Mad dogs and Englishmen

According to the lines of the Noel Coward song only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the mid day sun.” When I heard the news this morning, it struck me that education ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are suffering from the effects of severe exposure to the suns rays.

First was the announcement that Primary school pupils are going to be faced with a new form of assessment where they will be ranked against each other using a percentage score. This looks like a return to norm referenced assessment which will have the inevitable result of ensuring that there will always be 10% of 11 year-olds in the lowest percentile. At the same time we are informed by Mr Clegg that he wants “primary schools in the future to get more children across the bar.” However laudable this might be, Mr Clegg ignores the simple statistical impossibility of achieving this when using norm referenced assessment. It doesn’t matter how much pupil premium he decides to chuck at the system or indeed how schools decide to use it. At the end of the day teachers will protect their backs by teaching pupils to the test and the pupils who will inevitably be labelled as failures will give up on the system and opt out of education.

Let me make it clear I don’t have a problem with the need for this country to improve the educational chances of the most disadvantaged but this isn’t the best way to achieve that goal. As Pasi Sahlberg points out there are four things that need to be in place to produce a world class education system where pupils achieve well. At least two of these are not in place in the UK.First of all “high stakes testing” does not lead to improved outcomes, indeed it tends to have the opposite effect. In Finland pupils are regularly monitored by their teachers and teaching is tailored to their needs and strengths. It is only at the end of their statutory education, at age 16 that the encounter their first exam. Contrast this with England where nursery teachers monitor their pupils and tailor the provision to their interests and stage of development. As soon as they enter primary school they encounter the somewhat bizarre phonics test. Early indications from this suggest that children who can read tend to fail, because they try (as good readers do) to put meaning onto nonsense words by altering them to make sense. At the age of eleven SATS tests are used to ascertain the levels pupils have reached and these levels are now used to predict the outcomes at GCSE. If only things were that simple! Because to KS2 SATS are used to rank schools there is a lot at stake when pupils don’t achieve the expected levels, so it is fairly commonplace for Year 6 pupils to spend a large part of their last year in Primary school preparing for the test. This calls into question the reliability of the test scores and indeed many secondary schools test the pupils again shortly after entering year 7 and have noted that the levels are often lower than claimed. Hardly a reliable predictor for GCSE outcomes. SATS may be a useful tool for successive Governments in a relentless drive to “raise standards” by driving up numbers of pupils achieving the highest levels (a statistical impossibility). In direct contract with Finnish pupils, those in the UK are among the most tested in the world and it isn’t making any difference. Clearly there is a need for a different approach as has been recognised by the Scottish Executive.

The second factor is to do with equality. All four of the “best” education systems in the worlds (in terms of their PISA rankings) are in countries where the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest on society is small. In the UK the gap is one of the highest in the OECD and is growing. At the point when the last Labour government came into power, child poverty in the UK was just below 30% and (due to intervention by the State, particularly directed at the under-5s) this level was reduced to around 10%. Over the last year it has risen rapidly back to the 30% level. Unlike the UK, Finland has no private school sector another feature of Britain that preserves the gap between rich and poor.

The second part of Nick Clegg’s announcement relates to the proposed introduction of baseline assessment which will be used to check whether schools have used the pupil premium to make a difference. This is the clearest indicator that his brain has been slowly overheated. England now has one of the lowest starting school ages in the world, with the majority of children starting in Reception as young as four. Children who are subjected to the baseline test at the end of the reception year could be approaching their sixth birthday but others will not yet be five. Development in the early years is more rapid than at any other point in a persons life and a one year gap will have a huge impact on the success of children in the baseline test. Certain groups will be more affected than others. Boys tend to develop more slowly than girls with a gap of a year being seen in the reading levels of disadvantaged boys and girls. labeling children as young as five as failures will do nothing for their self esteem or increase the likelihood of them improving their educational life chances. There is compelling evidence from across Europe (in particular the Nordic countries) that a later start to formal education has a more lasting effect on children’s education and development.

If Nick Clegg wants to make a difference to the life chances of disadvantaged children he   should consider raising the statutory school age and abolishing high stakes testing. To see how its done and also to find out more about the impact he should pay a fact finding visit to Finland or Alberta (Canada) and while he is there maybe he could find some snow and use it to cool his overheated brain.

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