Education: Standards are up says tests chief

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The Independent Online
Big improvements in national tests results announced today should be a matter for celebration. But Nick Tate, the Government's chief adviser on exams and a veteran of many a standards battle, knows that it will not be as simple as that. Despite an inquiry earlier this year which discounted allegations that the English test for 11-year-olds was "fixed", the unprecedented improvement in results is likely to attract at best muttering, at worst disbelief, among critics.

After years of public and political grumbling about the state of English primary schools, can it be that standards really are rising? Yes, says Dr Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the tests. And he says that there are plenty of reasons why.

For years, he argues, we have failed to tap into the potential of millions of children. Now, for the first time, both the Government and schools are united behind a determined improvement drive. Performance tables for primary schools and the numeracy and literacy strategies introduced by ministers to guide teachers on the basics are boosting achievement.

Requirements for schools to set targets and the tendency for more teachers to lay down targets for individual pupils are playing a part.

Dr Tate says: "What is happening is showing how a concentrated national effort can enable a whole cohort of pupils to do better. Undoubtedly in the past we have let people down. There is untapped talent and potential. The results show what you can do when school improvement begins to work."

Take mental arithmetic. For decades, we have talked about how badly our children do in international tests in comparison with those of other countries. Last year, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard in maths actually went down. Officials offered the introduction of mental arithmetic as one of the main explanations. This year's spectacular rise in maths scores, Dr Tate suggests, shows how much can be done in a short time.

He argues that a sea change is taking place across the education system but particularly in primary schools. "There has been a mood change. There is a new sense in schools that every year they are trying to do better than their previous best. Partly this is because people didn't have the data before to see how they were doing in relation to other schools. They are committed to continuous corporate improvement."

Does this mean that the Government is bound to reach its targets for 80 per cent of 11-year-olds at the expected standard in English by 2002, and 75 per cent in maths? He points out that there is still some way to go, particularly in improving the performance of boys and in raising writing standards: this year's higher marks in English are due mainly to better reading - not writing.

Dr Tate says that the basic structure of the tests must remain unchanged until 2002 because of the Government's targets, but he believes that a rethink might be necessary after that if standards continue to rise. At present, children are expected to reach Level 4 with the brightest achieving Level 5 or 6 and the below average Level 3. The English test covers Levels 3, 4 and 5 and there is an extension paper for Level 6.

If a large majority of children started to reach Level 5, the tests might have to be redesigned so there was one test to assess Levels 2, 3 and 4 and another for the majority of children which would assess Levels 5, 6 and 7.

Another challenge, Dr Tate says, is to improve the 14-year-olds' results which have changed very little since the tests were introduced. "Schools don't take these tests very seriously. A disturbing proportion of children are getting the same level at 14 as they are at 11. A national literacy strategy for secondary schools must be on the agenda," he believes.

Plans are already in place to ease the transition of pupils from primary to secondary schools after research showing that many pupils mark time and even regress during their first years in secondary school. The authority is piloting a scheme which encourages pupils to start a project in primary school and then finish it in secondary school.

Overall, however, Dr Tate believes that optimism is justified. "To think that you can't bring about these massive improvements is based on a desperately pessimistic view of human nature," he says.