Last week, in the final hours before Parliament went into recess for the Party Conference season, the Department for Education put out several significant statements on the education system. They announced how they intended to introduce the new National Funding Formula—which will increase spending on schools in rural areas to make up for historic imbalances—and scrapped caps on the total number of teachers who can be trained by any training institution.
These are big decisions which will have substantial consequences. But less remarked on amongst the announcements was one on assessment in primary schools. This is a recurrent feature of educational discussion in England. Titanic battles have been fought over the secondary school curriculum and the recent changes to GCSE grading got enormous coverage, even as it became clear they had been implemented without any significant disruption to either students or schools.
When equivalent changes to SATS came in last year, however, they were not nearly so smooth. Essential guidance information arrived late and could be contradictory, whilst test papers were leaked, potentially invalidating the whole process. There was significant disquiet amongst teachers, but little wider discussion of this.
Equally, the successes of recent reforms in primary school are often overlooked. The Phonics Screening Check involves all 650,000 or so pupils in Year 1; a quirk of educational numbering means that this is actually the second year of Primary schooling, age 6. The test assesses how well pupils comprehend phonemes (the sounds of speech) and graphemes (the symbols by which those sounds are represented) and can blend the sounds together to read words. This decoding is an essential prerequisite for fluent reading, but teaching it was too often neglected in the early years of primary, harming many students’ literacy, most of all those from deprived backgrounds. The check—backed by effective curriculum materials and training from a range of providers—has raised standards and will make a significant difference to all school outcomes in the long run as these more effective readers reach secondary age.
All this is a way of saying that primary assessment should be of more interest, ultimately, than much else in the system. If primary schooling is provided effectively, many of the later difficulties which can prevent young people succeeding should be lessened or disappear altogether. Thus the government’s newly-announced changes are potentially significant.
A new times table check, to be taken in Year 4, which pupils are around nine-years-old, complements the phonics check: as one is designed to ensure fluency in decoding text to ensure higher literacy, so ensuring all young people have filed away their times tables in their long-term memory will help them be more effective mathematicians.
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The government is also going to make a second attempt at generating an effective baseline assessment in early primary. This is important because, whilst it matters that we know whether children have achieved specific learning goals, like decoding phonics or grasping times tables, the government has also become increasingly interested in the amount of progress pupils are making whatever their final result.
This makes intuitive sense: if a child, for example, can already write effectively it is not much of an achievement for seven years of compulsory primary education if at the end we announce that the child can indeed write effectively. However, despite it seeming obvious, actually identifying progress has not been straightforward, for the simple reason that we have not effectively assessed what children can do when they arrive in primary school. A previous attempt to develop such a baseline faltered on the peculiar decision to permit multiple baseline tests to be developed. Since these had no common format and were not comparable, there was no clarity about how much progress was being made across the system. The new baseline test appears to be engineered to avoid this problem and to have a longer lead-in time to avoid such issues.
Much of the teacher assessment will also be removed. This is welcome, both on the grounds of reducing teacher workload (a perennial complaint of teaching unions) and on grounds of validity. Teacher assessment, by which the teacher themselves makes the decision on what level a child has reached, is rarely as effective as well-designed external testing. If the results of the assessment are likely to be used for accountability purposes, the pressure can warp the results, a fact which was recognised in recent GCSE reforms as well, leading to the near-total abolition of coursework.
Although they may excite less interest than announcements on the distribution of money, effective assessment procedures make an enormous difference to pupils and teachers, and aligned properly can drive up standards over the long haul.
John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange, before which he was a state-school history teacher for ten years.