Since the Schools Secretary has failed to answer any questions I’ve addressed to him in posts, I submitted a question to Sarah Ebner’s blog over at the Times. She had managed to get Balls to join a live Q&A session and had asked for questions to ask his. Needless to say, the slimy minister read all the questions and proceeded to answer the ones he had prepared earlier, in true Blue Peter style.
The full discussion is here , with my question down at times 14.02 to 14.05. The accompanying photo, captioned http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/live_debate/article7012253.ece is reproduced here — does he look shocked at the quality of the question?
The edited sequence goes like this:
14.02 Sarah Ebner:
This is another point which comes up often on the blog. Glen asks: why persist with judgements of schools based on raw percentages of students achieving 5 grade C GCSEs? It penalises schools serving deprived areas – schools which need a hand up, not a kicking. It also pressurises schools to focus on grade D students, and encourages entries into easier ICT online courses and such like.
14.05 Ed Balls:
Sarah, you are completely right and so is Glen, as parents we all have to look at the current league table and try to work out what they really mean on the basis of what we know about the school itself, the catchment area etc. And league tables can sometimes suggest schools are ‘high achieving’ when they actually do a poor job at raising standards and supporting progression. Our new Report Card is designed to give parents much more information – about raw results but also whether all children make progress, discipline, parent satisfaction etc. I think it will be much fairer and more informative – it will be in all schools over the next 2 years.
So, I had asked him about the huge pressure that the government and Ofsted puts, often unfairly, on schools in difficult circumstances, distorting their priorities, and he answers an imaginary question about league tables!
OK, he did that to all of the questions, but then why did he bother to travel to the Times offices, just to act as if he were in the House of Commons (not) answering questions put to him there?
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voted to scupper the SAT exams for eleven-year-olds this year, but it won’t produce the renaissance in teaching they expect.
It is the teaching union silly season, and time for their AGMs. There is normally a flurry of embarrassing quotes from representatives that are quickly ignored, but this week a substantial motion has been passed by the largest union, the NUT. They have decided to ballot members for industrial action to disrupt the national assessment of seven- and eleven-year-olds (Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs), taking advantage of the recent collapse of the Key Stage 3 assessments and the dithering of the government minister Ed Balls.
Teachers generally dislike these assessments as they are unreliable and used for annual teacher appraisals, and now seems like the best chance in years to force a weak government to abandon them.
The massive expansion of national exams over the last decade or so, fed by the movement to modular exams that can be retaken an unlimited number of times at GCSE and A Level, along with the SATs (the National Curriculum Tests at ages 7, 11 and 14), has overloaded the exam boards’ marking systems. There are simply not enough markers in the country to process all the papers. This caused the collapse of the Key Stage 3 exams last year, and has caused this year’s results to be posted later than ever before, and appeals are expected to flood in shortly afterwards due to quality control problems, especially for the English assessments.
I have posted before that these tests have become too ‘high stakes’ to be useful and national standards should be assessed in other ways, but the NUT is not keen on developing a decent assessment system. They just want to be rid of the SATs.
Their real problem, so they say, is that the pressure placed on pupils in the run-up to the tests is too great. Primary school children spend much of Year 6 preparing, practising the tests and taking test questions away to do for homework. Every child is given targets couched in the assessment language (‘I’m now at level 3B for Writing, and I am aiming for a level 4C’ the pupils will repeat) and the school inspectors check that pupils are aware of them.
True, the pressures are ridiculously high, and teaching to the test is so endemic that to suggest anything different to any teacher younger than 40 will get you a confused look. It is also true that the government has set up the system to be like this, despite their protestations of innocence, but the Union is picking on the wrong target deliberately, hoping that no-one will question their members’ complicity in the whole affair.
