Conor Ryan: We should keep tests to check on schools

The Conservatives say it shows Labour has “failed to deliver”. The
National Association of Head Teachers, which is campaigning for its members
to set and mark their own tests, says parents should ignore them. Meanwhile,
junior schools minister, Diana Johnson, declared the results a “blip”
while pointing out ? correctly, as it happens ? that youngsters who reach
level 3 are still capable of reading and writing, albeit at a more basic
level.

They all miss the point. Around 175,000 more youngsters still reach the
expected level each year than did so 14 years ago, a result of the
combination of accountability and pressure that has accompanied the tests,
including Labour’s literacy and numeracy strategies. But this year’s results
are no “blip” either. They follow a pattern of little or no
improvement since 2000. And the big issue is not the one point fall in
English ? after all, maths recovered after two earlier dips ? but the
absence of momentum behind the 3Rs in primary school.

The most important feature of the years between 1995 and 2000, when results
rose rapidly, was single-minded momentum. Schools were in no doubt that
their top priority was the 3Rs. That momentum disappeared as ministers
merged the literacy and numeracy strategies into a catch-all primary
strategy, and began to give equal emphasis to welfare issues. Of course,
primary schools should offer a broad curriculum and care for their pupils’
welfare. And they should ensure that pupils who can read get access to
plenty of good books.

But the focus of government needs to be clear. After all, those pupils who
don’t reach level 4 are unlikely to gain five good GCSEs. And without them,
they will find it much harder to get a good job or progress to university.
The best school welfare policy is a good education.

Given the improvements since 1995, the focus should now be on narrowing
achievement gaps, not only between boys and girls, but between subjects: 91
per cent of pupils gain a level 4 in English, maths or science, yet only 71
per cent do so in all three subjects. A pupil who can reach the standard in
one subject should be able to do so in all three.

Equally, there are plenty of schools in poorer areas with 90 per cent of
pupils reaching the expected standard. Tower Hamlets has improved from 36
per cent gaining level 4 in English in 1995 to 81 per cent last year, with
many local primaries comfortably outstripping the national average. But
let’s not lose sight of why testing and accountability were introduced ? too
many primary schools assumed that children would acquire the 3Rs through
osmosis or their parents. The losers in this lottery were poorer pupils
without supportive or fluent parents.

And, given the evidence that rigorous phonics, a sound grasp of grammar and
punctuation, and a facility with mental arithmetic are essential building
blocks for the 3Rs, governments should not shy away from expecting schools
to deliver them. But if government wants schools to do better, it must avoid
mixed messages. Ministers made a big error allowing the abandonment of
Labour’s literacy and numeracy strategies to be seen as an admission of
their failure. And the Tories played a foolish game when they suggested that
the Key Stage 2 tests could be replaced by teacher-marked tests in secondary
school (they have since indicated that external marking is more likely).

The main reason there has been so little recent progress has been that ? with
the exception of a renewed focus on phonics ? there has been too much muddle
over what matters in primary schools. The latest thematic review of the
curriculum is in danger of adding to the confusion.But the strategies should
not be revived: schools must be held accountable instead for the extent to
which they successfully teach the 3Rs, and encouraged to use the best of the
available commercial teaching programmes. Ofsted inspections should ensure
that children are taught the basics properly, and show how some schools
succeed against the odds.

Yet, in the end, the only way that we can know whether individual primary
schools are doing their job is through independently set and marked tests.
To imagine that our children would be better taught without them is to
ignore the lessons of history.

Conor Ryan was a senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett.
He blogs at http://conorfryan.blogspot.com

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