With a week to go before the Key Stage 2 SATs it was probably timely for the Education Select Committee to release its report on Primary Assessment.
“The close link between primary assessment (SATs) and school accountability creates a high stakes system which can negatively impact children’s teaching and learning, says the Education Committee. The Committee calls on the next Government to lower the stakes by changing what is reported in annual performance tables.”
The issue of the perverse impact of accountability on testing is accurately identified amongst a whole series of very sensible recommendations. Using a three year rolling average of Key Stage 2 data in performance tables will reduce the impact of, the quite natural, year to year variability and enhance the reliability of the data, as the cohort size becomes bigger. Making the SPAG tests non-statutory and doing a thorough review of the reliability of teacher assessment (we know the answer to this one) are both to be commended. A whole series of other recommendations following the implementation of the tests, use of commercial assessment packages and the role of various government agencies are all sound.
Where the problem really comes with the report is when it attempts to address the issue of accountability and in particular Ofsted. The Committee questions Ofsted’s over reliance on data and suggests that data is only looked at after the inspection. It also calls for Ofsted to report on the breadth & balance of the curriculum in every primary school; the irony is profound but maybe unintentional.
Inspection First, Data Later
In many ways this is a throwback to Ofsted’s early days when in the absence of data a minibus load of documentation and an army of inspectors were required for each inspection. What should have been proposed is data first and inspection later if at all; only if a pre-published threshold is missed.
At a secondary level the use of Progress 8, albeit it will need to be contextualised, would seem a reasonable starting point. Below -0.5 on a three year rolling average and an inspection would be called. Not a one or a two day but an on-going process where relationships can be built and responsibility for moving the school forward is shared. If the system becomes more equitable over time the threshold can be increased.
At a primary level we have a problem. A progress measure based on Key Stage 1 limits the valid conclusions that can be drawn. Key Stage 1 teacher assessments are not a good baseline. We need to be honest about this. Using an attainment measure will hugely advantage schools in affluent areas; telling you more about a school’s intake than its effectiveness.
As we said in the Headteachers’ Roundtable Alternative Green Paper “we maybe a decade or more away from a reliable primary value added measure”. It may be in the interim we need to group schools into quintiles or deciles, based on percentage of pupils entitled to Pupil Premium funding, and inspect the bottom 10% or 20% in each quintile/decile.
Ofsted and the Broad & Balanced Curriculum
Leaving aside the issue that Ofsted has done more than most to narrow the primary curriculum over time; I accept this was inadvertent. Looking at Science, as part of the core curriculum, as suggested in the report, creates a number of obvious problems. It’s reasonable to not simply inspect whether Science has been taught but to enquire into whether it has been taught well. Grading Science lessons anyone? What about just using a quick book look? There’s always teacher assessments? We’d end up with idiosyncratic and biased judgements which may tell us more about the enrichment a child has at home (my three children had a Science teacher as a dad and BSc Honours graduate as a mum); that’s not what inspection should be about.
Politicians Need Help to Rethink Ofsted
I hope Amanda Spielman makes me eat my words but I’m not convinced Ofsted can reform itself; they are blind or accepting of too many of their poor practices and hamstrung by aspects that require legislative change.
Politicians have used Ofsted for their own purposes. Whilst an independent inspectorate, Ofsted is controlled by statute and the performance measures brought in by ministers. Look at your primary inspection dashboard; anyone got “fewer than 70% of disadvantaged pupils met the expected standard in phonics in year 1”. Politicians have also failed to conceive of a system based on teacher and school leader responsibility rather than external accountability.
If we are ever to really have an impact on workload, improve teacher retention and ensure every child receives the best possible education; the bigger solutions are to be found in radically revising the accountability system whilst continuing to improve the assessment system.