The rights of children over Key Stage 2 science sampling

John Mountford's picture
During a monitoring visit to the local primary where I am a governor today, I got into conversation with the Year 6 teacher over this year's proposal to reintroduce science sampling. What she informed me of left me with more questions than answers and some serious concerns over the ethical justification for this particular activity.

I went onto the DfE website to look for the latest news and came across an announcement which I copied and provide in full below:

"Science sampling tests for children at the end of key stage 2 will recommence in June 2014 on a biennial basis. The test will not be taken by whole cohorts. Instead a sample of approximately 9 500 children will be randomly selected, based on five children from 1 900 schools. Schools that are selected have a statutory obligation to participate."

"Test results will be reported as national data only. No individual school or child will be identified within the data that is published. Results will not be used for school accountability or performance tables and individual results will not be returned to schools or children."

"Children will sit the test within a two week period from Monday 2 June. STA will contact schools by the middle of May to agree which day the test will be taken on. Consideration will be given to schools’ existing commitments."

"The test consists of three papers. Each will take no longer than 25 minutes to complete."

"The test will be overseen by external administrators. A member of school staff may need to be available to support the administration of the test if this is agreed with the external administrator. The external administrator will notify the school of the five children that have been included in the sample. Schools are not required to place test orders. The external administrator will be responsible for bringing the test papers to school and taking the test scripts for marking."

"The science sampling test will not be subject to monitoring visits nor will it need supporting by local authorities."

"Detailed information will be provided to schools selected to participate."

This a general article, updated on the fifth of November 2013. It was news to me. As you can see, five children will be selected at random from each of 1900 schools and tested by an external administrator. The purpose of the exercise is to obtain national data relating to science and it is over that that my curiosity begins.

What will the data tell us? What will they be used for? Are they to provide 'evidence' about the teaching of science, the coverage of the science curriculum, the standards of attainment or some other measure? These questions reflect my general curiosity but from here I have to admit to feeling a rising tide of unease over what I regard as potentially far more worrying implications of this exercise.

It is clear that schools will have to take part, but what of the children and parents of those individuals selected to take three tests of up to 25 minutes duration, administered by some unknown person? What choice do they have? Supposedly, the school's involvement with their own children is not automatic. The advice states it might be, "if this is agreed with the external administrator." but makes it seem as if this would happen for the convenience of the external administrator rather than to safeguard any children who might find this whole process challenging or upsetting. I find this element unacceptable and if I had a child selected to take part, I would want to have the right to withdraw him/her at my discretion, especially if I was unable to get some pretty convincing reassurances that everything would done to support my child, up to and including their right to withdraw from the process if they felt so inclined.

Beyond the rights of children and families in relation to this screening of science at the end of the key stage, I am intrigued to know exact details of how the data will be used. On this, the information available at present simply states that:

"Results will not be used for school accountability or performance tables and individual results will not be returned to schools or children."

It seems clear that their use will not involve accountability or performance tables (do I choose believe that?) but why not return individual results to schools and the children involved? Is this because the schools, or the children, or their families do not deserve to share in the findings to the extent that they will be able to disaggregate their performance from the pooled data?

I ponder if the intention is to secretly select schools on the basis of some preconceived idea, for example, that academies outperform local authority schools in science attainment?

It may be that there is nothing at all to be concerned about, but I am a 'child of the times' and have a high degree of suspicion whenever it comes to trusting the motivation of ANY government department, especially the dictatorially-led DfE. If my suspicions over use of the data prove baseless, that will not satisfy me that children's rights are safeguarded through their involvement in this kind of activity.

Being the kind of person I am, I want to know the exact details and I want to be able to know how to respond if my school is ordered to take part and the parents involved seek the school's advice. Is there a right to refuse? If not, is this the denial of a basic human right? I would be grateful to know what thoughts other readers have.
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 10:14

John - I share your concern about the effect on the chosen children. Would parents be informed in advance? Do they have the right to refuse? These children would already be taking SATs which causes stress for a great number of children (see Mumsnet thread below - I know it's anecdotal but it raises the question how widespread this is).

If the children are not warned in advance this could lead to the selected pupils being separated from their classmates with little explanation in order to take 45mins of tests in total in the presence of a stranger. If a teacher is present then other children could be without their teacher for the duration. This raises a further question: who will teach the remaining children (a classroom assistant?)?