The teachers have a great deal of freedom in how they manage their classrooms day-to-day. If they do not want to pressure their charges then they should stop talking up the exams all the time. They should stop teaching to the tests and setting questions from previous years’ papers, and they should certainly stop running the government funded ‘Booster Sessions’ – additional revision work for those poor souls deemed to be close enough to the pass level that they can be artificially pushed over the line with some special attention and pressure.
Instead of declaring the tests ‘harmful’ to pupils, the NUT ought to just tell their members to stop squeezing the last drop of exam performance from their classes simply to gain better pass figures for their annual appraisals and a higher league table position for their school. If the teaching unions want teaching to be treated as a profession, then professional behaviour must be encouraged. All the while teachers put ratings ahead of education their motives will be suspect.
If teaching to the test stopped, whether by scrapping the tests or by teachers taking control of their classrooms, then, the unions say, the curriculum will become broader and children will have a better experience. But they are mistaken. Even if the test went, the skills of teachers to plan their own programmes of study have so withered that most teachers would not know what to do with the extra term of teaching. What would they do with no exam to prepare for? How would they know what skills to develop and knowledge to learn if it is not written down in great detail by the government?
‘It’s not in the test!’
When the SATs were first introduced, teachers had some idea of what schooling was for, some philosophy of education. But over the years those teachers have retired and the younger ones have only known teaching for national assessments. Those few who dare to go beyond the minimum entitlement laid down in the National Curriculum, following their pupil interest or their own enthusiasms, have been slapped down by managers with the immortal lines:
‘What are you teaching that for – it’s not in the test!’
The English teaching ‘profession’ has become so de-skilled that if the tests disappeared nothing would really change. If the prison doors were flung open tomorrow, most teachers would be too frightened of the freedom to go out into the daylight, doomed to pace around the same familiar cell.
The college building programme, a desperately needed 2.7 billion pound project to replace crumbling and cramped buildings country-wide, has actually only got 110 million pounds to spend, according to the Prime Minister when questioned by a Member of Parliament. The whole national programme, then, could just afford to pay for the two Worthing rebuilds when there are 136 projects around the country on hold.
The Learning Support Council (LSC) funding story has descended into farce since I posted about the first problem a few weeks ago.
Many colleges have already spent up to 2 million pounds on the detailed planning provisions and face going bust if the projects cannot go ahead in the autumn as planned.
And then the LSC writes to every college in the country to confirm next year’s budgets, allowing the recruitment to increase student numbers, only to decide later that they meant to say that these were provisional budgets, which will have to be reduced by 100 million pounds. With some colleges losing up to 250 thousand pounds from next year’s accounts, redundancies look likely. Having built up expectations for college buildings that are fit to learn in (my college has 1600 students in what used to be a 600 boy middle-school), and emphasising the need for an expansion of education in a recession, the minister Ed Balls has messed up again. The head of the LSC has resigned, but Balls remains Teflon coated.
Ed Balls has finally bowed to the inevitable, accepting that the English examination system is far too bloated and there are not enough markers to process national exams for all 7, 11, 14, 15, 16-year-olds in the country. The disastrous management of last year’s Key Stage 3 National Curriculum Tests (the age 14 SATs) has forced Balls to cancel them permanently. It is a shame that he did not do this for educational reasons (for example, see this previous post), but the move will still be welcomed by parents and teachers.
The main problem, though, of these national tests has always been their narrowness. They only test a predictable subset of the National Curriculum, with a question style that does not vary, making them susceptible to coaching, or teaching to the test.
However, the huge pressure on teachers to teach to the test, bleated about routinely by the unions and criticised in report after report, could be eased by two simple measures:
- First, the General Teaching Councils could declare that teaching to the test was unprofessional. Teachers will then be free to do the right thing and stop pressurising the pupils.
- Secondly, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority should both take control of the copyright of the past test questions, banning their unauthorised reproduction and use in classrooms, and change the style of questions each year.
Without an obvious test to teach to, and no reliable past questions, the pressure will be on to teach the whole curriculum – exactly what was originally intended when the National Curriculum was introduced.