It’s time for a confession. I was one of the few who, in 1987, opposed the introduction of a detailed national curriculum. “Make it only so large that it would slip under a closed door” was my mantra. I was the education officer in Oxfordshire and persuaded parents to mount a letter-writing campaign to their local MPs, three of whom were in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet.
It was a quixotic gesture. I was vitriolic about “the levels”, particularly in primary schools. I feared for the resilience and self-confidence of children who were late developers.
So you’d think I would be the cheerleader now that levels have been abandoned. But I’m not. Let me explain by recapping how we have got to where we are.
In the consultation of summer 2014, we were told that the levels were to be dropped on the advice of experts. They would be replaced by scores around 100 at entry or age 7 and age 11. Parents would be told which decile their child was in and whether they were “secondary-ready”, prompting comments about chickens and ovens.
Despite the outcry, the sole amendment was to drop the naming of the child’s test result by decile together with a promise for the summer of 2015 of a commission, led by retired secondary headteacher John McIntosh.
The commission reported after autumn term started and recommended a help and advice centre for bemused primary teachers who were already teaching the new curriculum and devising “school-by-school” assessment arrangements. These teachers were reassuring anxious parents as best they could and some were rather taken with the “can-do” statements underpinning the new curriculum.
In January, the Department for Education published Primary School Accountability in 2016: a technical guide for maintained primary schools, academies and free schools. Accessible and useful it is not.
Insult was added to injury during the February half-term when some hapless person in the DfE issued the clarification, “Five things you need to know about changes to primary assessment”, its tone a mix of patronising and defensive.
Phrases such as “To suggest the system is in chaos… is to undermine these important reforms” or “In setting scaled scores we will not be setting standards on the new tests until pupils have taken them and the tests have been marked…because it wouldn’t be fair” or “If anything is likely to cause chaos, it is unhelpful scaremongering” – all more worrying than reassuring. I began to twitch even more when I saw education secretary Nicky Morgan resorting to Twitter on the day after half-term.
The truth is that there is no hurry over bedding in the new arrangements. This year, we could rely on externally moderated teacher assessments with sample tests and save millions of pounds in an annual merry-go-round which is the laughing stock of other countries. Moreover, it would be a persuasive action to back Ms Morgan’s oft-stated trust in teachers.
Two more things are essential: a Q&A statement for parents and at least some expenditure on CPD for teachers, without whose efforts, all these changes really are just smoke and mirrors.
Sir Tim Brighouse is a former schools commissioner for London