Conor Ryan: Union victory is poor pupils' loss

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The Independent Online

Last week the National Union of Teachers and the National Association of Head Teachers started to ballot their members on a planned boycott of this year's national English and Maths Key Stage 2 tests for 11-year-olds. At the same time, the National Equality Panel laid bare the extent of economic and educational inequality that still exists in Britain today.

The NUT and NAHT argue that the tests impose an excessive workload on their members, and force teachers to drill pupils in English and Maths when they could be doing other things. Yet the independent expert group on assessment, comprising five experienced education figures, found these tests to be "educationally beneficial" and pointed out that the best way to prepare for Key Stage 2 tests is "through a varied programme of high-quality teaching throughout the year, not through repeatedly sitting practice test papers".

Aside from the revelation in the equality panel's report that there is still a 26 percentage point gap between the achievements of poorer children and their better-off peers at the age of 11, it is clear that the planned boycott by the two unions is wrong-headed.

National test data allows teachers to compare the results of different schools, and of schools in similar circumstances, helping to drive faster improvements in poorer areas such as east London. It is crucial to revealing hidden weaknesses so that they can be properly addressed.

But the achievement gap that remains – and the fact that one in four pupils fails to reach the expected standard in both subjects – shows why it is so important to retain the accountability and openness that has helped to drive improvement in so many schools.

If testing is abandoned we will lose such vital information in the future. Yet both major parties have been trying to appease the unions with proposals that – despite their protestations to the contrary – could see the demise of this key indicator of primary school performance.

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, said before Christmas that he was "not closing the door" on scrapping the tests at 11 in 2012, if Labour is re-elected, provided he was confident that teacher assessments could provide a reasonable alternative. And his Conservative shadow had earlier proposed moving the tests from the end of primary school to the start of secondary school, with secondary teachers doing the marking, and those marks used to create primary performance tables. Both proposals would reduce independent scrutiny.

Teachers already do plenty of their own assessments, but theirs is not an independent judgement. If the results are published and become the main indicator of primary school success, the incentives for cheating will be greater.

The Tories' ideas are equally problematic. Secondary teachers have a different vested interest. They are judged in part on the progress they make with each pupil from the start of school to their GCSEs. If they mark pupils down in Year 7 it will look as if they have made greater progress by Year 11. And the moment such results are used in primary league tables, there will be justifiable uproar in primary schools.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, parents strongly support the tests. An Ipsos Mori poll for the Government in 2008 showed that 75 per cent of parents think information on the performance of primary schools should be made public, and 70 per cent of parents place value on the tests in providing information about how their child's school is performing.

The unions say that teachers can be trusted to perform the assessments honestly. And while most teachers undoubtedly can be, the unions hardly inspire confidence when they counter scientific and representative polls with unscientific self-selecting ballots of parents collected by their members. At a time when we are regretting allowing self-policing by MPs of their expenses and the lack of regulation for financiers, it would be extraordinary to contemplate removing the most important piece of independent scrutiny that we have in our primary schools.

Despite their flaws, tests remain our best way of providing independent information to parents and taxpayers about how individual schools are doing and giving teachers comparative data that they can use to improve. Instead of dreaming up alternatives, politicians should be vigorously defending the tests. Abandoning them will limit the chances of many of our poorer pupils getting the education they deserve. They will be the real losers.

The writer was senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He blogs at www.conorfryan.blogspot.com

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