This morning sees the publication of the report on the impact of assessment on children by the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Entitled Primary Assessment, it tries to deal with a range of issues, and comes at an opportune time, whilst the consultation on Primary Assessment in England is still open (it ends 22 June).

The summary of the report contains the following highlights:

  • Regarding the introduction of the current KS2 SATs, the report finds that “The Standards and Testing Agency did not oversee the implementation of the new assessment system in 2016 effectively, with guidance delayed and test papers leaked online. This caused significant disruption in primary schools as schools felt there was too little time to implement effective new assessment systems and prepare teachers and pupils for SATs.”
  • Regarding the design of the tests and assessments, the report finds that “The design of the new tests was also criticised, particularly the reading and writing assessments. One issue with the writing assessment is the focus on technical aspects, like grammar and spelling, over creativity and composition. We are not convinced that this leads directly to improved writing and urge the Government to reconsider this balance and make spelling, punctuation and grammar tests non-statutory at Key Stage 2. There are also questions over the appropriate role of teacher assessment within the assessment and accountability system that the Government should explore.”
  • Whilst the report does not explicitly make the link to the decrease in financial support given to local authorities to provide high quality CPD, it states that “While the new assessments were being introduced there was little additional support offered to schools to implement new assessment systems to cope with ‘life after levels’. Primary school teachers only receive limited assessment training during initial teacher education and must have access to continuing professional development on assessment, as well as high quality advice and guidance on effective assessment systems.”
  • Regarding the link between accountability and assessment, which the committee notes is chiefly for the purpose of school accountability, not pupil progress, they state: “the high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

Then come the important conclusions and recommendations around accountability, which I suspect will not impact schools for some time to come. However, it is important that we acknowledge that the evidence base (which includes at least some  – not enough – discussions with Y6 pupils) has been thorough and that the committee’s publication is timeous and helpful to those campaigning not in what seems to be one of the duller general election bunfights on record, but on behalf of what is going to help 11 year olds prove to themselves and to us that they have been effectively taught without doing themselves any harm (the following are direct quotes from the conclusions and recommendations):

12. Ofsted should ensure that it reports on a broad and balanced curriculum in every primary school report. Every report should specifically include science as a core subject alongside English and maths, as well as a range of other areas of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. (Paragraph 59)

13. School leaders and governors should support a culture of wellbeing amongst staff and pupils and ensure that external assessment does not result in unnecessary stress for pupils. The Government should assess the impact of changes to curriculum and standards on teacher and pupil wellbeing before they are introduced and publish plans to avoid such negative consequences. (Paragraph 60)

14.Many of the negative effects of assessment are in fact caused by the use of results in the accountability system rather than the assessment system itself. Key Stage 2 results are used to hold schools to account at a system level, to parents, by Ofsted, and results are linked to teachers’ pay and performance. We recognise the importance of holding schools to account but this high-stakes system does not improve teaching and learning at primary school. (Paragraph 66)

15.The Government should change what is reported in performance tables to help lower the stakes associated with them and reduce issues of using data from a small number of pupils. We recommend publishing a rolling three year average of Key Stage 2 results instead of results from a single cohort. Yearly cohort level data should still be available for schools for use in their own internal monitoring. (Paragraph 67)

16. We welcome the increased focus on progress in performance measures and the Government’s commitment to introduce an improved baseline measure. However, in its consultation document, the Government fails to appreciate potential harmful consequences of introducing a baseline measure used for school accountability in reception (Paragraph 76)

17. The Government must conduct a thorough evaluation of potentially harmful consequences of introducing any baseline measure, involving early years experts and practitioners, including impacts on pupil wellbeing and teaching and learning. The primary purpose of a measure of children at age 4 should be a diagnostic tool to help early years practitioners identify individual needs of pupils and should only be carried out through teacher assessment. We welcome the Government’s commitment that no data from a baseline will be used to judge individual pupils or schools. (Paragraph 77)

18. For future reforms, the Government should carefully consider the impact of setting thresholds for schools with short lead in times. We agree with the Government’s aim of raising standards at primary school but think that setting extremely challenging targets only leaves many students feeling they have failed, when in a previous year they would have succeeded. Expected standards should be raised over a much longer time period to give schools a chance to adjust to new expectations. (Paragraph 84)

19. We recommend a thorough review of how Ofsted inspectors use Key Stage 2 data to inform their judgements and whether inspectors rely too heavily on data over observation. This could include a pilot of inspections where data is only considered following the inspection. (Paragraph 85)

Well done, the Select Committee. It would be nice to think that the DfE, when they review the evidence from their current consultation, listen especially to paragraph 16, that baseline assessment is done to support children and that (para 17) that the primary purpose of a measure of children at age 4 should be a diagnostic tool to help early years practitioners identify individual needs of pupils and should only be carried out through teacher assessment.

I hope that parents will read this when it is filtered through whatever media channels they read. A quick trawl through the early online edition of the Daily Mail suggests it is not going to make the headlines there, and I may have to publish the findings to parents as a separate news-sheet.

The dailies, already, are focusing on the mental health issues of both pupils and teachers, though the report has disappointingly little to say on this – a submission by an organisation called Achieving for Children referenced in para 55 seems to be the only substantive voice dealing with this subject.

The importance of a broad curriculum, and science in particular, also comes out in the detail. The Wellcome Trust and other science bodies are not keen for a return of the science KS2 tests, according to the report (para 53-54), but want to see OFSTED mention it more. One key observation gets to the heart of this issue:

Ofsted has significant power to influence school behaviour, and neglecting to comment on core parts of the curriculum contributes to the overemphasis on English and maths teaching at primary school (para 54).

Enough for now. I am glad this has come out at the time it has, and hope that sensible parents will read it and begin to support, even more than they have already, what schools are trying to achieve for their children.

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About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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