It should be a truth universally acknowledged that if there is a way to degrade our education system, the Department for Education and its offshoots will find it. Sub-standard comprehensive schooling backed up by the all-ability GCSE examination was an impressive start to the process. It was followed by the introduction of a ‘knowledge-lite’ National Curriculum. The logic of producing the curriculum after launching the exam that tested it was but one reflection of the incompetence and chaos that defines educational decision-making.

A few weeks ago we saw the scandalous manipulation of public examination grades to cover up the failure of candidates to cope with some question papers that were less dumbed down than in previous years. Fifteen per cent is the new gold standard ‘good pass’ in GCSE maths for one board.

Educationally it may make no sense at all, but in business terms it is a winner. Why should a school pay its candidate fees to an exam board that requires 18 per cent, the cross-board average for a ‘good pass’, when there is one offering the same result with 15 per cent? To bring in more cash the marketing slogan is simple enough: ‘Your pupils will need 20 per cent more marks with other boards. Choose us for the best GCSE pass rate value around!

The DfE’s latest excursion into ‘getting it wrong’ territory has just been announced. Compulsory SATs for 7-year-olds will be scrapped from 2023 on the erroneous grounds that children are too young to be tested at that age. They will be replaced by baseline assessments for 4- and 5-year-olds on the equally erroneous grounds that testing at that age is meaningful and that the children are not too young.

It takes some doing to get things quite so cockeyed and wrong as this latest ‘improvement’ measure. Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, clearly needs a great deal of learning support. In the bad old days it would have been the ‘naughty step’ and the dunce’s hat for her.

Off the record, respected university assessment gurus will confess that the most reliable way of assessing a 4- to 5-year-old is to look at the qualifications of the mother! Not that this is especially reliable!

As head teacher of a very heavily over-subscribed selective school, I found the assessment for entry into Year 1 to be the hardest part of my job, and by far the most stressful.

Parents of children who ‘failed’ our assessments – based as much on ‘interview’ as on very basic numeracy, literacy and non-verbal reasoning – were often tearful, distraught and sometimes aggressive. The assessment ‘performance’ of 4- to 5-year-olds can vary from hour to hour, let alone day to day. I shared their concerns and invariably offered re-assessment a year later. Only when it came to assessing 7-year-olds did the process have a sufficient degree of reliability.

Why, then, is Justine Greening doing away with assessments at the ‘right’ age and replacing them with assessments at the ‘wrong’ age? She has clearly been persuaded by her officials of the neatness of a ‘baseline assessment’ system. Bureaucratically, it is, indeed, a beautiful model. Assess at the start of primary school and at the end (SATs) to measure progress from start to finish.

This cunning plan has only one fault: it will not work! Worse, it will totally undermine the credibility of the data about progress across the primary school years. The unreliability of the process for assessing 4- to 5-year olds is well recognised. Since primary schools will be judged on the progress pupils make between Reception (age 4 to 5) and Year 6 (age 10 to 11), the new baseline assessment will become hopelessly unreliable.

Teacher-controlled assessment of Reception pupils, unreliable itself, will become doubly unreliable because many teachers will be inclined to mark harshly to show that the ‘little-uns’ have made progress by the time they take the externally assessed SATs at the end of Year 6.

At the age of 7, the starting year for schools in Finland, a baseline assessment system would have merit, provided it was not a teacher assessment. The Secretary of State has allowed herself to be persuaded otherwise. What appears to be the more attractive option – baseline assessment at age 4 to 5 – is, in fact, fatally flawed and will have damaging long-term consequences for our education system. Ms Greening is taking the office she holds to depths last plumbed by Labour’s Estelle Morris who did, at least, have the self-awareness and decency to resign.


  1. And, of course, bright parents with bright children will be telling them to get everything wrong in the first assessments so that they also look brilliant by the end.

    • And intelligent, street savvy parents will be educating their children in the art of educating themselves via out of school interests, engaging in life and learning to make their own decisions. I truly believe if you know where to find the answers to your questions and you can articulate your own opinions you will have a head start on anyone else.

    • No point because it’s the SATs results at the end of primary that matter because they’re typically used as the baseline in secondary. Some schools may use them to decide which sets a child goes in and they’re often used to predict GCSE grade targets.