Bob Archer's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 10:38

Is this about collecting data for OECD statistics such as PISA?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 11:11

Bob - the problem is that we don't know what the data will be used for. PISA looks at 15 year-olds and does its own tests. TIMSS tests 10 year-olds in Science and English 10 year-olds did well in the last round of TIMSS (see faq above).

It could be measuring how effectively primary schools teach science using a sampling technique but I'm unsure whether just five children from each school would result in a reliable results. In any case, Ofsted looks at science teaching during inspections.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 12:57

On the one hand it could be a good thing. It is quite reasonable for the DfE to want data from which it can judge the standards of attainment across a statistically representative sample. This is the only sound reason for SATs. The sampling system also has the advantage that it has no implications for the pupils taking part or for the school. It is not a high stakes test therefore it will not corrupt teaching and learning in Year 6 as is currently the case with SATs.

Perhaps then it is preparing the ground for the abolition of KS2 SATs, and their replacement with such sampling purely for the purpose of providing data. If this was the case then, like the annual census, individuals would have a moral duty to take part as well as legal compulsion and it would be an all round good thing.

On the other hand I share all of John's concerns and agree with him that a great many answers to questions are required.

Bob Archer's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 13:07

Thanks for the clarification.

Peter Flack's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 14:34

Regardless of the benefits in terms of judging standards, it is clear that there is no statutory duty on a child to perform these tests and there cannot be a statutory duty on the child or the parents, should they choose to withdraw their child. Finland seems to function remarkably well without external testing. The failure of the DfE to consult on these plans - or indeed to explain anything about their intentions in relation to the data - is typical of a government that sees itself as all seeing and all knowing when it comes to education.

Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 14:56

Isn't this how Finland does all its accountability checks? Perhaps it shouldn't be discouraged.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 15:33

Barry - this is from Finland's Ministry of Education and Culture:

"There is strong focus on both self-evaluation of schools and education providers and national evaluations of learning outcomes. National evaluations of learning outcomes are done regularly, so that there is a test every year either in mother tongue and literature or mathematics. Other subjects are evaluated according to the evaluation plan of the Ministry of Education and Culture. Not only academic subjects are evaluated but also subjects such as arts and crafts and cross-curricular themes."

"From the schools’ perspective, the evaluations are not regular as they are sample-based. The education providers receive their own results to be used for development purposes."

"The main aim of the national evaluations of learning outcomes is to follow at national level how well the objectives have been reached as set in the core curricula and qualification requirements. Consequently, the results are not used for ranking the schools."

So, the purpose is made clear: to test whether core curricula objectives have been met. The sampling covers all subjects over time: schools receive their results which can be used for improvement.

This doesn't seem quite the same as is proposed in England: only one subject evaluated by giving a test to a tiny number of pupils in each of the schools. It's unclear what the purpose of the sampling is.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 16:41

I am grateful for the comments. It occurs to me that, whereas there may be valid reasons for conducting this sampling exercise, in line with others, I cannot help but feel suspicious because of the woeful lack of clarity over purpose. It smacks of 'we know what is best' and is counter to the rhetoric of politicians purporting to seek more open government. I have penned a letter to my MP requesting he take this up in the House and will refresh this thread when I get a reply.

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 19:09

"Perhaps it shouldn't be discouraged." In effect, Barry, the problem boils down to two really important questions; what about the rights of children and families and why the apparent lack of transparency?

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 13/02/2014 - 22:07

John - You and Peter Flack are right, but the idea of sampling as practised in Finland has its merits. Presumably in Finland everyone trusts the government to do right by their kids.

That's the difference.

Frustrated Teacher's picture
Fri, 14/02/2014 - 18:10

I understand everyone's concern about this because many of us have no trust in the government; but I do agree with Roger's first post - this seems to me a much better way of monitoring the progress of education than things like SAT's. However, I seem to recall that when SAT's were first introduced we were told that it wasn't a substitute for 11plus and that individual students would not get their own result to carry through their school life with them - it was just there to judge the effectiveness of the school. That didn't last long.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/02/2014 - 07:58

Frustrated Teacher - yes, I remember when SATs were described as Standard Assessment Tasks not Tests. This was supposed to dilute fears they would be used to judge schools.

As you say, that didn't last long.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 17/02/2014 - 10:46

I've found out some information on how sampling is done in Finland. It's too long to put in a comment so I've started another thread.

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