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Wheel of fortune

Peter Thomas laments the pervasion of a lottery culture in education

It's the end of the school year and in staffrooms up and down the country, teachers are talking numbers - five days to go, six weeks off, 10 francs to the pound and 80 degrees in the shade. English teachers, though, have had another set of figures in their heads.

They've been waiting for that string of numbers that means jackpot joy or better luck in the next draw. Mystic Meg is no help, because it's the rollover SATs numbers they've been waiting for. The reporting of some results has been postponed so that some schools will get them too late to do anything with them.

There seems to have been a major fault in this year's marking. Apparently, the computer processing the original marking showed a significant fall in the number of level 7s from last year, making English 15 to 20 per cent adrift of results in science and maths. Various reasons were offered for this extraordinary collapse - some seeing it as a matter of pupils failing to cope with the unexpected poem. Others have suggested teachers' preparation was at fault, and some suspected the questions and mark schemes were to blame.

One school in the north, finishing for the summer last Friday, was still waiting for the results before sending reports home. If its English department thought the results influential in their GCSE class setting for September, this essential planning would have been paralysed. However they planned, as usual, according to their own judgment of pupils, on the grounds that the SATs results are too unreliable year on year to be of any professional use.

This school, astonished at a rise in level 7s from seven in 1995 to 70 in 1996, had no idea at the end of term what this year's spread would be, although its own assessments showed consistently similar performance in each of the past three years. The head, understandably, published last year's bonanza with pride, despite the English department's certainty that the number of 7s was well in excess of expectation and reality. Another school in the south, carefully monitoring boys' progress, rec-orded 15 per cent of boys getting levels 6-7 in 1995, 45 per cent in 1996, and 12 per cent in 1997. Again, its own assessments show more consistency across the three years.

The trouble is, schools are getting used to playing the system, challenging poor results and staying quiet when the wheel spins more luckily for them. And if they do ask for a remark, it could be expensive at Pounds 5 a head, for a remark governed by the instruction, "the original marker's marking should be supported whenever possible".

It's not an attractive or dignified spectacle, this pervasion of a lottery culture into education. Despite the poor record of consistency and accuracy in English SATs, parents, the press and others are making judg-ments about pupils and school progress. Teachers, understandably, feel there is a conflict here between politics and education.

Something is very wrong with the English SATs, but no one in authority is admitting it. English teachers mistrust them deeply, but professional concerns are now being repeatedly defined as "cynicism", and dismissed by our new, positive, can-do government.

Ministers who have boldly announced "no hiding place" for incompetence, and pledged higher standards in every classroom in the country, are curiously silent on the matter. Somehow, I do not think we are going to hear David Blunkett declare zero tolerance of failing SATs, nor Chris Woodhead denounce 1,500 SATs markers, or launch a hit-squad to measure the effectiveness of the rumoured Pounds 39 million spent on them.

The big question is - have pupils failed the SATs or have the SATs failed the pupils? Is it too much to expect a robust and honest statement before the new term starts?

What we need is a review of English SATs, not a carry-on as before, with an additional Scratchcard grammar paper added to a flawed model. I am not asking for excellence in SATs. I'm realistic enough to say that making them good would be progress, making them very good would be very pleasing. I think that there is much important space between incompetence and excellence.

Peter Thomas is a lecturer in the school of education at the University of Hull

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