Dear Nicky Morgan: ‘We are writing with grave concern...’

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: iStock

So begins the letter sent by nine primary headteachers from a local network of schools in north London. Their concerns centre around primary assessment and testing and they’re not the only ones to feel this way...

The new education White Paper makes it clear. In the face of greater autonomy, accountability is to be sharpened too. For primary schools this has meant a new assessment system focusing on progress and “highlighting where a school is doing better for a child than the same child would have done elsewhere”.

It is an ambitious aspiration and one that some primary headteachers in Muswell Hill and Highgate feel is putting undue pressure on them and their children. So much so that between them they penned a letter to education secretary Nicky Morgan, copied to schools minister Nick Gibb, to outline their feelings.

‘‘The increasing expectations of the SATs and teacher assessment in both year 2 and year 6 are putting very noticeable pressure on children and teachers forcing them into teaching a narrowly focused curriculum which is, increasingly, inappropriately prescriptive and stifling.”

Evelyn Davies, author of the letter and headteacher at Coldfall Primary School, is keen to point out that they do not have any particular axe to grind.

“We all lead good and outstanding primary schools, including a local Teaching School, and between us have a wealth of experience in primary education.”

They are not alone. Other primary headteachers are also voicing their concerns to those prepared to listen.

Colin Harris at Warren Park Primary in Hampshire finds it difficult to find anything positive to say about the new arrangements: “My school is a double outstanding school.

We have elaborate systems in place to ensure all children achieve their potential. The assessment system is second to none, it didn’t need to change and yet we were made to feel inadequate. This is unacceptable.”

Concerns about writing

Although the north London headteachers have concerns about the whole system, they specifically refer to the expectations surrounding writing in their letter: “The emphasis is now on reducing stories and texts into monotonous and complex deconstructions. We would defy most adults to read and write to the current year 6 expectations.”

The use of terminology such as “subordinating conjunctions”, “subjunctive”, “passive” and “modal” has proved to be particularly controversial and many feel that there is a huge leap in expectations from 2015 to 2016 with the standard expected for the end of year 6 being closer to a Level 5c than a 4b or 4a.

In the written response to the north London headteachers’ letter, Mr Gibb challenges this perception: “I would like to clarify some issues about teachers assessment this year that have been reported inaccurately, in particular the statement that we have raised the standard to the equivalent of Level 5c under the previous system.

“The writing materials for key stage 2 show two examples of pupils who were assessed as working at the expected standard to demonstrate the breadth of pupils’ attainment that this standard covers. ‘Morgan’ has just met the standard. Morgan’s work is broadly equivalent to Level 4b under the previous system and demonstrates the minimum requirements to meet the expected standard.”

Many primary headteachers feel that all that is clear about the standards is that no-one yet knows what they are.

Confusion over standards

While there is speculation at exactly what the new standards will be, primary heads are trying to keep this in context.

Jonathan Brookes, headteacher at Inkersall Primary School in Chesterfield, told Headteacher Update: “No-one has a precise understanding of the content within the end-of-key-stage assessment, or indeed where the new ‘expected standards’ lie, therefore it seems like a futile exercise to guess or spend too much time worrying.”

Rather than focusing on the standard Mr Brookes is keen to work from where the children are: “Our within school assessment systems should start with children. In my opinion, we are letting young people, our communities and ourselves down if we attempt to construct this from an ‘expected standard’ – that is yet to be determined – and work backwards towards the child.”

For Roddy Fairclough, headteacher at Newbury Park Primary School in Redbridge, it is not only lack of knowledge about the standards but shifts in decision-making that are making the whole process of change more complicated.

He explained: “It’s extremely difficult at the moment when there is no coherent understanding around the expected standards and what that means for progress. I think the time frame has been difficult. Too much on-going tinkering and changes to decisions.”

More emphasis on progress

The new system is intended to be a better measure of progress. The Department for Education’s (DfE) document, Primary School Accountability in 2016, states: “We want to be able to recognise better the progress that schools make with their pupils, including low, middle and high attainers.”

Previous systems have been criticised for the extent to which they have encouraged “gaming” and a focus around the thresholds between levels. Will this system be any better?

Mr Fairclough has some concerns: “In principle the idea of learning at a deeper level and not rushing through the curriculum seems a sound one. The reality of how that can be done under the current accountability pressures is an awkward one. Measuring progress seems more tenuous.”

It is not only the more able that schools might find it difficult to show progress with. Mastery could prove difficult for some pupils with SEND to achieve, particularly for those with dyslexia. It will also be difficult to show some pupils working below the standard as making progress at all.

One teacher we spoke to explained: “We’re putting all our interventions into the children who are working at the expected standard and close to ‘at greater depth’. My children with SEND will not reach the expected standard no matter how hard we work with them as they are too far below. We need to balance this by ensuring we move the expected standards students up.”

However complex the system, where the stakes are high schools will try to make accountability work for them.

Broader implications

Not only do the north London heads feel that the new system is damaging both students and teachers, but that it will have other consequences too: “Recruitment and retention of teachers and headteachers is at an all-time low. There is also an increase in the number of children suffering from mental ill health issues, requiring greater support from national health services and expenditure of public funds.”

In his response, Mr Gibb points out that the department “is firmly committed to ensuring that children have timely access to appropriate specialist mental health support”.

He also makes it clear that schools “play a vital role in supporting the resilience and mental health of children and young people”.

For the nine headteachers writing to Ms Morgan, there is a sense of comparison with other countries that does not do justice to the strengths that education has here: “Britain cannot and should not be compared to cultures and societies on the other side of the globe. We should retain and develop the wonderful, amazing, creative talent we are renowned for, in a wide field of disciplines, if our lives are to be fulfilled, enriched and effective.”

The DfE has already been shown to be wrong in their attempts to introduce Reception Baseline. The worry is that the test of time will show that the new assessment is neither a fairer or better method of making schools accountable. 

Further information

Primary School Accountability in 2016, DfE, January 2016:

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