Conor Ryan: Why Ed Balls should keep tests and tables

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The Independent Online

The teaching unions are at war over plans to boycott next year's national tests in English and Maths for 11-year-olds. The NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers backs a boycott, but the rival NASUWT and the Association for School and College Lecturers oppose one, arguing that the "problem" is not the tests but the publication of league tables.

The Government's expert review of testing last week urged the replacement of science tests with moderated assessments, but said that English and Maths tests should stay. This did little to appease Mick Brookes, the NAHT's general secretary, who declared that scrapping science would "narrow the curriculum". He maintains that the focus the tests bring to English and Maths is "damaging" to pupils.

But how damaging is it for pupils to have to revise what they have learnt about grammar, spelling and arithmetic in the months before they go to secondary school? And how much more damaging would it be if they had no independently set and marked assessment of their performance at the end of their primary education? It is surely no coincidence that those unions opposing a boycott largely represent secondary school teachers who have to pick up the pieces if primary schools fail to teach the basics properly.

The expert group pointed out that strong accountability "means we can confidently devolve a lot of autonomy to schools", trusting heads and teachers. Good schools do regular assessments and strike the right balance in test preparation. But published results also expose poor schools, and the "pressure" of tests has helped many to improve. Their pupils would be most damaged if testing was abandoned.

The real reason unions oppose national testing is not that they think the tests are damaging, but that they don't like the publication of their results. Yet publication has been an important part of the drive for improvement and is an objective way for parents to see how well a school is performing.

An Ipsos Mori poll of parents for the Department for Children, Schools and Families, published last month, showed that 78 per cent of parents with children who have done the tests think they are an accurate reflection of how their child is doing and 75 per cent think information on the performance of primary schools should be available to the general public.

Critics say that such accountability could be provided through Ofsted inspections. But the Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert, stressed the importance of the Key Stage 2 tests last week, pointing out that where a school saw a dip in results over two years, it sent inspectors' "alarm bells ringing".

Which is also why ministers should hold firm against calls to limit public access to test results and exam scores, when they detail their plans for a "report card" for each school next month.

The card, which would show how each child is progressing and levels of parental satisfaction, as well as covering behaviour and health issues, would grade each school on the sum of its achievements and offer a broader picture to what parents are told about schools.

But, the information within them must be easily accessible. As the schools secretary, Ed Balls has acknowledged, league tables can't be banned.

After all, most papers already do their own A-level tables each August without Government data. And consumer sites rating schools just as Tripadvisor rates hotels would inevitably spring up on the internet to fill any remaining vacuum.

So the Government should ensure that test information and other data from the report cards is published in a timely fashion each year. There is still a huge variation in the quality of school websites and the information they hold. Poor schools are (understandably) reluctant to draw attention to poor test results or inspections. Information about school performance should not only be published by schools, but should be independently available in a standard format nationally.

The Ofsted website provides access to inspection reports for every school. The Department for Children Schools and Families does the same with exam and test results. It should provide a link to every school's report card. Taxpayers and parents have a right to see how schools are performing, and it should not be up to schools to decide how and when they publish this information.

So Ed Balls should not only continue to resist a boycott – and make clear where heads' legal obligations lie. He should also ensure that his department remains the main source of objective information about individual school achievements.

The writer, a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett, blogs at http://conor fryan.blogspot.com

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