Education Viewpoint: Put to the test, will sense prevail?: Michael Jones argues for new attitudes to make John Patten's English assessments work

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The Independent Online
NO ONE should be surprised at the confrontation over testing. It is a consequence of the decision, which pre-dated John Patten's tenure as Secretary of State for Education, to allow government policy to be determined by the educationally right-wing militant tendency. There are not many of them, and few have direct experience of state schools, but they have had disproportionate representation on key national committees for testing and the curriculum.

It was clear a year ago that there were difficulties with the assessment of English. Now the teachers' unions are moving towards a boycott, supported by many headteachers and parents, not as the result of any conspiracy, but in response to grassroots pressure.

It will not do for the Secretary of State to claim that English tests for 14-year-olds 'relate directly' to what pupils have been learning for three years. I resigned from the Schools Examination and Assessment Council last year because they do not do so, and cannot. Instead, they reflect a false reverence for 'pencil and paper tests'.

Nor will teachers be impressed by claims that English tests have been developed and tested over three years. They know that the tests used in extensive trials, which proved almost universally acceptable, were ditched without published evaluation, not because they were educationally inappropriate, but because they were deemed ideologically objectionable. The same happened with GCSE coursework.

Now is the time to take stock and avoid self-defeating positions on either side. We have the new Schools Curriculum Assessment Authority (SCAA), chaired by Sir Ron Dearing, who can be expected to reflect in an unbiased way on future developments. The new inspection authority, Ofsted, has yet to prove itself but there are positive signs. Longer-term prospects for educational peace are therefore encouraging. It would be a tragedy if short-term problems destroyed future progress.

It is vital for Mr Patten to take some positive steps. He should declare that legislation will not be used to force teachers to comply with testing procedures which they believe are not in the interests of their pupils. Such legislation would be the ultimate admission of defeat and would invite confrontation on an unprecedented scale.

A second step would be to recognise that the best way to learn as much as possible from the present tests is to make them voluntary in state schools, as they are in independent schools. The tests are already invalid in statistical terms since some teachers have stopped teaching for them. Allowing schools to use the proposed tests, or assess the national curriculum in the way they think best, would provide SCAA with a far wider range of evidence than the results of a single set of tests that are acknowledged as unsatisfactory.

The third step involves recognising that the real problems are not to do with the curriculum, but with assessment. The programmes of study for English, produced by the Cox Committee after national consultation, form an admirable basis for teaching and learning. Proposals to change the curriculum in English should be abandoned forthwith.

The fourth step would recognise, as Mr Patten has said, that the level of parental and governor awareness of these issues is unprecedented. No further changes should be contemplated unless they command the support of parents and governors as well as the profession.

The final step is to ensure that membership of the new testing and curriculum authority reflects a better range of informed opinion than the previous separate authorities. Only then will Sir Ron Dearing have any chance of carrying out his remit on which so much depends.

None of the above requires additional funding or any fundamental change in government policy - just a change in attitude. There must be a readiness to work with and listen to teachers. If such changes in attitude are not rapidly apparent, we shall need only one tense to describe education in English - the future imperfect.

The writer is chairman of the National Association of Advisers in English.

Sir Ron Dearing interview, page 27