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.

In April last year the House of Commons Select Committee on Primary Assessment  reached very critical conclusions about SATs and other primary school tests. They declared that

“The high stakes system can negatively impact teaching and learning, leading to narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’, as well as affecting teacher and pupil wellbeing.”

The Government has ignored these conclusions. It set up a phoney survey with questions limited to peripheral issues. The new Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, has now blocked any reduction in testing. His statement that there would be no more changes means no hope of any reduction, and in fact he is continuing to implement three extra tests: multiplication tables, Baseline for four year olds, and what has been called ‘Baby PISA’ for children in nurseries.

This puts the ball back in the court of schools and parents to protect children’s interests and wellbeing. But what can they do?

Reclaiming Schools researchers have been asked by parents to look at official documents to find an answer. These are the implications for heads and for parents.  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 for information on how to order. (Multiple copies from £2, dependent on quantity.)


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Time to bin the Phonics Check

The phonics check was supposedly set up as a ‘light-touch’ diagnostic tool. It is neither light nor diagnostic. It is another high-stakes test, used by Ofsted to judge schools, and it diagnoses nothing.

It is not diagnostic because it cannot identify any specific reasons why a child is having difficulties. It doesn’t judge reading in any meaningful sense, i.e. reading with understanding. All it does is identify whether children can read aloud a limited set of regularly spelt words or pseudowords.

It does not check whether children can recognise non-phonic words – words which are very common in English, such as the, is, was, though, any, said, come. You can hardly form a sentence in English without such words.

It carefully avoids graphemes which can be pronounced various ways, eg ou in soup, out, could and soul.

Even among regular correspondences of spelling to sound, this is a flawed test. There are 85 ‘grapheme-phoneme correspondences’ but just 15 very basic ones make up two thirds of the phonics test:

(Consonants) b, c (in cat), d, f, k, l, m, n, p, r, s (in sat), t
(Vowels) a (in at), e (in egg), i (in hit)

27 of the 85 didn’t appear at all in the test’s first three years, including these very common examples:

soft c (in face), wh (in when), a (in father), ay (in say), e (in she), i (in mind), o (in cold), ou (in out). (See research by Darnell, Solity and Wall)

Passing a phonics test doesn’t mean you can read… and vice versa Continue reading

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Phonics and the PIRLS test: time to end Government interference

Schools Minister Nick Gibb has hardly stopped crowing because England has risen from 10th to 8th place in the international PIRLS reading test. He claims personal credit, accrediting this result everything to the Phonics Check and his insistence on synthetic phonics.

The improved score is a great credit to England’s teachers, given what they have suffered at the hands of this government… but Nick Gibb is wrong to claim the credit.

The improvement is not as dramatic as he pretends, nor is it the result of Government policy. It was actually half as much as in the previous five years (2006-2011).

Ireland and Australia made twice that gain.This is doubly ironic.

i) Gibb has just returned from a trip to Australia in the attempt to convince politicians there to introduce the phonics check.

ii) Ireland, now the highest achieving country in Europe according to PIRLS, uses a very broad approach to teaching reading.

It is clear from Ireland’s Literacy and Numeracy Strategy and its National Curriculum that the aim is to empower teachers not control them. The Strategy document mentions phonics only four times, twice for English and twice for Irish. It says teacher education should enable teachers “to be familiar with the various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions that can be used to teach literacy and numeracy as discrete areas and across the curriculum.”

  • The approach to reading is child-friendly and developmental.
  • Phonics is embedded in real uses of literacy.
  • Teachers are encouraged to combine analytic and synthetic phonics, sight recognition, rhymes and initial letters (onset-rime), pictorial cues, and a growing sense of texts.

Continue reading

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Asset stripping through multi-academy trusts

The Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the academy system. Its schools have been let down badly.

The local NEU secretary Sally Kincaid sums this up as asset stripping.  Funding from our taxes has found its way into private pockets,  including a Chief Executive’s salary of nearly £300,000, and £440,000 paid to a company owned by the CEO and his daughter. Reserves saved for emergencies and major improvement projects have been lifted – even £220,000 raised by parent volunteers.

This is not a unique case: there are numerous similar examples across England. 111 academy trustees are paid over £150,000, and 700 more above £100,000. One in three trusts hands lucrative contracts to firms belonging to their own families – 50 of them worth over £250,000.

Parents across West and South Yorkshire are up in arms. They have seen the Government force their local schools into the arms of an academy trust that was supposed to raise standards. After bleeding the schools dry, the academy trust has decided to walk away with no change in the Ofsted label.

The trust was built round a successful small school which  voluntarily converted into an academy. The Government assumed that it must have the ‘leadership’ to transform other schools. It continued pushing schools into the trust even though audits had revealed serious financial problems.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

Since WCAT decided to walk away, the Government are trying to transfer the schools to other academy chains. Wakefield Council have rebelled against that option, calling for the schools to be consulted and for the Government to allow them back into the local authority.

The Government have failed to act on reports of financial mismanagement in this chain. Indeed, some of the financial reports on WCAT are still being kept secret.  There is no way of knowing where the next scandal will erupt.

Local authorities have strong safeguards against such misuse of public money in their schools. The Multiple Academy Trust system, on the other hand, is wide open to misuse of public funds.

The autonomy myth

Local authority schools have been self-managing since 1988, with full control of their own budgets. It is only academies that do not have this autonomy. A recent legal investigation judged that schools joining Multi-Academy Trusts have no right to hold onto their own budgets.

Improving achievement

There is a widespread myth that academies achieve higher, and improve more, than local authority schools. This stems from early evaluations which took no account of manipulation by changing the student population or easier students for easier exams.

Once researchers looked below the surface, it became clear that there was no advantage to pupils from attending an academy. Many schools have gained from being academies, but so also have many schools from staying within the Local Authority.

Some academy chains have found dubious ways to ‘improve’ results:

  • covert selection, to admit more higher-attainers
  • expensive uniforms and sports kit to deter poorer families
  • barriers to keep out pupils with special needs
  • narrowing down the curriculum, to focus only on what scores highly in government statistics
  • imposing ‘bootcamp’ discipline and other ways of removing less successful pupils.

A return to Local Authorities

The Government have deliberately run down local authorities and their capacity to support schools. That doesn’t mean they can’t be redeveloped. It is iniquitous to force WCAT schools into other academy chains.

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Teach like Finland – take your time

Most of our knowledge of Finnish schools comes from Pasi Sahlberg’s book Finnish Lessons. Accounts of the day to day life of teachers are hard to find, partly because of the difficulties of learning the Finnish language. Now at last we have such a book:
Teach like Finland: 33 simple strategies for joyful classrooms
You can find an introductory video on Youtube.

Timothy Walker is a dedicated American teacher nearing burnout. He is checking his lesson plans during breakfast, and marking late at night. He has little time for his own children, and is even skimping on sleep. He’s starting to hate his job. His Finnish wife tells him it needn’t be like this, but he doesn’t believe her.

“Good teachers, I told my wife, don’t do short workdays. In fact, I explained, they push themselves – to the limit.”

“Not in Finland,” Johanna said.

Eventually, he gets a job in a bilingual public school in Helsinki as a grade 5 class teacher (i.e. 12 year olds).

At first he suffers culture shock. For a start, the timetable involves a 15 minute break after every 45 minutes of class. He even tries teaching through the break but realises that his pupils return alert and ready after breaks. He’s so used to rushing around that he is worried to see his colleagues ‘sipping coffee, flipping through newspapers, and chatting leisurely with one another’. Continue reading

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