'Testing is at the heart of education's problems'

At last, there are signs that politicians are appreciating the damage caused by high-stakes testing, says Kevin Courtney

Kevin Courtney

Sats, Kevin Courtney, Robert Halfon, KS2 Sats, Year 6 Sats

The effects of our assessment system on learning, workload and wellbeing are at the heart of England’s educational problems.

Those who work in education know this in their bones. It is a message that education unions have tried to communicate for many years. They have been too often met with incomprehension or hostility. Politicians have clung to the notion that only high-stakes testing, and punitive accountability, could lift educational standards. The reality, that testing and accountability of these kinds are the route towards low-quality education, was not something they could bear to contemplate.

Now things are changing. Last week in the Scottish Parliament, something new happened. The Conservative Party tabled a resolution that called on the Scottish government to halt its tests of  P1 (early years) children and to reconsider its whole approach to evaluating the progress of P1 pupils. In doing so, the Scottish Conservatives’ education spokesperson, Liz Smith, came over to the side of the educators that her party has castigated for half a century. Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) joined E.D. Hirsch on the list of Conservative-approved educational thinkers. 

Froebel, as Smith pointed out, "did not ask infant teachers to make use of standardised tests or assessments". "Instead, he asked them to be skilled in their professional judgements and well-informed, through daily observation of each child, which would then be discussed with each family."

The 'toxic' culture of testing in schools

The contrast between Liz Smith and the UK government’s minister for school standards, Nick Gibb, could not be clearer. Gibb persists with a plan for the “baseline” testing of four- and five-year-olds, which the experts of the British Educational Research Association have told him will result in failure: there is no valid and reliable way of snapshot-testing the learning of Reception-age children, and certainly not of inferring on the basis of such tests their future progress. Smith, on the other hand, talks of listening to parents, to teachers, to researchers. She realises, as Gibb does not, that it should be no part of a politician’s job to replace this knowledge and experience with his own preferences and prejudices.

Liz Smith was not the only politician last week to break – however partially, for she still supports high-stakes testing of older age groups – from the tired consensus. At the Liberal Democrat Conference, education spokesperson Layla Moran spoke of "the toxic culture of high-stakes testing which is causing untold damage to children’s mental health" and pledged to get rid of key stage 2 Sats.

The weather is changing in the politics of education. Ideas that were derided in the years of Michael Gove – or Tony Blair – are now accepted as good sense. The belief that test-driven teaching is the key to progress now looks antiquated, and wrong. As Scottish Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats enter a new world of educational thinking, those who work in education hope that Labour will base its bold plans for a National Education Service on a different vision of curriculum and assessment, breaking from a past whose limitations are now increasingly clear.

Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union


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