It’s time to ‘raise our voices’ and reclaim education for our children’s sake

Janet Downs's picture

The present system in England harms all pupils

There’s something in the air – and it’s not just too-early Christmas music.   It’s the growing rumble from parents and teachers reclaiming education.  Not for politicians; not for education providers smelling a profit; not for publishers of government-endorsed schemes of work. 

It’s reclaiming education for pupils, students, learners of all ages and their teachers.

For too long politicians have set the education agenda.  They’ve peddled misinformation and been criticised by the UK Statistics watchdog (first a polite reprimand; now a stinging blast).  They’ve listened only to those who reinforce their prejudices.  They’ve pushed their own solutions to a problem which didn’t even exist: the lie about England plummeting down global league tables since 2000.

At the same time, they’ve caused a school funding crisis; a recruitment and retention crisis; a crisis in the mental health of young people.  The education system in England isn’t wholly responsible for the increased number of youngsters suffering mental health problems, of course.  Social media plays a large part.  But the extreme emphasis on test results in England filters through schools to their pupils and harms them.

I’ll be a ‘nothing’ if I fail SATs:  Hannah, Year 6

The corrosive effect of end-of-primary tests was brought home to me at the ‘Reclaiming Education’ conference on Saturday 10 November.    Professor Diane Reay, Cambridge University, grandparent and author of Miseducation, told us about Hannah, one of the hundreds of pupils interviewed for her book.  Hannah said failing to do well in SATs would mean she would become a ‘nothing’, a no-hoper destined for the lowest-paid work.

Children should never be made to feel they are ‘nothings’

How often have politicians and others  youngsters failing to achieve five ‘good’ GCSEs including maths and English were destined for a life of low wages and benefits?  This implies such young people are ‘nothings’.

 Is it any wonder that pupils who know they’re unlikely to achieve five golden grades are disillusioned?   And when schools are judged on how many pupils gain ‘good’ grades, some schools resort to rejecting children they should be supporting.

Education in England should be for all pupils not just those able to achieve an ever-changing target (today’s GCSE 4 pass is likely to be tomorrow’s fail).  It harms even those who can reach the mandatory measure.  School children in England are under unreasonable pressure – no other country sets so many tests. 

Too many tests.

Too many disappearing children.

Too little emphasis on understanding and analysis.

Too little attention on social and communication skills

It can’t go on.  We are failing our children and young people.  It’s time to ‘call out the instigators’, Debra Kidd writes: 

It’s time to refocus on what’s important. To design curriculum that makes children think, feel and do. That shows them that life is complex, but also beautiful. That leads them through knowledge, yes, but also through inquiry and compassion.’

It’s time to ‘Raise our voices, loud and strong.   Turn up the volume.’

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John Mountford's picture
Mon, 12/11/2018 - 17:22

Small scale research into the validity of SATs carried out by Roger Titcombe and I has established the extent to which the whole enterprise is drastically flawed. We have to hope that the Reclaiming Education conference on Saturday and the deeply impassioned plea to 'call out the instigators', Debra's latest inspirational offering, can awake those that slumber while the education of our young people is treated as of secondary importance to the needs of the market by the powers that be.

Clearly, successive governments have held SATs as something of a gold standard when comparing schools' performance nationally. In turn, Ofsted has used the data published in league tables to hold schools to account and rank them accordingly. We have all been victims of this dark alliance, none more so than our children and young people.

Aware that increasing numbers of secondary school are using cognitive ability tests at the beginning of Yr7, Roger and I decided to compare these with the SATs scores obtained earlier. We wanted to know whether there was any conflict in the results thrown up. Further, we believed any mismatch might affect certain pupils more than others. For instance, we know from data published by GL Assessment, who provide the Cognitive Ability Tests, that FSM children, on average, have lower cognitive abilities. Our intention was to investigate whether this would be borne out in our analysis.

With this in mind, we focused our investigation on questioning whether and, if so, what correlation there might be between the KS2 SATs results for summer 2017 and Cognitive Ability testing done with the same cohort at the beginning of Yr7 following their admission to secondary schools.

What we found has clear implications for setting Progress 8 and Attainment 8 targets for all secondary schools, but especially for those with intakes skewed towards the lower end of the ability range with higher numbers of FSM pupils.

As we postulated, our completed analysis of this small scale research shows SATs scores are generally inflated compared to cognitive ability scores. However, the evidence obtained clearly indicates that the inflation effect is greatest for those pupils of lower cognitive ability. Furthermore, the lower it is, the greater the effect.

We further established that for FSM pupils, SATs are slightly depressed in relation to the cohort mean but when their cognitive ability scores are taken into account, these same pupils score significantly lower.

In 2016 the reporting of SATs was changed. The concept of National Curriculum levels was abandoned. The DfE now report SATs results on what it refers to as a standard scale with a mean of 100, a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 120. The explanation of how these are reached remains questionable. A set of conversion charts is published annually for use by testers. These charts are subject to change each year under direction from the Secretary of State for Education and used to convert the raw test marks to a score on the 80 - 120 scale. There is no statistical validity for these data. They are recorded thus, without reference to internationally accepted processes for age related standardisation. The fact is, as norm referenced tests, SATs results are highly influenced by cramming and coaching, which has been recently confirmed by Amanda Spielman, Chief HMI.

That this effect is acknowledged by the Chief HMI adds significantly to the validity of the findings from our research. Having now taken up the matter with The Rt Honorable Nick Gibb, we are awaiting his response.

We believe the impact of this work justifies a broader analysis of the phenomenon. We will be asking the DfE to commission such from an independent researcher. We have written to an number of academics inviting their support.

Very recently, a set of three articles on the pupil premium was published on her website by Professor Rebecca Allen, Professor of Education at UCL Institute of Education. It is difficult to overstate the potential of this work to have a significant impact on where we should go next in making sure the English education system is truly fit for purpose in the 21st century. With this in mind I would like to draw your attention to Roger's summary as published in his blog, Learning Matters. This contains links to other sources and commentators and is regularly updated.

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