Raising the primary standards bar, again

Written by: HTU | Published:

Just when schools thought they were safe, the floor standards have been raised again. Suzanne O’Connell looks at what the new expectations will mean for primary schools

In March, the schools minister David Laws introduced new accountability measures and standards for England’s primary schools that will see:

n Floor standards raised to 65 per cent from 2014.
n New data published showing the proportion of primary children who achieve a “good” Level 4 (those who score in the top two-thirds).
n Struggling primary schools being made to draw up Pupil Premium action plans with support from an “outstanding education leader”.

The Department for Education (DfE) suggests that these measures will help raise standards in primary schools and ensure children are ready for secondary school. They take the view that schools will up their game to wherever the standard is set.The penalties for not meeting the new floor standard are steep.

The DfE website states: “Primary schools which fall below the new 65 per cent floor, and particularly those with a long history of underperformance, face being taken over by an academy sponsor. The expertise and strong leadership provided by sponsors is the best way to turn around weak schools and give pupils the best chance of a first-class education.”

Raising the floor standard

Currently, to avoid intervention, schools must be above the floor standard of 60 per cent and not have a below average percentage of pupils at the end of key stage 2 making expected progress in maths and English.

The new standards will require 65 per cent of pupils to achieve the expected level in the 3Rs and pupils to achieve above average progress in maths and English – a change that means it is not only the hike in floor standards but increasing expectations of progress that schools will need to be aware of.

These changes are being introduced at the same time as a new curriculum, with its own increasing expectations on what pupils can achieve and when.

This will represent an uphill struggle for some schools. Rekha Bhakoo, headteacher of Newton Farm Nursery, Infant and Junior School in London, recognises the impact this might have: “I do think that some schools may have just raised their attainment above the original floor target and this new target may affect moral. However, I do think it is important to ensure standards are rising.”

Schools will do their best to meet the increasing demands. Heidi Conner at Jubilee Park Primary School in Tipton is concerned about what they might have to surrender to do that: ‘The combined Level 4-plus scores are already a challenging goal for many schools, including our school, where there is a vast range of academic abilities in every cohort.

“The drive for high standards does mean even more targeted support and intervention for those children expected to achieve just below Level 4.”

What the DfE will also have to realise is that it will mean the need to continue to be more test-driven. Children have a diet of sample test questions to answer rather than opportunities to investigate, solve problems, reason and think mathematically. Will this possibly be at the cost of curriculum breadth and depth for our Year 6 pupils again?’

Secondary school ‘readiness’

When is a Level 4 not a Level 4? When it’s a 4c. The growing divide between higher Level 4s and lower Level 4s will make more work for data analysts. The DfE website suggests that using these statistics will show how many pupils are “secondary-ready”. Mr Laws said: “Children must leave primary school ready for the demands of secondary school.”

The new indicator will be published at national, local authority and school level in performance tables this year. The DfE has announced that schools will not be held accountable on the measures but the fact that they are to be published is a form of accountability in itself.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “The move to present data on the number of students achieving a ‘secure’ Level 4 is strange as the government has always denied that sub-levels exist for the purpose of performance measures. This is just another piece of bureaucracy which will distract schools and have little if any impact on raising standards.”

According to Steven Church, assistant principal at John Cabot Academy in Bristol, a secondary, there is a big difference between attainment at key stage 2 and being “secondary ready”. He told Headteacher Update: “I don’t believe that we should fall into the trap of believing that a particular level (or sub-level) equates to being ready to rise to the academic challenge of secondary education.

“The challenges that schools face in terms of the analysis of results and students’ attainment and progress means that, rightly or not, schools have to train students to pass exams rather than for the next phase of their education. I imagine that universities feel very similarly about students who have come through the results-driven environment of GCSEs and A levels in recent years.”

Ms Conner is already aware of the mistrust that secondary schools can have of the levels supplied: “Formal tests only provide a snapshot of pupil performance on the day and don’t always capture pupils’ actual attainment. Thus DfE plans to publish data showing the proportion of primary children who achieve a ‘good’ Level 4 in the 3Rs will not necessarily show those who are truly secondary-ready.

“What is needed is more work alongside secondary schools who remain, and will continue to be, concerned about the inaccuracy of the formal testing at primary level and often ‘re-baseline’ our pupils on entry. This, in addition to more focused transition plans for all pupils will have a greater impact than merely publishing data.’

There have been concerns for some time that the DfE is more interested in secondary schools than primary. This reference to “secondary ready” and the increasing pressure on primary schools will only emphasise this further.

Pupil Premium action plans

The value of the Pupil Premium has steadily climbed, along with the level of accountability that accompanies it. Originally at £488 it increased to £623 per pupil and from April 2013 it stands at £900. The money may not be ring-fenced but if schools were under any illusion that they could spend it freely, they were wrong.

Mr Laws spells out the conundrum the government finds itself in: “Not all schools are using it to introduce and fund evidence-based approaches that deliver time after time. I do not want to direct schools as to how to use the Pupil Premium, or take it away from schools whose pupils are doing poorly. But I do want it spent well.”

Schools that are not good or outstanding may feel it is something of an imposition that an “expert” will be drafted in to show them how it is done. The DfE suggests that they will be “outstanding education leaders” who have a proven track record. It is to be hoped that they also have experience of Pupil Premium implementation in schools similar to those they are brought in to help. Ms Conner sees the benefits but also the need for the right approach: “If schools are failing to target resources appropriately to have an impact on attainment, then effective practice should be shared and consultant support provided. This should be seen merely as the sharing of good practice as well as effective peer-coaching and support.”

In the end, these enhanced requirements are being ushered in at the same time as a new curriculum and assessment arrangements. Perhaps a change too far for schools which are trying to find some degree of ballast in a very stormy sea.

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

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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