The arrogance of power

Yesterday bgprior asked, in the comments to my post about scrapping targets, why did this announcement come from Treasury? And well he might, it seems the department it concerns is playing a different tune. Ed Balls (Secretary of State for Children, Schools & Families) has told teachers that national testing and school league tables were here to stay. OK, so they didn't say they would scrap all types of meaningless targets, but surely the ridiculous tests and league tables that schools and children are put through are intrinsic to the culture of targets?

These tables have come up for so much criticism in the past few years that many describe them as meaningless. Ed Balls describes them as enabling policymakers to see "what is working, who is not performing well and, in the extremes, being able to tackle poor performance. This is going directly against the professionals who do this education thing for a living and know far better what works and what doesn't compared to a meaningless league table. Teachers have complained that "far from raising standards, over testing encourages a narrow curriculum, alienating students from learning and increasing their anxiety."

Children in this country are the most tested in the world - so that policy makers can compare them to their key stage targets and make policy on a one dimensional piece of evidence. Are we still chasing targets or have we done a u-turn? And what makes policy makers think they know more than the professionals?



There has to be a happy medium. We can't abandon testing of children. Parents have to have some objective means of comparing schools, if choice is to have any meaning.

But it is not the case that, if tests are good, more tests are better (typical political mistake). Children should be assessed at points of transition in the educational system - roughly at ages 7, 11, 16 and 18 (say). That way, schools can be measured not on absolute performance but on relative improvement, which is the real test. That should balance incentives in the selection process - does a school want a high-performing child on which little improvement can be made, or a low-performing child where potential for improvement can be seen? It would give a more realistic impression of the relative qualities of schools. And it should not entail excessive paperwork or "teaching to tests".

The assessments should not just be by test/exam. Ability to memorize and perform under pressure are valuable skills, but they are not the only valuable skills. Diligence, attention to detail, and creativity are also valuable, so some element of untimed work should also be retained. The widespread corruption of course-work by parents and teachers has discredited this element of assessment, but it should not be impossible to devise a system of supervised but untimed and unassisted work. And we should also measure the satisfaction of students and parents with the school, not for inclusion in the students' assessments, but in the scores for comparing the schools.

The assessments should be carried out blindly and independently of both current and future schools. For each exam board, the distribution of improvements shown by all students in each subject should be published, so the relative standards of the various boards can be compared. 

Some teachers will hate it, just as they hate being told by Ed Balls that some of the existing testing has to stay. But education isn't for teachers' sakes.