Do tests fail children?

Teachers blame the national curriculum tests for everything from stressed seven-year-olds to sink schools, and will vote today on a possible boycott. But, Nicholas Pyke reports, supporters say parents deserve to know how their child's school is performing
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The Independent Online

Today, Britain's best-known classroom union is preparing to hurl a giant spanner into the delicate workings of Whitehall. When the 40 members of the National Union of Teachers' national executive committee finally emerge from their afternoon meeting in London, it seems certain they will have voted for a boycott of the national curriculum tests, and the biggest showdown with the Government since the clash over testing a decade ago.

There are few subjects which cause such a clear division in the world of education. Teachers, academics and many parents have blamed the three key stage tests for everything, from stressing out seven-year-olds to creating sink schools. The spirit of Gradgrind is said to be stalking the land, purging the timetable of sport, art and creativity in pursuit of the three Rs. The statistical reliability of the tests has been attacked, as has their effect on morale. The Labour chairman of the commons education select committee has complained that pupils are "tested to destruction".

The three Ts, tests, targets and league tables, were a major feature of the Easter teachers' union conferences and some form of boycott will be widely supported in the profession. While the second largest union, the NASUWT, is doubtful about the legality of a boycott, the normally cautious National Association of Head Teachers has already said it wants to scrap the key stage one tests for seven-year-olds. Even the private schools are joining in. At their recent annual meeting, the chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference threatened to obstruct the compilation of national performance tables by refusing to pass the results on to newspapers.

They will, needless to say, find themselves opposing a Government in a determined mood. The tests and the targets that go with them have been the locomotive power of Labour's education programme for the past five years, praised by ministers for dragging up standards of reading and writing among 11-year-olds, and even credited by some with affording the party an important electoral advantage. Now, for the first time, that engine stands to be derailed. No wonder the NUT's lawyers have been working overtime.

It is not clear what, exactly, today's meeting will conclude. But a ballot of some sort affecting some of the tests - or all of them, as union sources indicate is likely - is all but certain. Hilary Bills is one of those who will be voting for a boycott of tests, at both seven and 11, and as a head teacher her views matter more than most. She has fought hard for Holyhead primary school in Wednesbury, creating a successful institution out of one judged to be failing when she arrived in 1996. Yet, as she puts it, year after year she and her pupils are condemned to a lowly placing in the newspaper league tables - based on the percentage of 11-year-olds hitting the government target of "level four" in English, maths and science.

Holyhead is firmly rooted in the local area, and this is part of the problem. Wednesbury is in the Black Country borough of Sandwell, one of the poorest in Britain with some of the worst academic results. In fact, the school sits atop an old mine working from the days when Wednesbury was at the southern tip of Staffordshire, and the road outside the school, built by Thomas Telford, was the main road from London to Anglesey and the Irish ferry. Hence the school name, and the coach and horses mural on the side of the building.

Bills has two main objections. The first is that the tests are not scientifically constructed because they try to do too many jobs at once. The regime introduced by the Government, she says, is statistically flawed, giving the school and its students maximum stress for minimum useful data. "There have always been national standardised tests," she complains. "I've been testing children since 1970, when I started. Then you used the results to make decisions about the needs of the child and how he or she wanted to learn."

Now, however, the tests are serving a wider set of political purposes, which include policing primary schools and demonstrating the effectiveness of government. And this, her second concern, is at the heart of the issue. "It's the rank order, it's the league tables. That's the real problem. It makes you do things that you never dreamed in your wildest dreams of doing.

"A lot of schools change their curriculum, particularly in year six with their 10- and 11-year-olds. They do maths, English and science practically to the exclusion of everything else. Even I have meetings with parents, saying that this is the most important year, not just for their child, but for your school. That's when you find out that they've booked holidays in the second week in May. If they don't take the SATS they count as zero."

About a third of her pupils are on free school meals - a statistic which tends to equate with unemployment - and a third have special needs. There is also an enormous pupil turnover, with only 40 per cent staying at the school all the way through. Last year, Holyhead finished near the bottom of the table because, in a class of 31, 25 were on the special educational needs register. "It was awful," she says. "You just wanted to cry. All the effort. All the time. All the energy. This year was better. But if we'd had the same cohort of children it would have been the same. I shall be boycotting them. I shall say to my staff, you can do them if you want but I won't be posting them."

Her arguments are further supported by the fact that the tests for seven-year-olds have been abolished in Wales and there are no league tables in Scotland, where a bank of standardised tests is administered pupil by pupil instead. But St Davids and St Andrews are not St Albans, and the fact is that the community-minded politics taking root in Scotland and Wales have struggled in the chalky ground of southern England. Ranged against Bills and her colleagues is a Government which has made a series of important promises, based on the tests, and a consumer-minded public encouraged to believe that they can choose a school as if it was a tin of beans. Primary schools claim parents choosing a school are more likely to consult the Ofsted website than the league tables. Yet the annual test results exercise a powerful hold on the public imagination.

And quite right too, says Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector turned commentator and champion of the educational marketplace. He believes that the information, however crude, is important. "I believe that parents have an absolute right to information on how their schools are performing. The tests are an essential part of that information. The NUT is completely wrong to advocate a boycott. It isn't for the NUT to challenge the will of Parliament. We live in a democracy. We have decided there should be tests. The union should do what the Government wants. Name one broadsheet newspaper that doesn't have league tables. The papers wouldn't print the information if people didn't want it. I accept that league tables aren't perfect. But I think parents read them a lot more intelligently than many head teachers would assume." Crucial to this argument is the view that the results of the level-four pass rate are more than an indicator of a school's social standing, and can point to genuine educational success.

Woodhead is in no doubt: "The difference between schools serving very similar catchment areas is extremely wide. Parents need to know. So do schools and local authorities." But it is here that the disagreement is at its starkest, with most head teachers - and statisticians - saying that the level-four pass rate is almost entirely determined by a mix of economics and academic selectivity. This is the point made by Sir David Winkley, former head of the Grove School in Handsworth and a man who actually pioneered the current style of testing in the early Eighties. His work at Grove was praised by Ofsted and later by ministers. Now, he says, the league tables are undermining confidence in the business of testing itself. "The league tables are a serious problem because they're effectively a demographic plan of social conditions across the country," he says. In other words, the results are so predictable there's no point doing the current tests at all.

So who is right? Professor David Hopkins, head of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit at the Department for Education and Skills says they both are. He accepts that the percentage of children reaching level four in a given primary school is strongly related to home and economic background. After all, only 30 per cent of a given result can be put down to the effectiveness of a school. At the same time, some schools are better performers than others, and the tests can demonstrate which ones. But in order to identify them, he says, it is essential that parents consult the value-added scores on the national performance tables, the figures showing how much progress pupils make from arriving at a school to leaving it. As yet, neither newspaper editors nor parents have shown much interest in that particular column.