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Chris McGovern: Teachers’ leaders defend their patch as we slump in global league tables


Teachers’ leaders are urging parents to ignore this year’s school league tables for 11-year-olds. They claim that the SATs tests in English and maths, on which the tables are based, were too hard. “This data is not worth the paper it is written on,” according to Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. “The pass mark for the test [65 per cent] was set at a ridiculously high level.”

It is true that a few of the questions on English grammar were over-complicated but, in terms of the overall performance of children, these few questions did not determine a ‘pass’ or a ‘failure’.

The SATs tests have always been an imperfect measure of performance, largely because they have been easy and far too leniently marked. As a former marker myself, I recall being shocked at the low level expected for a ‘pass’.

At one examiners meeting I attended all the markers in my group, around a dozen, graded one SATs English script as well-below par and a ‘failure’. The chief examiner, however, told us that we were all wrong and that it represented a ‘pass’. We were ordered to grade the scripts we marked accordingly. All of us were stunned!

The adjustment, therefore, in terms of making the tests more challenging and raising the ‘pass’ mark from 60 per cent to 65 per cent, should be welcomed. It was part of Michael Gove’s attempt to lift aspirations and to raise standards.

Russell Hobby’s complaint about the SATs, however, reminds us that the ‘Blob’ has a rather different view of what we should be expecting from our children:

“Pupils were doing [in the SATs tests] what they should have been doing in the early years of secondary school. Some of the grammatical stuff was the same level as GCSE English.”

Unwittingly, he is giving the game away. Expectations in the early years of secondary school and, even, at GCSE, are so low that they are more suited to primary school pupils. It is for this reason that our secondary school children are, according to the OECD, up to 3 years behind the best performing education systems around the world.

The Blob’s ‘rubbishing’ of the latest set of SATs results is part of its educational protection racket that looks after the interests of the teaching profession rather than the best interests of children. It is more concerned with shooting the messenger than with facing up to the issue of underachievement in schools. T S Eliot was right. “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

The problem for the Blob these days is that ‘reality’ is beginning to intrude rather too much into its cosy world of self-congratulation and self-aggrandisement. The latest international PISA tests results were, similarly, ‘rubbished’, as was the recent OECD report placing the UK at the bottom of the league table amongst developed countries for literacy and second bottom for maths. Equally, the ‘Blob’ ignored the stark reality of educational failure in the news that we are the only ‘advanced’ country in which grandparents out-perform their grandchildren in terms of basic skills. And then, of course, we have employers’ organisations persistently lamenting the unemployability of so many school leavers, universities having to run remedial courses… and so on, so on.

The truth is that the SATs results now being complained about by the Blob, simply confirm the ‘reality’ of pupil attainment. We need to stop hiding behind grade inflation in the public examination system and Ofsted claims that around 90 per cent of schools are now “good or outstanding”. Ignoring this year’s SATs results is akin to ignoring the results of a medical check-up. There may have been a few flaws in that check-up, but the overall results are in line with other evidence. By advising parents to ignore them, teachers’ leaders are guilty of a gross dereliction of duty.

(Image: Richard Harrison)

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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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