The Elephant in the Primary School Classroom: The Data is Made Up.

“Data” is used to justify and condemn all manner of things in education. The percentage of children achieving particular standards in particular subjects with, especially at primary level, a sharp focus on reading, writing, maths and science, is the primary measure by which we assess the success of an educational policy, institution or initiative. There are big, big questions to be asked about whether that is the most appropriate measure of school performance, and certainly we should be concerned about using it as the only measure, as happens all too often. Yet there is perhaps an even bigger problem with this situation in primary schools at present: the data is made up.

There, I said it.

Every teacher and head teacher knows it, every Ofsted inspector knows it and I think some of the students have clocked it too.  It is something we dare not say for fear of exposing our own roles in this elaborate, nationwide deception but something which, as I am no longer employed as a teacher, I am at liberty to acknowledge.

It started small. During the last decade, teachers knew they were required to report children’s assessments at the age of 7 as “teacher assessments”: judgements they would make the results of tests that children could sit in small, adult-guided groups. Key Stage 2 results, on the other hand, were formed on the basis of hard test results, sat individually and in silence by eleven-year-olds in their last term at primary school, marked and moderated externally by examiners in other parts of the country to whom test scripts were sent by post. As these assessments started to be used increasingly by Ofsted inspectors, local authorities and politicians to form make-or-break judgements about schools and even individual head teachers, a sense developed in every single school I encounterred that there was a game that needed to be played. In the beginning this meant entering a pupil’s “teacher assessment” score in Year 2 very slightly higher than the staff knew was strictly accurate. They would justify it to themselves by saying things like: “I’m sure he’ll be there by the end of Year 2 in July” or “she’s had a lot to deal with at home and we need to make some allowance for that.” In time, this became more sophisticated. As primary schools came to realise they were being judged largely on the basis of pupil progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, many schools with very successful outcomes in Year 2 actually started suppressing those assessments slightly. Show me any teacher who worked in a school with both an infant and a junior department at the time who claims they haven’t heard the words “don’t send up too many Level 3s- they’ll have to be 5s” and I’ll show you a liar. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that infant-only schools, that make all their own assessment judgements with usually relatively light-touch moderation from the local authority, are more likely to be graded “Outstanding” than any other type of school. Funny that.

There have been numerous other assessments left open to the same sort of game-playing. Science assessments at the end of Key Stage 2 have been formed by teachers without a test for well over a decade now and most Year 6 teachers I’ve ever met arrive at these simply by arbitrarily tweaking a few maths predictions. The phonics screening test in Year 1 is conducted by a teacher and a six-year-old alone in a room. I have no basis on which to question the integrity of the adults administering these tests but such a huge amount of pressure is placed on the outcomes that they will no doubt be striving to ensure every pupil can do as well as they can. It is safe to suppose that Year 1 teachers’ respective interpretations of what this means vary considerably from setting to setting. Now there are the new Year 6 writing assessments and it’s hard to know where to even start. No one can agree on what the expected standard looks like, no one can moderate them consistently and the DfE themselves don’t seem to have a clear position. What schools end up reporting is almost entirely arbitrary.

Then there are the tests themselves in Key Stage 2. Over the past six years we know huge numbers of schools have been handed over to academy chains and we know that some of these are more scrupulous than others. Given the number of financial scandals involving these groups, we know many of the people overseeing these organisations have few scruples about massaging reality when it comes to their balance sheet. How many more might be willing to bend the rules a bit when it comes to administering the tests? Once, when I was on a school trip, I heard two Year 6 teachers who worked at an academy in London discussing the publication of the mark schemes (earlier that day) for the tests Year 6 had sat nationwide the previous week. One told the other about the answer to a particular question, to which her colleague replied, “Oh good. That’s what I told them.” This struck me for two reasons. Firstly, what business have you got teaching Year 6 if you don’t know the answer to an eleven-year-old’s test question with any certainty until the mark scheme is published? Secondly, and more urgently, what could that remark mean other than that this teacher had been giving answers to her students? I’ve heard other stories from former colleagues speaking to staff in other schools. And it’s no longer just academies. This “results-at-any-cost” mentality has got into the heads of senior leaders in plenty of schools that are still under local authority control. The range of access arrangements and easily corrupted “support” in the form of “readers” on offer could very easily be abused. At most, schools will receive one monitoring visit from the local authority for an hour or two during test week, and even that only one in every three or four years. Moreover, the local authority has little incentive to identify maladministration in its jurisdiction and the negative headlines that could generate.

The data generated by these assessments is used to sack head teachers and close down schools. It is used to dispense knighthoods and £200,000-a-year consultancy jobs. Within schools, teachers’ pay is linked to the results. Every term, at pupil progress meetings, an unnatural dance takes place between the SLT and the class teachers as leaders attempt to collect the data they “need” to show school improvement, and teachers submit the data that will make their work look successful. Teachers talk about this stupid game all the time. If they believed it really meant anything, they might be more inclined to want to play it. But the real reason they despise it so much goes unsaid in public most of the time. They can all see the Emperor has no clothes. Primary school assessment data is no longer worth the paper it’s written on.

And that’s before we even ask whether we’re actually testing the right things.

11 comments

  1. I administered a Maths test to my class of year 1s today. Three of them cried and more looked unhappy or confused. Looking back on my planning for this time a few years ago we were into rehearsals for Christmas plays. I didn’t sign up for this shit!

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    1. I work for an all-through school, in Year 6, where the Deputy Head of the senior school has just taken over as Head of Juniors and Infants (to much furore). For all the concern of someone without primary experience taking over, it was so refreshing to have a target setting meeting where we were told to be realistic instead of, ‘we need x to be here’. The unreliability of primary data undermines so much of the hard work we put in each and every day!

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  2. I don’t feel qualified to comment on the picture at secondary level. However, it seems to me there may be an inevitable entropy that takes hold in any system that prioritises numbers over people.

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  3. Strongly suspect that the elephant, and its repercussions on teacher, and child, mental health, may have far more to do with people getting out, or wanting to get out of teaching than the actual workload (though workload is definitely a big part too). Plus budget cutbacks for SEN and mental health support for children. None of it is good for getting best progress for all children.

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  4. Thank god someone has said it! I teach secondary and am amazed at what ks2 kids can ‘do’ in the loosest sense of the word. The system is broken.

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