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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Testing times - education ministers flounder at the baseline

Chris McGovern: Testing times – education ministers flounder at the baseline


From 2016, four-year olds will face assessment screening when they begin school. This baseline ‘testing’ will allow pupil progress to be measured across subsequent years. It will be on the basis of this progress that the performance of schools will be judged. SATs at ages seven and eleven will remain and we are promised that they will be made more rigorous.

Baseline ‘screening’ in some form is so sensible that many primary schools and preparatory schools have been doing it for years. The new arrangements will formalise the process. Most commentary seems favourable. Even the teacher unions appear to be on side. Indeed, according to the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, the government and teaching unions worked together on the plan.

Lib Dem schools minister David Laws claims, “The new system will mean higher standards, no hiding place for underperforming schools and coasting schools, and real credit being given to schools and colleges which may have challenging intakes but which improve their pupils’ performance… A better start at secondary school is a better start in life.”

So far, so good. What’s not to like?

Well, quite a lot, actually. Education ministers are even more out of their depth when it comes to ‘little’uns’ than they are with the big boys and girls.

Here goes then – a lesson about schools and ‘little’uns’ in simple language that even ministers should be able to comprehend. Under the new plan everything is going to depend on the baseline assessment. However, assessment of four-year-olds is notoriously unreliable. Off the record, experts in the field of assessment data, may admit that the most reliable method of assessing four-year-olds is to look at the qualifications of the mother.

Now, given the unreliability of baseline assessment how will it work out under the new government plan? One-to-one baseline screening involves, inevitably, a good deal of personal judgement. Will the school assess generously or harshly? If it assesses generously it will make it much harder for the school to show that a child has made progress. Assess harshly and the reverse is true. With performance-related pay around the corner, assessing generously from a low base line will allow a school to show lots of progress. Already, the teacher-assessed component of SATs for 11-year-olds invariably produces higher marks than the externally assessed parts of the test.

This is all very frustrating for secondary schools. They find the SATs results of incoming pupils to be so unreliable that, metaphorically at least, they dump them in the nearest waste paper bin and do their own assessments.

Government minister are floundering around in territory that they, simply, do not understand. Small wonder that the leader of a teacher union that recently passed a vote of no confidence in Michael Gove, has welcomed the plan. Sadly, few of those ‘in the know’ will wish to point out the flaw in Mr Gove’s new ‘cunning plan’ to raise educational standards.

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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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