What are the next steps for primary assessment?

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Could it be the calm after the storm? 2016 was not an easy year for assessment co-ordinators and their schools. Now Justine Greening offers reassurance that 2017 will be better. But will it? Suzanne O’Connell reports

The year 2016 will go down in history as one of turbulence for many reasons, but in the primary teaching profession it will be the assessment legacy that will continue for years to come.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) describes primary assessment as “still reeling from (last) year’s chaotic and confusing assessment system”. The National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) survey into the views of their members revealed frequent use of the words “shambles”, “shambolic”, “fiasco” and “farce” to describe the 2016 arrangements.

Plagued by confusion, leaks and the fear of being judged as failing, primary leaders and their staff may have been a little appeased by education secretary Justine Greening’s primary assessment announcements.

Back in October, she admitted that the “pace and scale of these changes had been stretching” and reaffirmed that no more than six per cent of primary schools will be considered to be below the floor standards for 2016.

She said: “It is important that we now set out a clear path to a settled system where our collective focus can be on achieving strong educational outcomes for all children.”

The path, according to Justine Greening, includes that:

  • There will be guidance for the moderation of teacher assessment with mandatory training for local authority moderators.
  • The key stage 1 grammar, punctuation and spelling test will remain non-statutory.
  • There will be no introduction of statutory maths and reading re-sits on children’s arrival in year 7 but high-quality re-sit papers will be made available for teachers to use on a voluntary basis.
  • There will be a targeted package of support for struggling pupils to help them catch up in year 7.

She announced that early in the new year there would be a consultation on primary assessment and the implications for accountability. This will, we are promised, include consultation over the best starting point from which to measure the progress children make in primary school. The recommendations from Diane Rochford’s review will also form part of the consultation.

The Rochford Review

The Rochford Review was established in 2015 to consider how pupils working below the standard of statutory testing arrangements can demonstrate their attainment and progress. The final report was also published in October and recommends that P scales should no longer be used and that a new approach to assessment is needed.

For pupils who are working below the standard of national curriculum tests but are engaged in subject-specific learning, the report recommends:

  1. The removal of the statutory requirement to assess pupils using P scales.
  2. The interim pre-key stage standards for pupils working below the standard of national curriculum tests to be made permanent along with two new additional standards of “emerging” and “entry”.

For pupils who have severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties it is recommended that there should be statutory assessment against seven aspects of cognition and learning including responsiveness, curiosity, discovery, anticipation, persistence, initiation and investigation.

The report is keen to emphasise the importance of schools sharing good practice and collaboration, including when it comes to quality assurance through school governance and peer review. However, in the end there should be a degree of flexibility and it is proposed that schools should decide which assessments they think are most suitable to use.

Overall its recommendations seem logical given that P levels were closely linked to the old system of levels. However, it is only a report at this stage and further consultation is needed.

Consultation and inquiries

As well as the promised consultation, a House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into the events of 2016 has been collecting written and oral evidence too.

It has the brief of scrutinising the reforms to primary assessment and their impact on teaching and learning, identifying what the wider effects of assessment are on primary schools and possible next steps for the government. So, following this consultation and inquiry, will the government take notice?

Mike Parker is the director of the SCHOOLS NorthEast regional network of schools. He told Headteacher Update: “My impression is that the government does want to learn from the mistakes that have been made and that they are prepared to listen.”

His organisation has just written their own response to the Select Committee inquiry. Representing 1,250 schools in the North East of the country, they are in a good position to offer a well-evidenced view of what exactly went on in 2016 and how headteachers feel about it.

Mr Parker continued: “To write the consultation response we used different channels including an advisory board, a direct survey of headteachers and also through covering it at our events.”

Headteachers had opportunity to speak directly to Ms Greening when she attended their summit in October: “There were 500 serving headteachers in the room,” Mr Parker explained. “Originally it was Nicky Morgan who was due to come but Justine Greening honoured the arrangement. She was asked about primary assessment, its link to selection and the increasing concerns about the perception of children ‘failing’. She indicated that she recognised the issue.”

SCHOOLS NorthEast’s response to the Select Committee includes concerns about:

  • Narrowing of the primary curriculum.
  • Teaching to the test.
  • Increase in stress among both pupils and teachers.
  • Potential to increase primary teacher wastage rates.
  • Inconsistency within the system.
  • Labelling of children at an early age.

Their response focuses on what primary assessment is actually for and whether the current system is fit-for-purpose. “In the end it’s about giving careful consideration to the reasons for the tests,” said Mr Parker. “After all you don’t put your key stage 1 and 2 results on your CV when you’re older.”

The consultation response states: “There is a widespread feeling within North East schools that the implementation of the new SATs was rushed and that there was insufficient engagement with education professionals and parents during this process.”

Concerns were expressed about the reading age required at key stage 2, the nature of the subject matter and the extent to which a mechanistic approach to writing is being encouraged. At key stage 1, the consultation points out that children were expected to work with maths equipment during lessons and then were assessed without the equipment.

Perhaps most important is the loss of confidence that there has been in the Department for Education (DfE) and its ability to deliver. Communication with the DfE was felt to be poor, giving the impression that they were not fully in control of the situation: “Communication is going to have to greatly improve in the current academic year to win this confidence back.”

Disarray in the STA

It might be of little consolation to those still recovering from the tests that the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), which administered them, is not walking away from the chaos scot-free. An inquiry has also taken place into the workings of the STA and perhaps, unsurprisingly, has found that all is not well there either.

Although the organisation is still considered to be “broadly fit-for-purpose”, it was found that staff at the agency are suffering from low morale and are under great pressure. The report refers to a culture that is defensive and a lack of strategy, data and oversight.

Claire Burton, who is chief executive of the STA, has fully accepted the findings of the review. However, to some extent the agency are victims too of what many consider to be insufficiently thought out changes that were hastily introduced.

Where next?

In spite of the promises of consultation and reform, unions and other organisations are not lying low in the interim. The NAHT has run an indicative ballot of members for a possible SATs boycott this year. If the results are positive then a full ballot will be held in March.

According to the NAHT: “The tests were poorly designed and poorly administered, with SATs papers mistakenly published online ahead of the test; delayed and obscure guidance for teachers; mistakes in test papers; a framework that fails to cater for pupils with dyslexia; tests which were not accessible for all children and inconsistent moderation by local authorities.”

We now eagerly await the conclusions of the Education Select Committee’s inquiry. This should help inform the debate but will not necessarily lead to any DfE turnaround. However accurate their conclusions might be, any report will not be legally binding and there are many examples of previous occasions when the DfE has paid little attention to their conclusions.

The DfE has itself submitted a document to the inquiry, outlining its view of assessment arrangements. Much of their submission is a description of assessment as it stands now. However, there is still the general feeling from the DfE that perhaps schools have not been trying hard enough, particularly when it comes to expectations for some groups of pupils: “We believe that setting higher aspirations for pupils will encourage schools to support all pupils to achieve their best.”

Once again they confirm that no major changes are planned for 2017/18 and there is a commitment to setting out a “longer term, sustainable approach”. The next stage for many will be to give a full airing of views in the government’s consultation. It would seem on every count that the mistakes of 2016 will not easily be ignored and that the profession expects a deep-rooted review and radical re-think of a system that has long since lost its way. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

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