Whispers from Westminster

6th November 2015 at 00:00
Don’t shoot me: ministers sometimes get it right

It is rare for speeches by education secretaries, even the most punchy of them (ministers and speeches), to get so much publicity. The address made this week by Nicky Morgan at Policy Exchange was one of those rare beasts. This may be because, somewhat unusually, it was most definitely content-heavy.

The attention has largely focused on the possibility of some sort of external scrutiny of tests for children aged 7. Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash from the “testing too much” lobby. But, as Ms Morgan (right) said, the point of early checks is partly to avoid having to do catch-up testing later on in a child’s schooling.

The current alternative to testing is teacher assessment. However, as people such as Professor Robert Coe and Daisy Christodoulou have so powerfully argued, teacher assessment is flawed because it can be negatively biased against a whole range of disadvantaged groups: pupils who have special educational needs, who behave badly, who speak English as an additional language and who are poor.

It is a mark of the paucity of some educational discourse that even presenting such an argument will lead to cries of “How dare you undermine teachers” and “That’s so offensive”. Facts – not value judgements – that go against received wisdom often provoke such responses. But ministers might ask critics to consider this question. If a similar body of evidence suggested that external exams were systematically biased against precisely these types of vulnerable children, do we think it would be a) ignored or b) shouted from the rooftops?

Some of the other arguments against testing are similarly dismissed, and can on occasion say more about the person making the argument. Small children in tears telling their parents that they have “failed” rightly rouse our emotions. But why is anger aimed at the government for asking for a measure of that child’s progress, rather than at those who may have failed to teach that child adequately, or those who conveyed the results in such a way that brought on tears?

Similarly, when one of the purposes of tests is to show who is performing well and who is in need of more support, is it really credible to argue that we should deny parents that knowledge?

Ms Morgan was clear that the purpose of her review of testing for seven-year-olds is to give schools “full credit for the progress they achieve”. Of course the government needs to ensure that more weight is not placed on the tests than children can bear, and that the actual workload generated (as opposed to the “gold-plating” of workload adopted by some schools) is reasonable. But organisations such as the NAHT headteachers’ union will be a strong voice in getting this right.

Ultimately, Ms Morgan makes the case that recognising pupils’ achievement and progress, as well as picking up those who are falling behind before it is too late, is more important than shying away from truths about biased assessment.

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