teachers are furious about writing assessments, unions are being accused of scaremongering over tick-boxes and ministers have had to write in the TES to defend their reformed tests. Primary assessment has suddenly become contentious. Here’s why, and what might happen next.
Why is primary assessment news?
Multiple simultaneous changes have been made to how primary children are assessed and many teachers are deeply unhappy.
What are the changes?
In the summer, Year 6 children will take reformed, tougher Sats tests for the first time and a new grammar, spelling and punctuation test has been introduced in Year 2. As levels are no longer used in schools, teachers have been given new criteria to use when carrying out the statutory teacher assessments in reading, writing, maths and science at the end of Year 2 and in writing at the end of Year 6.
Is that it?
No. An optional baseline assessment – which many early years experts say is potentially harmful to children – was introduced in September for children starting in reception. The government has also said it will introduce new tests for 7-year-olds, and multiplication tables tests for 11-year-olds in future years.
How much time have teachers had to prepare?
This year’s changes were first confirmed by the coalition government in 2014 when it pledged to introduce baseline assessments and raise the standards expected of primary school children.
So why are teachers unhappy now?
Firstly, because of the sheer amount of change and uncertainty in such a short space of time. Secondly, because teachers had to wait so long to see what the changes to the tests and teacher assessments would be.
It was only when exemplification materials for writing assessments were published last month that teachers’ apprehension finally turned into anger. “A bloody mess,” is how Michael Tidd, the deputy headteacher of Edgewood Primary in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, described the situation.
Why do teachers think it’s a mess?
They are angry about the increase in workload because the materials included tables of tickboxes of up to 198 for each child. Teachers also say that the standards have been set higher, equivalent to level 5c, rather than the level 4b they were expecting.
Are they right?
Nick Gibb, schools minister, has pointed out that the different exemplification materials are designed “to show the breadth of competence covered by ‘meeting the expected standard’” and that level 4b would be “on the borderline” of that new standard (bit.ly/PrimaryAssessmentPanic).
What have teachers done about this?
The NAHT headteachers’ union said that unless changes to the writing assessments were made within a week, it would “act to protect pupils and schools”. The NUT teaching union has called for the Sats tests to be suspended. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, described the current state of primary assessment as a “horror show”.
What was the government’s reaction?
Mr Gibb wrote to the NAHT saying that he would relax the deadline for submission of teacher assessments for this year only, giving Year 6 teachers six weeks’ longer, and that more clarification would follow.
The DfE also accused unions of “unhelpful scaremongering”. Education secretary Nicky Morgan released a video saying that some of the claims being made by the unions and media were wrong (bit.ly/NickyMorganPA).
So that’s that, then?
Not at all. One primary teacher wrote an open letter to Ms Morgan saying that her video had only added to her concerns. “The situation we have reached now is untenable,” the teacher said.
Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, was also less than reassured, describing the relaxation of the deadline as “a minor concession”. “The clarification [promised by Mr Gibb] needs to be quite a significant change to make the materials useable,” he added. “Teachers didn’t expect tick-boxes and they do expect the standard to be level 4b.”
Dr Bousted says her inbox has been filled with “despair and fury” over the assessment arrangements. The ATL will be discussing the “excessive changes” at its annual conference this Easter. There is also a petition to the government, signed by more than 47,000 people, calling for the Sats to be cancelled in 2016.
While much attention focuses on key stage 2 Sats, the row over baseline assessment could also flare up with the publication of a forthcoming report into the comparability of the three DfE-approved assessments. If they are not comparable, it may have to rethink its plans for measuring progress over primary.
What will happen next?
The intensity of feeling is likely to increase as the unions debate the matter at their annual conferences in the run-up to Sats week (9-13 May). Mr Hobby said: “Any clarification will be a sticking plaster for this year. The system is broken. What we can do for next year, who knows? But it has to be sorted out quickly.”