So, the lady IS for turning

Posted by Simon Goulden on 12 Apr 2016

We all recall (well, at least those of us of a certain vintage) the famous Conservative party conference speech by Margaret Thatcher where she said, to an enraptured audience “the lady’s not for turning”. And so, dear reader, it might have stayed, until a few days ago, when it seems that ladies are indeed rotatable. Let me explain.

The government has been strongly in favour of testing the progress of school children – and who could gainsay that? Despite the old English aphorism, (slightly amended for a shomer kashrut readership) that ‘you don’t make a sheep fatter by weighing it every day’, the DfE seemed wedded to this philosophy. Without some sort of yardstick, they probably argued, how could teachers and parents know that every child is making progress, that the already able are being stretched and that a child who was less school-ready is closing the gap on their peers? Setting aside the generations of teachers who, through knowledge, skill and experience, could have told parents all of that within weeks of starting school, who could argue with the idea?

Schools were able to choose from three different approved assessments.

About a third of schools decided to opt for tests carried out one-to-one with a

Reception class teacher, focusing on the basics of learning such as counting, picture, letter and number recognition. The NFER (the National Foundation for Educational Research, a well respected organisation) assessment uses common Reception classroom resources like counting bears, plastic shapes and number and picture cards. Children work through the activities, which take around 30 minutes, while the teacher records the child’s progress on a digital device or in individual paper pupil booklets.

However, the other two-thirds of schools decided to use an assessment method that relies on teachers' observations of children's skills within the normal day-to-day school routine. This method of assessment, devised by a small educational consultancy called Early Excellence, was approved by the Department for Education and was designed so that children would not even know they were being tested. There was also an option offered from Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM).

Schools were able to ‘opt in’ to the baseline assessments from September 2015 or alternatively opt out altogether and instead be judged on whether children's attainment meets the required standard in reading, writing and mathematics in KS2 SATs at the end of Year 6 (this will be set at 85 per cent of children; the current level is 65 per cent). The whole programme was supposed to ‘go live’ from September 2016. Why this did not already start ringing alarm bells somewhere in DfE HQ I am not sure.

Of course, the DfE faced opposition from teachers' union leaders, who criticised it as introducing an unnecessary set of tests for young children who had just started school but you might have thought that the DfE would just plough ahead regardless.

So far, so good perhaps, but a Government-commission study – released just a few days ago - concluded that the three different assessments were not ‘sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress’. As a result, ministers were forced to concede that the results could not be used as the baseline for progress measures, because “it would be inappropriate and unfair to schools”. The DfE went on to say: "That study has shown that the assessments are not sufficiently comparable to provide a fair starting point from which to measure pupil progress….in light of that, we will not be using this year's results as the baseline for progress measures. This would be inappropriate and unfair to schools."

What seems to have happened is that the study from the Standards and Testing Agency concluded that the tests in literacy and numeracy, with three separate systems in use, were, indeed, not sufficiently comparable. The study suggested that pupils of similar ability could get different results, depending on which test they had taken. As such the results could not be reliably used as a standard benchmark to measure progress. The voices of thousands of teachers shouting back “we told you so” may have been heard from every Reception classroom.

The government says it is still committed to the principle of baseline testing and "will continue to look at the best way to assess pupils in the early years". As such, there will be optional baseline tests if schools want to take them next year, but the results will not be used for "accountability purposes".

And so the sound of Nicky Morgan making a rapid U turn was heard throughout the land. “But what next?” I hear you say. And I reply, as I have done so many times before………..nobody knows.

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