English children are most tested in the world: our new education secretary could change that

Janet Downs's picture

English school children are among the most tested in the world.  Yet there’s no evidence frequent, mandatory, national tests raise educational performance.  The opposite is true: the OECD warned in 2011 there was too much emphasis on test results in England and this risked negative consequences.  Education in England has actually suffered by being driven by stringent accountability measures.

Until now we’ve had a Government obsessed with testing.  As Michael Gove said when he was Education Secretary, if it can’t be externally assessed then it’s merely playThe Cameron Government appeared to value only test results despite paying lip service to the importance of a wider education experience.  Schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities are judged on test results.  Worse, children are judged by test results.

47% of English 11-year-olds are now classed as failures.  Ex-education secretary Nicky Morgan denied this was the case but it’s disingenuous to say that telling a child s/he hasn’t reached the ‘expected standard’ isn’t failure.

Our new education secretary Justine Greening has an opportunity to change this blinkered view of education.  A start would be to set up a review of the 2016 SATs – something supported by major teacher unions.   And she could suspend all primary tests for 2017.   

Few countries have mandatory, national tests at the end of primary school.  It is odd that a Government which constantly said it wants to be in line with the best-performing education systems should be so out-of-step. 

This is not just true at the end of primary school but at age 16 as well.  Again, very few countries have tests at age 15/16 (the end of lower secondary).  Where they do, they are restricted to a few core subjects and used together with pupil preference and teacher assessment to decide upper secondary options.  These tests are not high stakes – they are not used to judge schools.

Michael Gove boasted constantly about how he reformed exams to be consistent with the best in the world.  He actually did the opposite.  And he flunked the opportunity to overhaul England’s out-of-date exam system. 

Gove portrayed himself as a radical, but, instead of gradually moving towards graduation at 18, he messed about with GCSEs by bringing in reforms at 16.  Worse, they were introduced hastily, without trialling or evaluation.

Justine Greening has the chance to change this – not by imposing more reforms on a shell-shocked teaching profession but by standing back and looking coolly at a testing regime which sucks the joy out of education.  She could start by suspending primary tests in 2017.

A petition requesting our new education secretary to suspend all primary tests next year is here.

ADDENDUM 09.15.  Warwick Mansell, writing on the Cambridge Primay Review Trust website,  outlines 'serious problems' in judging academy trusts solely through the lens of results.  This concern, judging schools primarily by results, can be extended to all schools (although non-academies which aren't their own admission authorities would find it less easy to manipulate their intake).

ADDENDUM 09.27.  TES reports that times tables tests will not be introduced in 2017 as planned.

ADDENDUM 09.44.  TES reports the DfE has published its criteria for testing the writing of 7 and 11 year-olds despite having told teachers last year they would only be in place for one year.   The 'temporary framework' was reproduced complete with errors.   Greening must surely put an end to this incompetence.



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Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 16/07/2016 - 15:42

Janet is right in every respect.

This very important article in which Warwick focuses on the key issue at the core of the continuing crisis in the English education system. This is the disconnect between the quality of education programmes provided for pupils of all abilities and the performance indicators designated by the government as drivers for the official judgements of school performance used by OfSTED and which drive the school performance tables that the government encourages parents to use when choosing schools for their children.


The problem arises because in a real market the purchasers make their own decisions about the performance indicators that they most value in the products in the market place. In the English education system we have an imposed pseudo-market in which the government decides what these indicators should be. These are so complex that the parents exercising their 'market choices' have to take the government's word that the indicators measure what really want from their children's schools.

The genuinely independent research to which Warwick links in his article shows that this is not the case and what we end up with is a range of ever changing perverse incentives on schools to degrade the real quality of educational programmes available with the catastrophic social and education consequences hat have accumulated over the decades in which pseudo-marketisation has been corrupting the school system.

The practices to which he refers in his article have been going on for years.

The following is taken from Section 2.3, 'The creation and growth of a cognitive underclass' in my 2015 book, 'Learning matters'.

On 16 January 2011, BBC Newsnight featured unofficial exclusions from Academies and the effect this was having on the proportions of pupils not entered for GCSE English and maths. The BBC had researched the following data based on the 2010 GCSE results.

In Academies 3.5 percent of pupils were not entered for English and maths GCSEs compared to 2.0 percent in Local Authority Community Schools. 21 percent of Academies had fewer than 95 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than double the proportion of any other school type). 9 percent of academies had fewer than 90 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE (more than triple the proportion of any other school type). 2 percent of academies had fewer than 80 percent of pupils attempting English and Maths GCSE whereas all other school types had zero percent of schools which fall within this bracket. The DfE turned a blind eye to the mounting evidence of poor performance in many independent Academy schools financed by the taxpayer.

The key question raised by the Newsnight programme was why any school would not want to enter every pupil for GCSE English and maths. Parents can be put under pressure to withdraw a less able, or more troublesome child and seek a place in another school, which would improve results.

Unlike Academies, community schools with surplus places cannot resist such parental applications. The only other way to remove poorly performing pupils so as to enhance the school’s results is by legal permanent exclusion, but this is a negative performance indicator suggesting poor discipline, and is taken into account by OfSTED in coming to their judgements.

The real reasons for non-entry may be much more troubling and relate to the concept of educational failure.
Unsurprisingly, more spirited persistent pupil failures tend to become alienated and disruptive and they may then degrade the teaching/instruction/cramming/revision environment for all the E/D graders that the school is desperately trying to get up to a C. As permanent exclusion is too risky with OfSTED, a solution is to ‘get rid’ by arranging various forms of ‘alternative’ off-site education.

The BBC Newsnight programme featured an example of a female student with a Statement of Special Educational Needs placed on a programme in which mainly boys were taught various cognitively undemanding craft skills in an off-site unit run by an ex-army officer. She was not allowed to attend any classes at her Academy school and so she was not entered for GCSE English or maths in year 11.

A headteacher on the programme admitted that such practice was common and described it as an example of, ‘the dark arts’ of headship.

Steve Jessop's picture
Sun, 15/03/2020 - 12:31

Assessment is a nudging tool. It shapes our learning and teaching behaviours depending on what the assessment focus is and what price the outcomes . Per se it is an essential and intrinsic part of pedagogy and neither intriniscally good or bad. What makes the difference are the desired outcomes. For example, In previous years Maths and Reading SATs at Primary level nudged practice in favour of the broad application of maths and reading comprehension. Generally accepted as good practice. Whereas more recent additions such as SPaG, the phonics blending test and now the multiplication test have nudged the curriculum down very narrow, specific areas of subject knowledge. Albeit intended as a means to a broader end they have instead been counterproductive because the pole has been set too high, resulting in a distorted narrower curriculum and practice - as time has been competeted for. Formative assessment - often mispercieved as the good guy- only perpetuates the distortions within these parameters.

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