      If you have a bright child and you suspect they’ll be under-challenged at secondary then you want the highest end-primary result you can get, because that will often become a high GCSE target. On the other hand if you’re concerned that they may be over-stressed…

  2. Justine Greening is neither a teacher nor a parent – of course she doesn’t have a clue.

    It is a fair assumption that she cares far more about the ‘Women’ and ‘Equality’ aspects of her job than she does about ‘Education’.

  3. Teachers claim that tests put stress on children. It is the teachers that put stress on children because the teachers know that the results are a reflection on them and on the school. When I was in primary school in the 1950s, long before the national curriculum was dreamt of, we had tests of English and arithmetic every term. Although it was not the most enjoyable part of our education nobody found the tests particularly stressful. We simply took it for granted, even at a young age, that tests of what we had learnt were a natural feature of education.

    • Agree. And we also had spelling lists we had to learn every week, times tables that we had to recite on demand. None of it was stressful but we certainly made sure we learned what we were given.

      I also remember the class had books that we all took turns in reading out loud to our peers. It helped with confidence and diction. I was always fearful of being asked to stand and read a page but it has proven a good grounding in later life.

  4. Baseline assessment of infants joining a reception class has always been done by infant teachers, not in a single ‘test’, but over a period of several weeks – to sort out those who are ‘about average’, those who can read already, and those who can hardly speak properly. At least it was always done in the past.

  5. It suits government and business (especially the financial services industry) for the general population to be as badly educated as possible so much of the nonsense spouted by both is not questioned.

    “APR? Whassat mean?”

    “Dunno mate.”

  6. The state talks about educationassessment in social terms, but the relevance is to the individual parents of the children and not the appeasement of some mythical collective consciousness.

    Hence it becomes very obvious that what is being sold is ‘mass education’ under the banner of Government provision. In effect the tests are about the Governments credibility as an education provider and not the individual ability of the youngster being tested.

    Viewed from that perspective it’s quite obvious how soulless, empty and vacuous state education really is; it cares nothing for the child, nor the parents, nor takes any responsibility for guaranteeing the abilities of the young adult to an employer.

    We see this kind of standard applied everywhere. The dilution of money, education, health, art, media and books. In a word it’s all fake.

    • All teaching should be taken out of the hands of Government. It seems that the less capable you are in Government, the more chance you have of obtaining an important job. Nicky Morgan is another hopeless individual.

      I also think the teaching union should be stopped in its tracks. Maybe we should even consider not sending our children to school before the age of seven. Instead we could encourage mothers to stay at home and form teaching groups whereby the children can learn in a similar way to the private Montessori system. It seems yet again the
      Private sector win hands down because it really does have to answer to parents, who having worked hard to pay for that education, demand a high quality product.

      • Absolutely and I have said so many times. Indeed, without state regulatory intervention, state educators, state exam boards and public backed loans for universities, it’s very likely that real education would be at a very low cost and far higher quality.

      • “Instead we could encourage mothers to stay at home and form teaching groups.”

        Yes, a noble concept; but how would it ever pan out in the real world? It is easy to foresee small groups of conscientious middle-class mothers where it works a treat, and vast soulless estates where the mothers don’t care, where they don’t know enough themselves to teach their children anything, and where hordes of feral five and six year olds are instead turfed out to roam the streets looking for mischief.

  7. It gets my goat when I see the likes of Justine Greening described as a Conservative.
    She, and I’m afraid the vast majority of her colleagues are not, and never have been even remotely ‘Conservative’.

  8. Greening is not fit for purpose. She should not be in the Conservative party. A token gesture and I wonder why? Along with that other idiot Maria Miller they are preoccupy their time in mad leftist PC nonsense.

  9. “The logic of producing the curriculum after launching the exam that tested it …” An unfair criticism.
    As Mr McGovern knows well, there was no National Curriculum when O-Levels were set for pupils. Did that invalidate the qualifications?

    There was a time when pupils were not taught to the test, be the test O-Level or GCSE. This was for good or for bad. Some pupils had time to cover what was in the exam and more. They benefited from good teachers who knew what extra topics would enrich the education of their pupils. More often though it was for the bad – poor teachers failed to cover the syllabus and pupils were denied the qualifications that their hard work deserved. This was a time when teachers taught what they wanted how they wanted. The National Curriculum was an attempt to impose some discipline on the profession.

Comments are closed.