Friday 12 October 2007

Where the real pressure on children comes from

Today's Primary Review interim report makes interesting reading, but not for the reasons that John Humphrys would have you believe. We awoke this morning to the Today programme's ritual claims (audio, go to 7.09) that testing is destroying childhood. Yet a closer inspection of the self-styled 'biggest review of primary education in forty years' (pdf, p.19) - based on interviews with 750 people including children - reveals something that most of us suspect, but for which we have not yet had such striking academic evidence. Children are much clearer about why tests are useful than their teachers and parents, who often transfer their anxieties onto them. To quote from the report:

The children were more ambivalent about SATs than any other constituency that we met during the community soundings. SATs were ‘scary’, made them nervous and anxious, and put them under pressure. But equally:
• ‘tests tell teachers, and us, how we are doing’
• ‘parents want them’
• ‘children should be tested to show that they have done well and have been listening’
• ‘tests help children know what they have learned’
• ‘we need SATs to find our potential, and gaps in our understanding.’
• ‘high grades give you confidence.’

Ambivalent is code here for: they didn't conform to our prejudices. As the Times notes in its leader this morning, this is a report based on the instincts of the 'educational world' rather than any objective evidence of what testing, inspection and the national curriculum has achieved and can do. For schools that use tests and assessment regularly and confidently find that they help children improve, and contrary to what the author of Toxic Childhood Sue Palmer proclaimed also on Today, tests and targets have helped disadvantaged pupils and their schools to improve faster than middle class schools and pupils.

This report comes on the same day as the far more troubling results of the Foundation Profiles of around 600,000 youngsters are published, showing that 40% of children are educationally underdeveloped at the age of five. The idea that not testing them at 11 will somehow compensate for this is bizarre. But I was encouraged by the reported comments of Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers when asked whether we should pay much heed to these findings. The Times reports:

But the assessments, which are known as the Foundation Stage Profile, were criticised by teaching unions last night. Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called them “unreliable and unhelpful” because they are based on subjective teacher observations, not tests.

Now there's a challenge for ministers. When the assessments first started, there were attempts to create a single national system of baseline assessment. Thanks to the sort of people who would prefer other people's children not to learn to read until the age of eight the profiles have become unwieldy and less useful than they might be. So, let's cut the areas of assessment and have a single short national set of criteria to make them into the reliable and helpful data that Mr Brookes is presumably calling for. Meanwhile, ministers must go further than just saying that 'tests are here to stay'; they need to explain why and how. And they need to get on the case quickly.

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