Will we ever not have to talk about SATs?

April 25, 2019

The current debate on SATs has become polarised and vicious. The people who think that without SATs the system will fall apart, standards will fall and primary schools descend into anarchy are of course talking out of their backsides. There do seem to be a lot of them and I sometimes think that the more vociferous on Twitter are engaged in brown nosing activities in case some exciting advisory post comes along with the DFE!

Sorry, that wasn’t a very good start seeing as I’ve polarised the debate a bit more. Anyway, you get the gist and lined up on the other side are people who worry about the effects of testing on children, the dire and absurd conclusions which are drawn from the results by politicians and educationalists who ought to know better, and the sheer cost and bureaucracy of it all. As you can tell, these people are unlikely to be readers of the Daily Mail and supporters of grammar schools!

Having offended everyone, you might like to know that some of us can remember a time before SATs and it wasn’t all bad. Contrary to what some people think, schools managed pretty well, transfer to secondary school at age 11 was just as seamless or clunky as it is today, and teachers did focus predominantly on developing standards in literacy and numeracy. Secondary schools had a purpose in sorting out the capabilities of their intake which was considerably less painful than the current testing regime and it was cheaper. Underpinning all this was the professionalism and competence of teachers. There is another story to be told about how teachers have been de-skilled by political interference in schools but that’s for another time.

Some of us can also remember the widespread use of the 11+ which many advocates of SATs secretly hanker for. I took the 11+. We spent a term doing practice test papers non-stop, the whole test procedure was absolutely terrifying involving a visit to a local secondary school where we were berated by a mad headteacher over eating all of a horrible school meal, and I was so hyper afterwards that I got run over by a car – with nothing but a little bruising for me but I think the driver was quite traumatised!

There was a long wait for results which was another period of anxiety but I found out years later that my dad was told I’d passed by a Liberal Party councillor who was also a teacher (my dad was a prominent member of Basingstoke Liberals at the time). When I got to grammar school we were ranked in our class by 11+ scores and I was allegedly number four in Basingstoke! I’m not bragging but just making an insinuation about the supposed external objectivity of such assessments!

That was a digression but I just wanted to make the point that if society, schools and parents make an assessment important it will be perceived as such by children. Now, I passed this examination along with about 20% of my cohort and the other 80% failed. I still know a lot of those people. I know it was a lamentable predictor of their future performance and their lives but I’m also certain that it disadvantaged some of them. I still think that stress and a sense of failure are key elements of SAT testing and in how it is perceived by children while the 11+ remains a pointless and unnecessary aberration where it persists. I tend to think that is so obvious that it barely needs to be said but I suppose others think differently.

Of course, many people will have switched off by now. They know that years of careful research, pretesting, examiner training and standardisation have made these SAT tests fit for purpose even if they admit the 11+ was not exactly that. They’re talking nonsense of course. The SAT industry works very hard to paint a rosy picture of the assessment but anyone who has had anything to do with them knows just how unreliable they can be. I know about this because, once upon a time, I conducted some confidential research on behalf of some predecessor government examinations quango into massive concerns over key stage 2 English testing. It was a disaster area! The pretesting was conducted with the wrong children, the paper was culturally and socially flawed if not actually racist and the mark scheme had so many options and sub- options that the examiners didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Okay, I know people have tried to address these issues but the fundamental nature of a single assessment, the cultural issues, the convoluted mark schemes and examiners who think they’re meant to act as automatons persists. Funnily enough, every primary head teacher in the land already knows this but only a few are willing to stick their heads above the parapet and say it out loud. That’s understandable given the current educational climate and absurd levels of so-called accountability.

The final, and perhaps the most Monty Pythonish thing to note about SATs, is the degree to which they have become politicised. The necessity of hard edged standards, the notion that competition and cold showers never did anyone any harm and the need to toughen up – as opposed to concerns over well-being and mental health, a fairer society and opportunities based on capacity and skills. You know which side of the fence you’d find anyone from Keith Joseph to Rees Mogg! I partly blame the public schools but you can also see the impact of a politicised education system in academies and privatised services. The mouthings of politicians are just the scum on the surface of an unsavoury soup!

And that’s it really! There was a time before we had SAT testing and since we have had them I have to tell you, writing as someone who has visited loads and loads of schools in the past fifty years, that standards have not risen. Anything you are told about Progress 8 measures or standards over time is utterly chimerical except it’s worse than that because it’s political propaganda which exploits children. Sadly, most teachers today know nothing else. They think that SATs just come with the job which is understandable but wrong. Measuring your carrots never made them longer and it still doesn’t.

