Testing at SixPosted: April 2, 2012
Written by John Coe of the National Association for Primary Education (in a personal capacity).This article first appeared in issue 111 of the SEA journal “Education Politics” available from the SEA at firstname.lastname@example.org
Professional advice has been ignored and the government has had its way. The ARA (Assessment and Reporting Arrangements) for the check on phonic knowledge has passed into law and next June all schools, including academies and free schools, must subject their five and six year olds to the check. In fact check is not the right word to use since what is intended is a test and the results, pass or fail, must be communicated to parents. Furthermore children who fail to reach the government’s required standard must take the test again in 2013. They constitute no small group – 68% failed the pilot test. The peak of our politicians’ obsession with testing has been reached.
The political intention is of course to dictate how schools teach reading when young children are tackling the skill for the first time in the Foundation Stage or in Year 1. The most recent letter from the Minister for Schools to the seventeen professional associations which have come together to campaign against the test indicated that he expected teachers to “support” children who fail. This is mealy mouthed politician speak for “teach” and already too many schools are drilling their pupils twice a day in the hope that the results when sent to RAISEonline will not trigger an inspection which will bring criticisms of their teaching. The bold statement in the 2010 White Paper that teachers know best how to teach is now exposed as mere rhetoric. The intention is to determine teaching methods through preparation for the test. Ministers’ refusal to accept professional advice that results should not be placed on line was absolute confirmation that the check is not simply screening but a measure of schools’ performance in meeting requirements resulting from the imposition of a teaching method which has the potential to damage early learning and to lower achievement in later years.
Teachers working with children in the all important earliest years now face a major challenge. Do they allow the test to dominate their teaching or will they continue with a sensible and balanced approach to phonics teaching? Authoritative studies have shown the superiority of a balanced approach which includes not only phonic decoding and sight recognition of words which are not phonically regular but also, and of great importance, the syntactical and semantic clues which help children to attach meaning to the symbols put before them.
Encouragement can be drawn from the news that only one in seven primary schools have accepted additional government funding on condition that they use politically approved teaching materials. The bribe is just one sign that government seeks to move from deciding what should be taught (programmes of study) to controlling how the teaching should be undertaken (pedagogy). The government’s tightening grip on the process of education, first signalled in James Callaghan’s speech in Oxford in 1976, is nowhere shown more strongly than in the events surrounding the current review of the national curriculum. The government nominated a panel composed of experts, each of them highly regarded by teachers, to advise them. The recommendations brought to ministers are not to their political taste and so the contracts of the Expert Panel have not been renewed. Now the review is being undertaken by DfE officials who, properly careful of their tenure, must try to please their masters.
The restoration of a mutually confident partnership between government and the teaching profession must be a high priority for the future. Our pupils and their families deserve nothing less.