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Chris McGovern: State primary tops exam league tables. But the small print speaks of systemic failure


“Inner-city primary beats the best private schools”, proclaims a front-page headline of The Sunday Times. This makes for cheerful reading if you are a parent who cannot afford the exorbitant fees required to fund an expensive independent school education. The story relates to the latest batch of national curriculum SAT test results for 11-year-olds. Who needs ‘private’ when you can get better for ‘free’?

The school concerned, Grinling Gibbons primary is in the borough of Lewisham, a comparatively deprived part of south-east London. More than half of its 350 pupils are poor enough to receive free school meals and nearly all of its pupils speak English as a second language. Whole-hearted and sincere congratulations, then, to the school concerned and, not least, to its inspirational head teacher, Cynthia Eubank! Grinling Gibbins is ranked fourth in The Sunday Times Parent Power league tables of SATs results, ahead of nearly all the fee-paying schools in the table.

For all the praise that is due to this successful school, there is rather more to the headline than meets the eye. First of all, one would not know from the Parent Power tables that most private schools, over 80 per cent, do not take part in the SATs tests. They are seen by independent schools as causing teaching to be too narrowly focused on literacy and numeracy at the expense of a broader curriculum ,including foreign languages, the arts and sport.

In addition to narrowing the curriculum, SATs tests can suppress educational progress by setting the attainment bar too low. The so-called ‘national expectation’ for 11-year-olds is Level 4. This is an abysmal level, miles behind what is expected by pupils in high-achieving Asia-Pacific schools, but it is the standard to which our 11-year-olds are meant to aspire.

The impressive achievement of the Grinling Gibbons Primary School is that all pupils achieved Level 5 in reading and in grammar and most achieved it for maths and for writing. That this means they are achieving the ‘national expectation’ for 13-year-olds tells us much about the dire standards and low expectations of our education system. That the vast majority of pupils in the school do not speak English as a first language tells us much about the admirable work ethic and high aspiration of immigrant families.

Back in the 1990s I entered a group of bright 6-7 year-olds (Key Stage 1) prep schools pupils for the key stage 2 SATs intended for 11-year-olds. They all achieved the Level 4 expected of children four years older. Several of them achieved the Level 5 expected of pupils eight years older!

The Department for Education prevented me from repeating the exercise but small wonder that most private schools feel that the SATs are both a waste of time and a distraction. National tests may be necessary where there is a need to ensure basic standards are being attained but they are no basis for comparing state schools with those in the independent sector. Even among the small minority of private schools that do SATs, the admirable Grinling Gibbons is the only state primary school in the top dozen.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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