Grammar Schools – We don’t know how lucky we are!

June 12, 2017

Quite a few people I know have been disappointed by the election result and seem to think that Labour lost. I don’t agree. Although it will be a few weeks before we see where this lame duck administration is going, one thing we can celebrate now is that their plans for grammar schools are not going to come to fruition. Even the enthusiasts are now only talking about trialling the idea, overlooking the fact that we have had a prolonged trial with negative outcomes and no positive results for the best part of a hundred years!

I think Theresa May will be disappointed. This was her sloppy ideology but it was also cheap policy. It would only have been necessary to fund one or two grammar schools and to allow just a whiff of selection into the system for many schools to feel compelled to follow.

Of course, we like to think that schools would be far too principled but we have to remember that schools have existed in an atmosphere of government-sponsored competition since around 1990 and the notion of an outstanding school is based heavily on its academic performance. Also, there are many senior teachers who remember what it was like – or who know from their own experience – how damaging it is to reputation, to teachers and pupils to have a grammar school down the road creaming off the top 10% of the intake year on year. As if schools don’t have enough to contend with!

So, opening the doors to selection would have compelled many schools across the nation to apply to become grammar schools. The chief executives of multi-academy trusts could easily have been persuaded and good schools, feeling they did not want to be left behind, would join in. There are many schools with a strong moral purpose and determination to be the best that they can and they would have followed unwillingly. The money would have become an irrelevance. Other secondary schools would have tried to compete by introducing a grammar stream in Year 7 and torpedoing the comprehensive ideal along the way.

Then, there would be the testing. Key stage 2 testing since its introduction in the early 1990s has been an unmitigated disaster, unreliable and unfit for purpose. Giving some crackpot organisations the job of recreating the 11+ would lead to the most extraordinary botch because meeting the requirements of right-wing politicians who have no idea what children are capable of at that age while trying to devise a test where tutoring and teaching to the test would not make it easier to succeed would lead to some barmy results. And, if you are trying to divide up sheep and goats at least make sure you can recognise them accurately!

Locally, it never occurs to those who support grammar schools that in the past a grammar school in one area was very different from a grammar school in another. The differences were caused by the social characteristics – or levels of affluence and deprivation in the community – and the amount of ‘creaming off’ which the system allowed. The DFE would have a lot of trouble introducing a fair system because there simply aren’t any reliable statistics which would help them.

Politically, it is also government policy to nurture a school led system as opposed to one managed by local authorities. This policy relies on mutual support and networking and the introduction of a system where introducing selection in one school would change the performance, image and reputation of another would have destroyed it. Even with the rumours that this might happen last year, schools were preparing contingency plans and they didn’t involve collaboration! There were pious statements about everyone agreeing not to be involved but a bit of cash and the lure of some nice exclusive pupils would have been irresistible.

In the end, the people behind grammar schools also want privatisation. Conservative governments have already turned a blind eye to their own favourite schools finding devious ways to select – from churchgoing habits to expensive uniforms. They would love to see charter schools sitting somewhere between the state system, for the oiks, and the independent sector – coupled with some kind of top up fees and the end of not-for-profit schooling in the UK.

We should all be extremely pleased that all of this has been avoided. The grammar school policy, whatever it might cost, was going to be unfair, divisive and ideologically flawed. Good riddance to it!


The Hegemony of the Lesson

February 12, 2014


Everyone has heard teachers worrying about what sort of lesson to present to an Ofsted inspector and, whatever Michael Wilshaw might try to say to the contrary, there is a widespread understanding in the teaching community of what inspectors are thought to be looking for. They want a lively start looking back at what happened before, clear outcomes, varied pace, pupil engagement throughout, a clear stimulus and opportunities for different kinds of responses and learning. It seems a bit of a big shopping list for sixty minutes!

Somewhere along the line, this kind of fragmented inspection of school programmes has given the single lesson far more importance than it deserves. The notion that teachers will deliver these outstanding multifaceted performances up to five times a day is simply absurd and yet it appears to be the aspiration for learning. When the idea is challenged, the response is that if some people can do it then everyone can but the true picture is more complicated than that.

First off, it is my contention that very few Ofsted inspectors have ever seen a genuine lesson. What they have seen is a representation of a lesson or to put it more precisely an objectification of teachers at work.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault had a good deal to say about education, observation and social control and, in my view, the practice of inspection as it has emerged in the last twenty years absolutely bears out what he had to say in the 1960s about prisons and society more generally.

