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.