The politicians currently dictating what happens in our schools have got it into their heads that they can raise standards just by making statutory tests harder. There is no evidence for this. They say we need to improve our position in global comparison tables such as those produced by PISA or the OECD. This would probably be a good thing to do: if our 18-year-olds were as good at passing tests as 18-year-olds in Finland, it would mean we were getting something right, even if it wasn’t the whole story. But even if you believe that improving our global ranking should be the sole aim of education policy in this country, then we are still going about it in completely the wrong way, and in completely the opposite direction to a country like Finland.
I’m a big believer that if you’re going to point out a problem, you will be able to do so far more convincingly if you can simultaneously offer a solution. With that in mind, here are seven principles that any government, party or campaign might want to think about when considering what an alternative approach to accountability in primary schools might look like.
- Tests should be used to set minimum expectations rather than define high standards.
The recent chaos around primary assessment is causing something of an over-reaction in some quarters, with some teachers and parents taking to social media to demand an end to any sort of testing whatsoever in primary schools. I don’t mind the occasional maths and English test, so long as it’s well-designed, relevant to a clearly-specified curriculum and used primarily as a tool for teachers and head teachers to inform their plans.
It seems to me that testing is most useful if it is kept relatively straightforward; as one of several effective tools to identify those who are struggling to master the basics so support can be put in place. For the majority of children, such tests should be something to celebrate; an opportunity to show what they know and a benchmark on which the rest of their education in the wider curriculum (for which time could actually be found) can be built in more creative and personalised ways.
A school should be judged not on what percentage of its students pass a ridiculously difficult test full of vocabulary that teachers were never told they had to teach. Instead it should be judged on what it does to support a usually quite small minority of children unable to pass a straightforward, age-appropriate test and how it provides opportunities for everyone, including the majority who can pass with ease, to develop a love of learning and pursue their own talents. This approach is not an alternative to improving our position in global comparison tables; it is the only way we can ever hope to do it.
2. Data needs to be a starting point, not the bottom line.
I’m not opposed to testing per se but I think the way results of statutory tests in primary schools are being used is utterly absurd. One hears far too many stories of Ofsted inspectors appearing to turn up at schools with preconceived assumptions about its effectiveness entirely on the basis of its “data”, a needlessly grand-sounding word for the test scores of children no longer at the school. It does seem as though this has started to improve in the last couple of years but too much emphasis is still placed on numbers in tables rather than the actual experiences of people within the organisation.
In a one-form entry primary school, every child in Year 6 is 3.33% of that year’s data. If there are six children on Free School Meals in that year group, each of those six represents 16.66% of that group. The way these percentages then get sliced and diced and used to draw out tenuous conclusions is quackery of the highest order and I suspect most statisticians would be astonished if they could see the bogus way such calculations are used to put pressure on schools and teachers.
It makes any task easier when reliable and objective data is easily generated. But it’s not good enough just to pretend that such data exists when it doesn’t. Which brings me to:
3. League tables need to be scrapped altogether.
Governments of all stripes have justified league tables as a means of providing “better information for parents.” They don’t. No group of children is the same and the results achieved by a given school in a given year tell you far less about the effectiveness of that school than they do about the nature of its intake. In a climate where academies and free schools can refuse to admit particular students if they “cannot meet their needs” (translation: they think the child will adversely affect their results) and with inequality not just between individuals but between postcodes soaring, making these sorts of comparisons between schools is meaningless.
League tables don’t provide information. They cloud the truth and trap the unwary. They don’t just need to be revised, replaced or adjusted. The whole idea behind them is false premise: get rid of them.
4. The only inspection grades should be pass and fail.
There are currently four Ofsted gradings: outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate. These are used as a means to treat head teachers and teachers like children and often result in making them behave like children too. This is another state of affairs designed to “inform parents.” All it usually does is frighten them unnecessarily and cause an extraordinary level of chaos in the housing market as prices rise and fall according to the often pretty arbitrary judgements made about nearby schools.
