Saturday, July 07, 2007
The General Teaching Council were holding one of their consultation meetings on their plans to end high-stakes testing. As it was in Liverpool, I decided to mosey along.
It wasn’t an auspicious start, there were plenty of ‘suits’ from the GTC looking around nervously at the sparsely attended venue. Eavesdropping on some of the conversations there appeared to be a preponderance of Heads of Department, ASTs and head teachers, and not many ‘ordinary teachers’. Eventually the audience swelled to around thirty.
Two boffins from the London Institute of Education made short presentations putting the standard case against testing. Their alternative to high-stakes testing was cohort sampling. From 1978 to 1988 the DfES had an Assessment Performance Unit, every year they tested 10,000 students (1.5% of the school population). The tests gave an accurate indication of whether ‘standards’ were rising; as different schools were tested they were able to use the same questions every year.
One teacher was from one of the 500 schools undertaking a two-year pilot of ‘Single Level Progress Tests’. This has been hailed as the alternative to SATs testing. Don’t get excited – it’s far worse! Pupils from Year 3 through to Year 9 take two tests every year, when they are deemed to be ‘ready’. Schools are rewarded with progression premiums for boosting the number of pupils that gain two levels in a year, i.e., 3C to 3A. In this teacher’s school successful pupils received certificates, those who didn’t reach the required level got the equivalent of an Ofsted ‘notice to improve’.
The attack by the GTC on high-stakes testing follows on from the Institute of Physics who described them as, “blunt instruments that have a number of undesired consequences.” The Institute of Educational Examiners, which represents 3,500 examiners, believes that all external exams before the age of 18 should be phased out. The Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science, has described the present system as not “fit for purpose” and believes that testing is stifling creativity. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have also called for an end to the present testing regime.
What effect will the GTC have? For a start they have almost zero credibility with teachers – something the government will be aware of. Their main aim is to ‘persuade’ the government with a softly-softly campaign. Will the government listen? If you look at the appointments to Gordon Brown’s new National Council for Education Excellence, the prospects aren’t wonderful. Among them was Damon Buffini from the private equity sector, where the executives pay less tax than their cleaning ladies and Terry Leahy the boss of Tesco who earns 574 times more than his shop floor workers -could he help children with equations? British industry doesn’t have a great track record in training its own workers; the Leitch Review found that the lack of investment in skills, particularly in manual workers, had cost the economy more than £4.8 billion.
The plain truth is that the ‘Daily Mail’ sets government policy. If the GTC does speak out too loudly they can always abolish it. Teachers out on the streets demonstrating with placards ‘Save the GTC’? It isn’t going to happen.
The great and the good have all spoken out against high-stakes testing that just leaves the people who could abolish it in one fell swoop – teachers. There was an excellent unofficial Anti-SATs campaign that moved the NUT into calling a ballot in 2003 to boycott testing, 86% of those who voted wanted to take action, however, the turnout was only 34% and the union rules stipulated a 50% turn out. If we are honest everyone took their eye off the ball and the campaign folded. Surely the time is right to call for another ballot of Key Stage 2, and this time to include Key Stage 3, on boycotting tests?
I don’t hold out much hope of the NAS joining in, they are busy proving themselves the goody-two-shoes of the Rewards and Incentives Group. A moot point is, ‘what incentives?’ Apart from PPA for primary teachers, on the debit column there’s been – Performance Management, Payment by Results, Management Allowances replaced by Teaching and Learning Responsibility payments and teaching assistants taking classes. Even though a testing boycott would save half of the NAHT’s membership from an incipient nervous breakdown, the prospects don’t look great there either.
The GTC meeting finished with an address from the new Chief Executive (and former Ofsted Assistant Divisional Manager) Keith Bartley. He looked like one of those accidental figures that are thrust into the limelight. After he released the statement opposing testing he did fifteen media interviews. He posed some elliptical questions about ‘accountability’, he didn’t exactly make a stirring call for teachers to rise up and loosen their chains, Martin Luther King it wasn’t. Less ‘I Have a Dream’ more ‘Here’s Some Interesting Statistics’.
One thing is clear, high-stakes testing has become education’s equivalent of the Iraq War. Almost all the experts (including those who initially supported it) are in opposition, the Weapons of Mass Destruction have never materialised, the troops on the ground and even the generals know it’s a lost cause, the cost has escalated exponentially and as the casualties pile up public opinion is hostile. The only people in denial? The government.