Written evidence submitted by Jenny Winstanley and Frances Jauch on behalf of Schoolzone
The Education Committee recently invited written submissions about the current state of the primary assessment system. Schoolzone’s research managers have many years’ experience as senior leaders in education-focused research, and two members of staff have very recently left the primary classroom, having experienced the removal of levels and the introduction of the new style SATs. We are submitting evidence as we feel that, on the basis of recent research projects with many primary teachers and senior leaders, the current system of assessment in primary schools needs reforming. We also have first-hand experience, as recent ex-teachers, of the impact of removal of levels and changes to assessment, performance management and school accountability policies..
To gather varied viewpoints for this submission, we held an online focus group with senior school leaders from a range of schools and regions in England to discuss the points covered by this inquiry.
- The process of assessment itself is vital for teachers and schools.
- Our current assessment system is not fit-for-purpose as it is too high-stakes and encourages a range of unfavourable practices in primary schools.
The purpose of primary assessment and how well the current system meets this; the advantages and disadvantages of assessing pupils at primary school.
Most teachers and senior leaders describe the purpose of assessment as twofold: to measure progress across children’s school lives, and to inform future teaching and planning.
There are many reasons for assessing pupils and the process forms an essential part of the teaching and learning cycle, informing the teacher about the children’s needs which drives a teacher’s subsequent planning. Both formative and summative assessment enable the teacher to track children’s progress, both individually and at group / class level; this helps to identify where intervention is needed, and allows analysis of progress of key groups such as those receiving free school meals. Teachers can use assessment information to keep parents informed of their children’s progress, strengths and weaknesses. So at a classroom level, assessment is a vital process and teachers use many different methods to do this.
At a wider level, assessment enables school accountability – it is important that schools are held to account, given that they are publicly funded and that children’s education is vitally important for their futures and our economy; however, the current system of accountability is too high-stakes. The disadvantages and negative effects that follow are relevant to our current assessment system, not the process of assessment itself.
A huge amount of pressure is placed on teachers and senior leaders by the existence of primary league tables and a fear of Ofsted if end of key stage results drop. The linking of teachers’ pay to assessment data in many pay policies adds an extra layer of pressure and a possible motivation to overestimate children’s finishing points, which certainly does not benefit our children.
A common result of this pressure and need to perform is a narrowing of the curriculum, with schools only focusing on the subjects that are tested to enable better results. The senior leaders in our focus group reported that the most likely subjects to be squeezed out as a result of the focus on English and maths are music, art, RE, MFL and PE. A typical example is a school where, from January to May, the entire weekly curriculum consisted of reading, writing, grammar and maths, with one hour of PE on a Friday. In addition, intervention and booster sessions are also being held throughout autumn and spring terms, so children in these groups miss out on the wider curriculum subjects – the leaders in our sample felt that it’s wrong that the system makes schools feel the need to do this: “Surely if we are having to abandon large chunks of the curriculum to get children to age-related expectations something is drastically wrong with the system.”
Another negative effect is the diversion of school budgets away from other areas for use to support key year groups during exam preparation – schools often pay for additional staff to deliver booster sessions, and spending across the wider curriculum subjects is being drastically reduced to enable the purchasing of more resources for English and maths.
How the most recent reforms have affected teaching and learning.
The high stakes nature of the assessment system is also making schools wary of trying anything too ‘new’, for example introducing an approach to maths modelled on Singapore teaching methods, for fear that it doesn’t pay off and results fall. The current system does not encourage innovation or new experimental approaches that produce results after being embedded for a number of years, because of the fear of more immediate failure or coasting. The system lends itself to ‘quick fix’ approaches where results improve but in an unsustainable fashion (to avoid this, see relevant research on the type of school leaders we need here: https://hbr.org/2016/10/the-one-type-of-leader-who-can-turn-around-a-failing-school).
The difficulty of the new reading test has led to a particular focus on the teaching of reading, and this is not a bad thing in itself as, anecdotally, we feel this is an area with which many primary teachers feel less confident. However, the effect this has had on school morale was summed up by one leader: “I think our confidence has been knocked as our results were always way above national and this year fell below floor standards…We are throwing everything at reading - interventions, new books, encouraging parental support etc.”
The quote above demonstrates the panic felt in schools and reinforces the earlier point about the narrowing of budget allocations. However, rather than simply purchasing new resources, a renewed focus on the teaching of reading needs to be underpinned by staff training, but the participants in this focus group, along with other research we have carried out recently, stressed that lack of budgets and time for teachers to attend training means this seems unlikely to happen. Schools are in a difficult situation where they need to improve their reading teaching but do not have sufficient budgets to do this.
Logistics and delivery of the SATs
The logistics and delivery of the SATs this year, in terms of ordering, receiving and administering them, did not appear significantly different to previous years.
The preparation of pupils, however, was different due to the increased difficulty of the tests: greater amounts of revision and exam preparation were needed, resulting in large amounts of ‘teaching to the test’. The fact that the exemplar materials were published so late meant teachers didn’t know what the expected standard looked like in writing until very late in the academic year.
Training and support needed for teachers and senior leaders to design and implement effective assessment systems.
Participants in our sample agreed that more moderation will be required in order to implement effective assessment systems, and with little money left in their training budgets, most are turning to schools in their cluster for support. However, they were also quick to highlight the challenges of cross-school moderation, when such a diverse array of assessment systems are being utilised, even by schools within the same alliance or trust. The removal of levels and a ‘common language’ between schools in terms of assessment has made this process much more difficult and little support has been given to schools with this area.
Next steps following the most recent reforms to primary assessment.
The process of writing moderation needs examining – there have been reports that moderated schools’ results were considerably lower than those who weren’t moderated and this disparity needs to be addressed before next year’s data submission. One of our respondents was an LA moderator and commented on how little training she received for this role. Support should be provided, possibly through a wider range of writing exemplars, for schools doing cross-school moderation, and also to local authorities facilitating this process.
If you would like a copy of the full report of our focus group with primary senior leaders about their current use of assessment resources, needs for the future and purchasing plans, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org