“Pull yourself together, child!”

England is in the middle of a mental health crisis for young people, and a major cause is the way in which they are being put under pressure to achieve. It happens at university: 146 students killed themselves in 2016 and at Bristol three students have died suddenly in the past month alone. Some institutions have noticed a three-fold increase in the number of people trying to access support services.

Problems often start during the teenage years, but there is a disturbing pattern of much younger children showing signs of stress and self-harming. A recent survey pointed to children as young as four suffering from panic attacks, eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

There are various reasons for this, including the massive anxieties generated in families by poverty. But last year the Education Select Committee, which includes MPs of all parties, pointed to the mental health damage caused by high-stakes SATs testing. Continue reading

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Primary school tests: what can parents do?


We recently published information about Key Stage 2 SATs in a blog post called Protecting children from primary school tests. It was based on the official instructions sent to headteachers by the Standards and Testing Agency, known as the Assessment and Reporting Arrangements (ARA).

It is often assumed that headteachers have to make every child do the tests. That is clearly not the case. The document explicitly states that some children should not take them, including ‘pupils who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, severe emotional problems‘ (page 18). Although the document gives heads the final decision, it instructs them to ‘discuss the pupil’s circumstances and needs with their parents and teachers‘.

Children often hold back their emotions in school. They are more likely to confide in parents, and parents are more likely to notice signs of anxiety. One of our researchers heard yesterday from a Liverpool parent who wrote:

“The SATs have caused him a lot of distress and he started suffering anxiety attacks in Autumn last year.” Continue reading

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The looming Baseline test disaster



The Government are intent on introducing baseline tests of 4-year-old children. This could have dire consequences by putting a cap on many children’s learning.
 The tests will give teachers the impression that each child’s future potential can be calculated.

This is not even possible 3 years later. A new analysis of KS1 tests by Education Datalab shows the dangers of a belief in fixed ability.

The data shows that a third of the children scoring only Level 1 in Reading and Writing at age 7 went on to get a C or higher in English. In fact, 16% of seven-year-olds who were below Level 1 achieved B or C grades for GCSE English, and 1% achieved an A or A*.

The dangers of early prediction are even higher for children with English as an Additional Language. Nearly half of children in this category scoring Level 1 in reading and writing went on to get a C or higher in English.

The new Baseline tests will create the impression of scientific accuracy. This will increase the tendency of schools to segregate children into different “ability groups”. They will affect the way teachers – and parents – think about children.

The children with the lowest scores could receive a more restricted curriculum, with less interest and challenge. Low scores at Baseline will then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some groups are more at risk than others:

  • children speaking little English at home
  • children growing up in poverty
  • summer-born children who are barely 4 when tested
  • children with various forms of special needs
  • children affected by family breakdown
  • children who have suffered ill health
  • children who are slow to settle at school.

However, the Baseline tests are a danger for every child. They will encourage a curriculum with limited play or learning from direct experience, which will be inappropriate for young children.


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Grammar schools do not overcome disadvantage

New research has further undermined the Government’s case for expanding grammar schools. Stephen Gorard and Nadia Siddiqui (Durham University) have taken a closer look at the Department for Education’s data, revealing some neglected factors.

It was already beyond doubt that children from poorer families stand less chance of getting into grammar school. In fact,  grammar schools take in very few children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods even if they are very successful in primary school (research by Cribb, Sibieta and Vignoles 2013).

This new research confirms that only 2.4% of grammar school pupils are currently eligible for free school meals, compared with 14% of all pupils across England. But it also looks at how long they have been on free meals.

This is important because, on average, attainment is lower for every extra year someone is on free meals. These researchers show that

“grammar schools not only take very few FSM pupils, they also only take the less chronically poor even among those few.”

4% of pupils nationally are on free meals throughout their school lives, but only 0.4% of grammar school pupils. Only 86 chronically disadvantaged pupils attend grammar schools across the whole of England. Continue reading

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Protecting children from primary school tests

The damage caused by primary school testing to children’s education and wellbeing is now very clear. Among other effects, it has helped to create a crisis in children’s mental health.

As we know, large numbers of children are now suffering serious levels of anxiety because of test pressures, or for other reasons such as family poverty or family breakdown. The Child Law advice page reminds heads that:

Every school teacher owes a pupil a duty of care.

The school has to do what is reasonably practical to ensure they care for their pupils, as any reasonable parent would do.

It lists among possible danger signs:

  • anxiety
  • low mood
  • panic attacks
  • phobias
  • eating disorders
  • some self-harming behaviour.

A recent survey shows an increase in mental health issues around the time of the SATs and children’s increasing fear of failure. Continue reading

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Progress 8 and the North East

Schools in North East England are under attack again. According to Progress 8 scores, its schools are the least effective in the country, with the highest percentage coming ‘below the floor’.

But Progress 8 is a flawed and misleading measure. It assumes that social factors make no difference. Once again, the Government are in denial about poverty and the economy. It’s so much easier to attack teachers again.

According to official data, 21% of schools are ‘below the floor’, compared with 12% nationally. Consequently, 31 secondary schools will be targeted for urgent Ofsted inspections. They are likely to receive negative judgements, however good the teaching is: that is how the system works. They will be forced to become academies … those that aren’t already!

Researchers have pointed out the  flaws in Progress 8 very clearly, but the Government has ignored the warnings. Actually it isn’t difficult to show why the North East is scoring particularly low, and the reasons are beyond schools’ control.

i) The new scoring system has resulted in a third more schools being classed as ‘below the floor’. This is true across England, but affects some schools more than others.

ii) Poverty has a big impact on pupils’ progress: on average, students on free school meals score -0.5 on Progress 8. (-0.5 is also the threshold for ‘below the floor’.) Schools with large numbers of FSM students are far more likely to score below. In the North East, 17% of students are FSM (13% nationally). In some places it’s worse:

  • 24% Middlesbrough
  • 23% Newcastle
  • 20% Sunderland
  • 19% South Tyneside
  • 19% Hartlepool.

Not surprisingly, all these areas have large numbers of schools ‘below the floor’. Continue reading

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Book launches

Beyond the exam factory
Alternatives to high-stakes testing

Events are being held around England to present and discuss this new book from More Than A Score – a broad coalition of the largest teacher union NEU, parents groups, researchers, and specialist organisations for primary education, school subjects and early education.

What are the issues?
Assessment in English schools is not designed to help children learn. Its main purpose is to police schools and teachers, and it does untold damage in the process.

Primary school tests are causing stress to children, demoralising teachers, and providing little useful information to parents. They narrow the curriculum and penalise schools in the most disadvantaged areas.

This stimulating new book presents strong arguments against the present system and opens up real alternatives. It draws on a wealth of experience over many decades, in England and internationally. It presents examples of assessment methods which have been eclipsed in English schools due to the pressures of ‘accountability’.

Lambeth 22 Jan at 5.30pm  Karibu Education Centre, Gresham Road. Speakers include Mike Rosen

Liverpool 30 Jan at 6pm  The Liner Hotel, Lord Nelson St. Speakers include Alan Gibbons

Leeds 3 Feb at 1pm  Seven arts centre, Chapel Allerton. Speakers include Terry Wrigley, Pam Jarvis and Jill Wood.

Manchester 28 Feb at 6.30pm  Greater Manchester Police Sports Club, Chorlton (M21 7SX). Speakers include Louise Reagan and Terry Wrigley

More events to be announced soon.


The book can be viewed here. Please email primarycharter2017@gmail.com for information on how to order. (Multiple copies from £2, dependent on quantity.)


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