I have finally ploughed through the Government’s recent 128-page white paper, ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’: top marks for alliteration! It is a mighty tome of highly motivational and aspirational intention, focusing on the best possible outcomes for every child. Who can argue with that?
The white paper recognises that the quality of teaching makes the greatest difference to how well pupils fare. Its focus on quality leaders making great decisions about educational provision is to be welcomed. Yet we also see the reintroduction of national testing for six and seven year-olds and changes to key stage two testing. We are reminded that ‘National key stage two assessments [will be] more demanding to reflect the new national curriculum’ and that there are, ‘new multiplication tables check in year six to set up all pupils for success in mathematics, and re-sits in year seven’.
Year six teachers up and down the country had sleepless nights as we moved swiftly towards tests in May; there were even threats of boycotts reported recently in the news. Teachers prepared their students for the new and weighty SATs, with their increased content that would seem to go beyond the reach of many, at this age. The fact that teachers will be judged on success rates is what keeps many awake at night, I am certain.
How exactly does making tests harder improve standards? Every teacher wants their pupils to be successful and to make progress. In primary (and preparatory) schools, we all want pupils to be able to move on with firm basics in English, mathematics and science to their senior schools. It is why we do the job that we love.
Of course, educators, as well the Department for Education, want children to have every opportunity through their teaching and learning, to become the best they can be, but so many elements of personal growth and development are not measurable in the way that National Tests operate. Teachers are to be given at least a year to prepare for changes to systems and curricula. However, it is the teaching to the test, at such a young age, that is a fundamental problem: great learning should be about building the confidence, motivation and cognitive skills to be able to take the next steps on the learning journey with individual targets and challenges set at different starting points. It is about finding the intrinsic interest, creativity and wonder in learning, as well as mastering basics. Not so much mention of these in the white paper.
Reading, writing and mathematical skills allow children to access all other areas of learning and their importance has never been in question. But taking tests, with the accompanying practice and consolidation surely ensures that children can do the tests; it does not necessarily mean that they will have the appropriate toolkit and life skills to boost their progress through secondary school.
Nicky Morgan caused a storm earlier in the year when she dismissed the concerns of teachers and teaching unions as ‘disingenuous’ and ‘plain wrong’. This did little to help foster harmonious relationships between Westminster and the teaching profession.
So what would make the most difference to standards? Reduce class sizes, Remove formal testing of Primary children and Respect the valuable job that the teaching professionals undertake, often in very challenging circumstances.
Frances Mwale is Prep Headmistress at Farlington School.