Lancashire heads blast primary school testing system as a ‘dog’s dinner’

School's protest march in Lancaster
School's protest march in Lancaster
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Headteachers from 145 Lancashire schools have written an open letter to education secretary Justine Greening describing new primary school testing as a “dog’s dinner”.

The letter calls for better and more appropriate testing at key stage 2 level, and asks parents to look at the tests themselves.

Lancaster NUT rally against education cuts.

Lancaster NUT rally against education cuts.

Morecambe headteacher Siobhan Collingwood said there was an “overriding voice of discontent and downright dismay at the implementation of the new tests”.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said that thanks to changes and the hard work of teachers there are now more than 1.4m children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.

The open letter, supported by headteachers from the Lancaster district, reads: “The planning for the introduction of these new tests has been a dog’s dinner and when the children sat them, the content was dull, some skills tested were of questionable use and with just under half the country’s children not meeting expectations in combined reading, writing and maths at the end of Key Stage 2 teachers were horrified at the level of the tests.

“Although there have to be some tough questions in a test, our seven and 11-year-olds should have a fighting chance and on content 
that will be of use in their future.

Protesting over Sats at the NUT Rally in Lancaster

Protesting over Sats at the NUT Rally in Lancaster

“High school teachers and parents who have seen the tests and experts in the field have agreed that many questions test skills inappropriate for primary school children.

“Time is precious in primary schools and we would rather use it turning children on to learning, firing their interests and honing basic skills than teaching test taking techniques so they can achieve results on tests of questionable content.

“Headteachers tend to stay neutral – however, in this matter, we feel the need to speak out, to protect primary education in England for the sake of the children.

“The Department for Education said the new more rigorous primary curriculum is designed to ensure all children leave school having mastered the basics.

Morecambe Bay Primary School headteacher Siobhan Collingwood

Morecambe Bay Primary School headteacher Siobhan Collingwood

It said that no more than one percentage point more primary schools would be allowed to fall below its minimum standards for school performance in 2016 in order to give schools time to adjust to the new primary assessment system.

Ministers have also advised regional schools commissioners and Ofsted to take into account that this is the first year under a new assessment system when considering school performance.

Some of its points included:

• This is the first year we have assessed pupils under the new more rigorous system and it is no surprise that this year’s results look different to previous years but despite that the majority of pupils achieved above and beyond the new expected standard.

• We’ve protected the overall school budget and we are also making funding fairer, consulting on proposals for a new national funding formula so that areas with the highest need attract the most funding to ensure that all schools have the resources they need.

• No child should spend a single day in a failing school and academy status means we can take swift action when performance isn’t strong enough – a sharp contrast to days when underperforming schools were left to languish under local authority control.

• We are focusing our efforts on those schools most at risk of failing young people, and encouraging ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools to seize the opportunities of conversion.

• Our ambition remains for all schools to become academies with more schools joining multi-academy trusts (MATs) - because we know this is an effective way to bring about sustained improvement.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Our plans will put power back in the hands of teachers, who know their pupils best.

“The Secretary of State has made it clear that she is keen to listen and reflect on what teachers have to say - that is why one of the first things she has done is to open a dialogue with teaching unions.‎

“We know the tests are harder and we are asking more, but we’re doing that because we are committed to ensuring opportunity for all.”

But Siobhan Collingwood, headteacher at Morecambe Bay Primary School said it was hard to be optimistic that the promise had any substance to it. She said: “The notion that we may have a Secretary of State for Education who is prepared to listen and participate in meaningful dialogue with the profession is refreshing.

“However after years of being dictated to by a Department for Education that believes that the nation should not listen to experts and can be dismissed as ‘The Blob’ or the ‘enemies of hope’, it is hard to be optimistic that this promise has any substance to it.

“Nick Gibb remains Minister for schools, curriculum and assessment as he was with Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove and unfortunately the response from the Department for Education to our recent communications continues in exactly the same vein.

“A voice that says ‘We know better’.

“Reports by NAPE, The Cambridge Primary Review and many others all say that the high stakes accountability system created by this country’s policy on tests is toxic but as usual the experts are ignored, with a blind assurance that says, ‘We know better’.

“Surveys of the profession this year have all revealed an overriding voice of discontent and downright dismay at the implementation of the new tests, but this voice has again been dismissed with an attitude of ‘Mother knows best’.

“Parents and children across the country have joined teachers in saying we do not want this to be done to our children, but the response from the Department remains, ‘We know better’.

“The Parliamentary Select Committee for Education interviewed Amanda Spielman, the Department’s favoured candidate for the post of Head of OFSTED, for an hour and a half and found her to be completely unsuitable for the post.

“The Department has pressed ahead with her appointment saying that yet again ‘We know better’.

“Natasha Devon, the national champion for children and young people’s mental health and Childline have all expressed concern at the damage to our children’s well-being that is created by this testing regime.

“Natasha Devon was sacked and the Department’s stance again is to say ‘We know better’.

“The assurance that the Department is pressing ahead to ensure that children all know the basics before they enter high school, is an insult to the profession.

“We are the people who look after the education of the nation’s children on a daily basis, minister to grazed knees, give cuddles to a child who has fallen out with their friends and move their learning on despite anything else that is going on in their lives.

“The notion that we had simply not thought of teaching children the basics before they go to high school, is derisory and an example of the patronising tone that we have all become accustomed to.

“The voice that says ‘We know better’.

“The ‘basics’ that children are supposed to acquire to pass these tests, are not basics unless you are studying degree level linguistics and were beyond the abilities of both Nick Gibb and the Prime Minister when they were questioned on the content of the tests.

!The Department this year presided over shambolic arrangements for testing, drip feeding constant changes to assessment, culminating in an interim framework for assessment in February that left teachers in Years two and Six to make around 1,500 decisions and gather evidence for these in just three months.

“The tests were leaked on-line not just once but twice, with SPaG tests for Year 2 being cancelled as a result and Year 6 results being discredited.

“The Reading test evoked storms of protest with reading material far in advance of a ten/eleven-year-old reading level, questions that were punitive to EAL children and far too difficult and numerous to be completed by most children of that age within the time frame.

“There were storms of protest on social media and within the profession and when the results came out the pass mark had been lowered to 21/50 because the test was too hard.

“This was not a test of comprehension or reading but a test of how resilient you were to failure.

“To add insult to injury the marking has been unreliable with many schools submitting requests for remarks because the marking has been unfathomable.

This is not a Department that evokes any confidence that it ‘knows better’.

“The confidence with which the Department assures us their silver bullet of academisation will help us all do better, is similarly unconvincing, every day grim stories of failures of care, teaching and financial administration come to light about academies.

“Evidence is stacking up from many sources, including OFSTED with clear data to show that academies perform no better than other schools and in many cases less well.

“Again the Department assures us that ‘They know better’.

“This response from the Department for Education shows that there has been a changing of the Guard but that it is business as usual within and that they will continue to ignore the views of educational academics, headteachers and teachers, parents and children because they, the Chartered Accountants Justine and Nick know better!”