A Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity for Radical Changes to Education

It is unknown when schools will be able to reopen and function properly. After three months of being shut to all but key worker children and vulnerable children, students are tentatively being welcomed back to in-person classes. The diet being offered across the country is varied but I know teachers are finding ever more innovative ways of reaching and teaching their students.

Because of the disruption to education and the hiatus in testing this year because of the pandemic, the government has a once in a lifetime opportunity to make radical changes to our education system. As a teacher with 25 years’ experience, I propose three alterations for serious consideration:

  1. Moving the national curriculum tests in English and mathematics done at the end of Year 6, at the end of the primary phase of education, into Year 7 and the start of the secondary phase of a child’s education.

  2. Radically altering the way we assess progress at sixteen and ditch the terminal exam system which determines GCSE grades.

  3. Ending the 6-week summer holidays – one of the biggest barriers to success for disadvantaged students.

Over the next three weeks in my column I will present my argument for each of these proposals, starting this week with changing how we assess at the end of the primary phase.

Until coronavirus hit, Year 6 children (ten- and eleven-year olds) had been preparing for their Key Stage 2 National curriculum tests, usually sat in early May.

It is interesting how the Government outline their rationale for KS1 and KS2 tests…

For KS1(six-/seven-year olds)

“The tests are a tool for teachers to help them measure your child’s performance and identify their needs as they move into key stage 2. They also allow teachers to see how your child is performing against national expected standards.”

At KS2

“The tests help measure the progress pupils have made and identify if they need additional support in a certain area. The tests are also used to assess schools’ performance and to produce national performance data.”

These are externally set and marked.

Notice the real change in emphasis from spotting gaps in performance to aid teaching in KS1 to assessing the school’s performance in KS2. They make a rather pathetic attempt at using them in this way to identify “additional support in a certain area” but ultimately, they are testing the school and not the child. I argue this is a missed opportunity to use assessment as a stick to beat a school with rather than as a tool to help a child make better progress as they move into the next phase of their education.

These assessments (in English and mathematics) are taken in May of Year 6 and are marked independently. Once the assessments are out of the way, in many (but not all) cases, students then focus on areas other than English and Mathematics for the rest of their two months left at primary school. Why shouldn’t they? These tests are so important to a primary school’s future they need to do everything they can to ensure that come the beginning of May their students are at the top of their game in English and Mathematics, often at the detriment of other subject areas, knowing they have time to catch these up after. This is the nature of high stakes testing.

The problem with this approach is that the results come in during July. Secondary school will receive them and use them maybe to stream or set students but certainly to give an indication of ability in English and Mathematics for when the students start at secondary school in September … four months AFTER they’ve taken the test. In between this they’ve also had a Summer holiday. How much Mathematics and English have students done in this period of time? How much that they knew in May have they now forgotten? The problem for a secondary school wanting to use these assessments to spot areas of weakness is that they assess what the child knew four months ago not what they know now.

I propose a better way of doing this is not to assess in May of Year 6, but to move the assessments to the first week or two of secondary school. They could even be marked internally, saving money and time. They could still be used to make some assumptions on quality of education at the primary level if the government insisted but they would now be incredibly useful formative assessment tools for secondary school English and Mathematics teachers giving them invaluable information about what the students before them know and don’t know NOW.

To me, it is a no-brainer. As a secondary mathematics teacher this would be incredibly important information to allow me to plan what I teach and where I intervene with my Year 7 students. If you are a parent of a child at primary school, what is more important to your child’s education? A testing system designed to keep schools in line or a testing system designed to support your child’s future education?

Wayne Chadburn is a mathematics teacher and columnist for Liberal Base. He lives in Penistone, South Yorkshire where he serves as a Town Councillor. Wayne blogs at waynechadburn.wordpress.com and Tweets @waynechadburn.