His contention is that if you ‘observe’ people they are inclined to present a social construct of themselves and the activity. In education, they objectify themselves as teachers doing the business of teaching. This objectification is constructed in terms of what Foucault calls a disciplinary practice made up of normative rules which are essentially a series of expectations about what the activity of teaching should look like.

There’s a nice link here with boundary theory which is about how things are defined, firstly, by what they are not and, secondly, by the constant repetition of normalising judgements about how things ought to be. So, teachers hear a constant and repetitive drone about how classrooms involve more heads down than talking, the teacher leads the lesson and talks most and so on. There is also the repetitive definition of what is not acceptable – noise, being out of seats and so forth.

Everyone is part of this normalising process which, for Foucault, constitutes the most effective means of social control in a shared, or allegedly shared, sense of how things are done. You might see this in the way that initial teacher training appears to be both bolstering and encouraging the OFSTED view of teaching and learning in lessons. Of course, even saying that this is the OFSTED view is not entirely correct because these normative judgements are made by ‘everyone’ which is also why challenging these expectations is difficult.

Basically, if you say anything against the orthodoxy, boundary theory dictates you will be excluded from the dialogue or marked down as a maverick or extremist. I think we’ve seen that process at work over the years when radical thinkers have been marginalised and we’ve also seen the orthodoxy become, at times, more repressive as a consequence. The emphasis on the teaching of phonics is a good example of such a repressive orthodoxy which can barely countenance an alternative view.

So, what? If that is the way that education is socially constructed and lessons are designed does it matter? Increasingly, it probably does. The focus on the single lesson damages that sense of a developing programme of learning which in other contexts we would consider to be vitally important. It also works against the notion of pupils as learners because the single lesson is expected to deliver some learning outcomes and not to empower the recipients. It also makes the overall learning less visible, transparent or retrievable which is a weakness where modern technologies are involved.

We also forget that people did, once, teach differently. I have heard English teachers asking whether it is okay to have silent reading lessons and, of course, it should be within the context of a programme of learning. There’s also nothing better for a teacher than work which continues over a course of lessons where pupils come in, get themselves sorted and begin work. They don’t need the repetitive starting routines any more than the teachers.

And, once it was possible to follow the learning in lessons rather than to prescribe it so that, while the long-term goals of the programme were clear, it was possible to divert occasionally from the pathway to pursue areas of emergent and topical interest. Geographers this week – even if an inspector is in the room – ought to be talking about floods as part of their moral purpose! I wonder if they dare!



What it’s about!

February 3, 2014


In the week that the Secretary of State suggested that thirteen-year-old pupils might want to sit common entrance examinations, an adviser to David Cameron recommended nine-hour days and a forty-five week year as a sensible school day and there was a discussion about litter picking as a punishment it seems that there is a lot not to like about schools at the moment.

Looking to the future, things will change. They always do but they also have a tendency to go around in circles. Some radical reform of education, and that means schools, needs to be informed and reflective so The School that I’d Like is just a simple forum for developing some of these ideas. If you have something on this topic that you’d like me to post I’ll be happy to do that as long as I agree with it, of course!

That’s not to say that this little collection of essays starts with an agenda. The aim is just to consider some of the alternatives and not to reinvent some blurred half remembered recollection of schooling in the past.

I hope you enjoy it and your comments are welcome.

Key Stage 3 Tests abolished

October 18, 2008

It is good news but worth remembering how it all began. In 1990 five consortia were given contracts develop SATs to meet the full range of attainment targets set out in the subject curriculum. That was a big undertaking. There were five of these in mathematics, five in English, five in design and technology and four in modern languages. As if that was not enough, the intention was that the assessment would be across all ten National Curriculum levels with levels 3 to 8 encompassing the likely range of performance which – at that time – was linked to GCSE grade U at the bottom and to GCSE grade B at the top. Materials were trialled in a very limited way in 1990 and there were pilot schemes in a handful of local authorities in 1991. The first materials took a month to complete and mixed teacher assessment with controlled tests (sounds ominously contemporary). Teachers liked them but Ken Clarke stamped on them and said he wanted short pen and paper tests. The rest is history!

Lord Adonis leaves UK education for transport

October 14, 2008

On balance I am sorry to see Lord Adonis moved out of education. I think that he has been a good influence over the last ten years or so. He has always been a force for innovation and he was a keen supporter not only of the fast track programme but also of the bilateral trans-European teacher training initiative with which I was involved. You always got the impression that he was willing to let an initiative run and wait for it to deliver which is not always the case with politicians.