A school is either fulfilling the basic expectations of the taxpayers who fund it or it is not. If it’s not ensuring most of its children achieve even basic standards in maths and English or if there are even more serious problems, such as safeguarding concerns, then obviously immediate action needs to be taken (actual action on the actual issue – not just turning the school into an academy). If the school is doing its basic job well, then an inspection report should be largely descriptive. It should let parents know what the school’s strengths are across a wide range of areas including English, maths, sport, music, drama, pupil and staff well-being, good manners, community ethos, environmental credentials, citizenship and so on. This sort of report would provide far more useful information to parents and schools would be made even more accountable, keen as they would surely be to ensure a report bursting with positive attributes they could demonstrate.
5. Interactions with pupils need to be incentivised, not record-keeping.
Ofsted inspections focus far too much on evidence in ring-binders. Personally, I would be tempted to ban ring-binders from schools altogether. Evidence of a school’s commitment to engaging with its local community is not to be found in a pile of action plans and ticked-off objectives. It’s to be found in conversations with children who can talk excitedly about when they went to sing with the choir at a local event, about the work they did with a local author or about what they learnt when they visited a place of worship of a faith different to that of their family. Evidence of a child’s progress in maths isn’t found in Victorian-style ledgers marked and double-marked by their teachers every night. It’s found by talking to them about a project they’ve done and asking them to explain the maths they used to complete it. The evidence is in children’s memories and conversations, not in outdated exercise books or ring binders in the head teacher’s office.
If conversations with children (and their parents) were the principal way in which teachers and head teachers were held to account, their system of incentives and disincentives would change completely. Rather than keeping tick-lists, producing action-plans, filling in assessment grids and writing comments that will never get read by a pupil, staff would need to spend almost all their time thinking about how to make their interactions with children meaningful, positive and productive.
6. The views of stakeholders need to be centre-stage.
It’s amazing, when you consider how much politicians love to talk about “parent power”, how little involvement they invite from parents when it’s time to judge the effectiveness of a school. And it’s equally remarkable, when you consider how much they like to use words like “child-centred” and pupil voice”, how little time they want to spend listening to the pupils themselves.
Most of the time an inspector spends in a school should be spent talking to children and parents- not through prosaic questionnaires that children will fill in with their teachers looking over their shoulders and only 10% of parents will return (or even worse now, through Parent View, which only ever gets filled in by Moaning Malcolm and Negative Nelly) but through real conversations. I would suggest inspectors actually phoned a large sample of parents at a school and invited them in to share their views.
I would suggest inspectors spent very little time in lessons at all. A set-piece lesson observation prepared by a teacher knowing they were about to be inspected tells you nothing about the day-to-day reality of a learner in that class. It would be far better to ask a group of pupils from each class to show the inspectors round their classroom during playtime while their teacher wasn’t even there and tell them about what they’ve been doing. If there were children who seemed to be falling behind in maths and English, this should of course be part of that conversation, but it could be broadened out to cover so much more.
Staff, too, are a good source of information. A sure sign of an effective, healthy, well-run school is that its staff are singing from the same hymn sheet. The extent to which the staff are able to tell a consistent story about the school’s strengths and areas for development will reveal more than anything which can be kept in a ring-binder. I really hate ring-binders.
7. Judgements need to be made, at least in part, by serving professionals.
A primary school is a complex, living system and it can’t simply be assessed according to an evaluation framework document by someone who doesn’t really understand what he or she is looking at. At least one member of any inspection team should be a serving professional; someone facing the same challenges that the school being inspected faces every day. If the school being inspected is a primary school, their background should be in primary education. If the school is in a socially diverse multicultural community, it should be inspected by someone with first-hand experience of that sort of context.
I would suggest a ballot system such as that used for jury service could be used to assemble an inspection team: one serving headteacher, one serving classroom teacher with a certain number of years’ experience and one member of the public. They could be accompanied by a facilitator figure that works full-time for their inspectorate but their role is to ensure rules are followed and the report is produced appropriately rather than to make any judgements themselves.
As the primary education system buckles around us, it’s becoming obvious that our approach to accountability in our primary schools needs to change. SATs, Ofsted, the DfE, league tables…these words used to terrify teachers. Now we laugh at them. It really is time to rip it all up and start again.