nationally on the same basis and enable like-for-like comparisons between schools.
But heads are reporting so much variation between what moderators in different local authorities expect that they think fair evaluations of school performance will be impossible.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, told TES: “Writing results will vary dramatically across the country – not because of the performance in schools but because of the different approaches to moderation.
“We are getting lots of reports from our members, so it is quite widespread. Some authorities are taking a reasonable approach and some are very hardline.”
The union is so concerned that it has issued members with a “script” to help them fend off unreasonable demands from local authority moderators. This is the first year that teachers have been asked to assess pupils’ work without the old national curriculum levels system.
The difficulties with moderation are only the latest problems in a fraught term for primary assessment in which one major test was cancelled following a leaked paper and there were complaints that another was so difficult it reduced pupils to tears. The NAHT is calling on the government not to publish any primary teacher assessment and test data as comparisons between schools would be “very risky”.
Michael Tidd, deputy head of Edgewood Primary in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, said: “It is worrying to see that teachers are reporting such different messages from different local authorities about the moderation process and expectations. It raises real concerns for the robustness of the process this year.”
Mr Tidd conducted a snap poll of 151 teachers, which found that 101 had been asked by local authorities for their assessment data in advance of moderation. That appears to contravene guidance for local authorities, from the government’s Standards and Testing Agency (STA), saying there is no requirement for schools to submit their judgments in advance.
Mr Tidd was also concerned that he was told by 23 teachers that they had been asked to provide tick-lists of evidence. That also appears to go against STA guidance, which states: “There is no requirement to provide tick sheets for an LA external moderation visit.” But the Department for Education told TES that if authorities wish to see tick-lists they would not be penalised by the STA for making the request.
Mr Hobby said he had heard reports that schools were told that if they did not comply with local authorities’ demands for evidence they could be reported for maladministration and potentially be subjected to an investigation by the STA. The NAHT has told members asked for particular evidence or documents that schools are only required to use their existing processes for moderation and there is no requirement to provide evidence other than that which would normally be collected.
Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT teaching union, said he had also been contacted by members over concerns about moderation. “I think this problem lies at the government’s door,” he said. “There’s been a lack of clarity from beginning to end of how this writing work is to be assessed and it has led to a variation of different approaches being adopted in different authorities.
“It makes us reiterate that results of these tests should not be used. They are not robust and not giving worthwhile information.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “In the small number of instances where the NAHT has reported concerns to us, no breaches of moderation guidelines have been found.
“We issue guidance to local authorities on how moderation should be carried out, which states that they should moderate a minimum of 25 per cent of schools in their area. If they wish to do more that is down to them.
“As long as our guidance is being followed, comparability of teacher assessments will be consistent. The Standards and Testing Agency also carries out its own moderation on 25 per cent of local authorities to ensure that they are abiding by the guidance.”
‘Moderation piles on the pressure for staff’
Colin Harris (pictured), head of Warren Park Primary in Hampshire, said that he was upset about the additional pressure placed on his staff and pupils after his school was selected to have a moderation visit.
“This year is particularly hard because of the new standards,” he said. “Will there be a different moderation approach? We don’t know. While we will try to get everything ready, what is ‘everything’?”
He said that his school had evidence to back up the teacher assessments. But his staff now face extra work because moderators don’t reveal which pupils are selected for moderation until the day of the visit or, at the earliest, the day before. “All the evidence is in [the pupils’] books, but the nine to 15 children they are looking for, all their work has to be taken out and everything made ready,” Mr Harris said.
“I’ve had to call one of my staff back from paternity leave. We have portfolios for everyone, but collecting and collating everything for the day, can only be done the day before.”