Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Time for a health check

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This summer's Key Stage 2 and 3 exams debacle shows that assessment at 11 and 14 is no longer fit for purpose, says John Dunford. He shares with ASCL members his proposals for reforming the system.

In a restaurant in the south of France in early August, I heard the word 'curriculum' spoken by one of the English people at a nearby table - an untimely reminder that September 2008 heralds the start of the biggest changes for many years in secondary age examinations.

GCSE, A level, the new diplomas, functional skills tests and the extended projects all are changing or being introduced, while we continue to reform and refresh learning at Key Stage 3.

None of us will forget quickly the autumn term in 2005 when a whole new staffing structure had to be introduced at the same time as a new self-evaluation form (SEF) had to be completed and a new Ofsted framework prepared for.

I remember well a meeting with senior DCSF officials in September 2005 when I explained the problems of implementing simultaneously so many major reforms. I warned them that the situation could be even worse in the autumn term of 2008 unless they began to look more carefully at the totality of the planned curriculum reforms from the viewpoint of those who would have to implement them.

The problem was recognised at the senior levels of the DCSF and QCA and the reforms were duly phased.

Unfortunately, as ASCL members know only too well, since 2005 many other reforms have been introduced for implementation in this academic year. Two new secretaries of state have come into office, each with his own new policy priorities, two departments have replaced one, and the senior personnel in the DCSF has changed completely.

The collective memory, so necessary at the top of any organisation, has been replaced by collective amnesia. The lessons of autumn 2005 have largely been forgotten and a whole new policy programme introduced to the curriculum reforms already in place.

At least the new SEF (which is likely to include major revisions) and the new Ofsted framework do not come in until 2009. But the Children's Plan has introduced a wide range of reforms that will demand the attention of ASCL members this academic year.

Foremost among these reforms are those that comprise 'the parents' agenda', through which the government wants schools to produce better two-way communications between school and home and to involve parents more in the running of schools.

The most urgent part of this agenda for secondary schools is the introduction of online reporting in September 2010, giving parents immediate access to their child's progress. ASCL is currently working with Becta to ensure that systems are in place in good time to allow schools to do this. Through the social partnership, we are also trying to minimise the workload for schools.

Close watch on LAs

The second area to watch carefully this year is the role of the local authority (LA). Several legislative measures in the last two years appear to have increased local authority power, but it remains to be seen how this will work out in practice.

On 14 to 19 policy, LAs will have increased strategic responsibilities, but the most significant of these are at sub-regional level, rather than individual LAs. Nonetheless, ASCL members want to keep an eye on the priorities set in the local area agreement (LAA).

On the wider children's agenda, schools will soon have a new 'duty to co-operate'. ASCL normally opposes increases in the statutory responsibilities placed on schools and colleges, but we agreed to this on the grounds that it will give school leaders a seat at the LA table on Children's Trusts, the bodies through which LAs are to deliver more joined-up services to support children, including social services, health, youth offending and other specialist services.

All the while, demands on schools and colleges are increasing - from parents, media and government.

Following the 2008 GCSE results, the number of schools in the National Challenge, with fewer than 30 per cent of 16 year-olds with five high grade GCSEs or equivalent, has reduced from 638, but the pressure on these schools will continue to increase.

It remains to be seen whether the level of support offered matches the pressure and is sufficient to enable the schools to raise achievement levels in line with their own ambitions.

Next on the hit list

Schools with raw results above 30 per cent, but below statistically expected levels, are likely to be next in the line of fire. ASCL will watch carefully to see how such schools are identified. If the measure used is contextual value-added (CVA) or Fischer Family Trust (FFT), we are entitled to ask why such measures were not given greater prominence when the National Challenge list was drawn up. And we will similarly ask: what about Ofsted judgements?

So again ASCL will ask the questions: what is a good school or college, how is this best judged and what represents intelligent accountability for school and college leaders?

One thing is certain. The achievement of the aims of a complex institution such as a school or college cannot be fairly judged by a single examination score. A fair assessment has to include the extent to which an institution achieves its wider aims.

Student well-being, assessed as part of self-review, could be a legitimate way to do this. But examination measures have to be fair too. Added value, preferably in context, has to be taken into account.

But value-added scores contains an inbuilt problem, brought into public focus this summer by the marking debacle of Key Stage 2 and 3 tests, the marks from which form the baseline for secondary school accountability.

Key Stage 2 test scores are a shaky foundation for accountability. Our professional doubts about them are one reason why most secondary schools give diagnostic tests to 11 year-olds.

We need a better way of recording achievement at 11 than high-stakes external test scores, but any new system must provide a fair and credible way of holding primary schools to account as well as forming a credible baseline for secondary school accountability.

The system for 11 year-olds could, I suggest, be based on a bank of tests to be drawn down by the school, allied to rigorous teacher assessment, with dipstick moderation to ensure consistency and credibility for accountability and value-added purposes.

Diagnostic assessment would provide the basis for a personalised learning plan to ensure continuity of learning across the transition to secondary school. National sampling, instead of the present national saturation, would judge how the school system as a whole is progressing.

Single-level tests are certainly not the way forward. They should be scrapped when the present pilot comes to an end.

Way forward for KS3 tests

At Key Stage 3, the English test has never fully gained the confidence of teachers and it has been a major constraint on the way English has been taught to 11 to 14 year-olds. This is especially so in the light of the new, more flexible Key Stage 3 curriculum.

Do we really need a battery of national tests at age 14, with all the accompanying nonsense of league tables?

Tests at the end of year 9 should be no more than an internal check on progress and the KS3 national testing industry could be shut down. The 40million allocated for these tests could be put to much better use.

There is now another reason for ending KS3 national tests. From 2010, functional skills tests will become de facto almost compulsory. A pass in functional skills will be a requirement for a grade C pass in maths and English GCSEs and in all diploma courses.

In an article in the Times Educational Supplement I have argued that these functional skills tests cannot be tacked on to our already excessive testing system in England. As functional skills tests are introduced, something will have to go. It will be an ideal opportunity to end the KS3 tests.

This is likely to be the last full academic year before a general election, so the examination results of 2009 will assume particular significance politically. Doubtless the year will bring an even larger crop of announcements and initiatives.

Just as it will be the most important part of ASCL members' job to retain the strongest focus on high quality teaching and learning, I shall continue to persuade the government that it is in their best interests to help you to do this.

In the end, it is good teaching and purposeful learning that improve test scores and examination results. The acid test of all education policy is whether it helps or hinders that process.

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