On the other side of the coin, I think that he has sometimes been keen to support the innovation rather than see it in the context of the bigger picture. So, schools can teach literacy and numeracy but, along the way, why don’t we get them to teach healthy eating, citizenship and more sex education as well as giving the kids breakfast and providing a childminding service after school? Maybe that is because he comes from the school of thought which holds that education can compensate for society and that is another issue altogether.

Let’s hope that in his new role with responsibility for transport, he supports citizenship and reminds people that the outside lane is for overtaking only rather than getting excited about some new speed camera technology!

My new magazine project

October 1, 2008

Hi, I’ve been busy doing this. Tell all your friends to visit my new website and read my new online magazine for teachers: http://www.teaching4learning.com/page2.html

The Sustainability Imperative

September 9, 2008

Following the development of the government national framework and Ofsted report in May 2008, the pressure is growing on schools to lead the way on sustainable development. The need both to show what can be done and to make pupils aware of the issues are powerful drivers but like everything else in schools this is one priority among many. The Ofsted report argued that schools should:

  • integrate sustainable development into school development plan;
  • support sustainable development with resources and training;
  • identify a sustainability coordinator within the school;
  • allow pupils to learn and take an active part in developing sustainable policies through curriculum learning and school councils;
  • encourage pupils to see local issues within a global context and to consider the impact of their decisions.

That is a challenging agenda, easier to deliver cosmetically than to embed. Most schools have delivered, in some form or other initiatives on waste management and conservation and have encouraged walk to school days as well as energy conservation but Ofsted and the national framework are asking for something more. As usual, the big hurdle is the curriculum. Sustainability features in the curriculum but its structure works against any integrated and holistic approach to the topic. Given the current pliability of the curriculum, one answer might be to dump it in favour of a sustainability week each term. There are lots of attractive resources around which could support that but little money. And, of course, it won’t matter how aware your pupils are of conservation issues if your key stage results drop a couple of points!

The Ofsted Report: 


The National Framework:


A quick summary of the Framework as a leaflet is also available from the NF site.

Online in Second Life

September 8, 2008

I have recently attended a preconference discussion which took place in the virtual world, Second Life. It was a very odd experience holding a discussion with educationalists from around the world on a virtual island. Did it add anything to a conference call? That is hard to answer but it was certainly different. You could see the avatars of the people around you lounging on beanbags and having a serious discussion about the globalisation of education and the way that technology continues to reshape education.

It is increasingly clear that we are only a very short way down a very long road in that respect. The meeting I attended could have acted as a prototype for a virtual classroom where all students could see one another, interact with one another and listen. Probably, the technology is not quite up to that yet but it is getting there fast!

If you have a second life account, this link will take you to the international schools island.


Sex Education

September 5, 2008


Some people would argue that as long as we have one of the highest under age pregnancy rates in Europe any advice to young people that works should be taken seriously. However, the publication of a new study in the Sex Education Journal shows that the media have been overwhelmingly critical of sex education programmes using emotive language and giving space to propagandist opponents. That reminded me of the fuss about a 2004 programmed called A Pause (Adding Power and Understanding to Sex Education), which was massively criticised after a few people noticed that it appeared to condone oral sex. Once the media obtained the story, it was evident that teachers were running courses on the art of fellatio and recommending it all and sundry!

The truth was that the course stressed the need to delay first sexual contacts and to avoid the risks of pregnancy and disease. It also focused on what might be termed risky sexual behaviour and how to avoid it. It was here in the materials that the course covered the kinds of questions the pupils might ask about oral sex. The fuss was yet another indication of how difficult it is to talk about sex openly in English schools. While we are accustomed to many European states being far ahead of the United Kingdom in this area, we are now even falling behind the United States. For good or ill, but certainly for lower pregnancy rates among young people, teenage masturbatory sex and experimentation is not generally seen as the work of Satan even in that evangelical country.

The TES did no better by the way and was unable to resist ‘The seminal issues of sex education talk’ as the strap line over a batch of serious letters from writers concerned about the way that the story had been allowed to develop.

In the unending debate about what to say or not to say to children about sex and the fuss over Sarah Palin and Babygate  I also remember a Brook survey which revealed that around 80% of first sexual encounters are entirely mute. Most of them take place in the dark as well. So much for all that well-meaning stuff about talking!