Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Boycotts, testing, targets and cuts

The publication of today's national primary school test results - the last taken under the Labour government - show both the limitations of the NUT/NAHT test boycott and the importance of externally validated national testing. The improvements since 1995 when the tests began have been remarkable, and this year's Maths results are the best ever. When we took the decision to make Key Stage 4 the expected rather than the average standard (ahead of the 1997 election) we faced a lot of criticism then from those same unions that felt a boycott somehow benefited students this year: they said we were being too ambitious. But using targets, particularly floor targets, combined with the literacy and numeracy hours in the late 90s allowed a big change in results. The fact that this is now a standard that can be achieved by 4 in 5 eleven year-olds vindicates that ambition. Over 100,000 more pupils each year make the grade. The schools minister Nick Gibb is right to argue that even more should reach this standard.

But he and his colleagues must be careful in what they are cutting. If Gibb wishes to strengthen the quality of teaching in primary English and Maths, he needs to find ways to incentivise schools to do so. Simply providing a cash premium on its own for poorer pupils without such incentivisation will make little difference, especially if it removes money from programmes directed at the 3Rs and improved in-service professional development. The majority of pupils and teachers defied the unions, enabling today's results to be published. But it is important that the coalition balances its welcome commitments to strong accountability and a pupil premium with the sort of floor targets and agreed ambitions that have also played such an important part in the improvements of recent years.

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