Steve Iredale: 'I won't be telling six-year-olds that they're failures'

Steve Iredale, the new headteachers' leader, is ready to tackle the Government on issues ranging from compulsory testing to the new Ofsted inspection regime, he tells Richard Garner.

Steve Iredale is not exactly a reluctant national headteachers' leader. However, the 57-year-old primary school headteacher from Barnsley, south Yorkshire, says he had "no aspiration" for such a role when he turned up at a branch meeting of the National Association of Head Teachers seven years ago.

He thought it was just about coffee and sandwiches. But he ended up taking on the job of branch secretary as it had become vacant. The rest, as they say, is history.

Colleagues in the NAHT, where he will take centre stage as its president at its annual conference over the May Day Bank holiday weekend, argue that he has taken to the national role "like a duck to water".

He first gained prominence in the boycott of national curriculum tests in English and maths for 11-year-olds two years ago when he was a prime mover in the motion that led to the action. "It wasn't the tests themselves," he says. "It was the uses to which they were put that was damaging."

They were such high-stake tests, used as evidence by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, and thus placing heads' jobs on the line, that a culture of teaching to the tests grew up in schools.

He admits to being "disappointed" that only one in four schools cancelled the tests as a result of the boycott. His school, Athersley South primary school in Barnsley – a 320-pupil school in one of the authority's most deprived areas – was one of the 25 per cent. "I got phone calls from heads saying they would like to boycott them but circumstances made it difficult. I could understand that," he said.

However, he does feel that the NAHT gained some ground from its action as the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, immediately set up an inquiry into the tests, headed by Lord Bew.

As a result, this year's tests – due to be sat by 600,000-year-olds early next month – will be the first under the new regime. The writing test, the one most criticised by heads and teachers as an inaccurate assessment of what their pupils can achieve, will, for the first time, be assessed by teachers on the pupils' work during the year rather than a sudden end-of-year test externally marked.

He fully expects that the result will be to show an improvement in writing standards because it will be a more comprehensive assessment of what children are capable of – rather than a sudden "do-or-die" test that pupils take under stressful conditions. Whether that triggers a debate about teachers being "soft" in their assessment of their own pupils remains to be seen.

However, he believes there is a danger that the gains from the independent review will be thrown away next year when a new test of spelling, grammar and punctuation – externally marked – is to be introduced alongside the existing tests. He believes it "will take us back to the position we were in before the boycott".

Back to the days, in other words, of teaching to the test and more pressure on pupils to score highly in them and the very real prospect of a renewed confrontation with the Government over the use to which it will put them. "I'm now speaking personally but I'd be willing to support a ballot for not doing these tests," he says.

Meanwhile, fresh controversy is also stirring over the new compulsory reading test for all six-year-olds to be introduced in schools this term. It will be a check on their ability to decode words – a phonics spelling check that will consist of 20 real and 20 made-up words.

"It is an absolutely nonsense test with nonsense words," he says. He is worried again about the use that ministers will make of the test – but more angry over the Government's insistence that parents should be told whether their child has passed or failed the test. "I'm not going to be telling six-year-olds that they are failures," he said. "We will find some other form of words to communicate with parents."

At any rate, he is highly sceptical as to whether it will give a true reflection of children's reading ability. He tells of how at one school that piloted the test it was noticeable that the brighter children paused when they came to a "nonsense" word – thinking they must have heard it wrong and trying to conjure up alternative spellings to turn it into a real word.

However, despite coming to national prominence through the national curriculum boycott, he is adamant that he does not think that will be the major issue dominating events at this year's conference at Harrogate next weekend. "It is Ofsted," he says. "There are heads who are leaving who would have wanted to stay longer but for the new inspection regime."

Since January, inspections have had a harder focus on results, teaching quality and discipline. It is, argue heads, already becoming harder for schools in deprived areas to be ranked "outstanding". Under further changes planned by the new chief schools inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, there could also be "no notice" inspections from September. Schools previously rated as "satisfactory" will be labelled as "requires improvements" and outstanding schools will lose their status if their teaching quality is not rated as outstanding, too.

It is, though, the reliance on data – such as exam and test results – that most worries Steve Iredale. His school was given a ranking as "good with outstanding qualities" as a result of its previous Ofsted inspection in 2008. Under the new regime, the best it can hope for, he believes, is good.

Its national curriculum test results are hovering in the mid-60s – just above the Government's floor target of 60 per cent. He acknowledges it is possible that he could have improved upon that figure if he had introduced a regime of teaching to the test – coaching children on how to do best in them.

"My principles wouldn't allow it," he says. "We place a great emphasis on creativity – outdoor activities where children are encouraged to climb, that kind of thing." Teaching to the test, he says, might get his pupils a higher mark but at the expense of them enjoying their education and even understanding what they had learnt. Secondary schools, he points out, mostly re-test pupils upon arrival because they do not believe the national curriculum tests are an accurate reflection of pupils' knowledge and understanding.

The tougher inspection regime, he argues, could be seen as a collusion between Michael Gove and Ofsted to create more failures and thus more candidates for "academisation" – "if there is such a word," he adds. This, he says, will help speed up the slower response from primary schools wanting to join the Government's flagship scheme.

But the outcome is that morale is suffering and more heads are deciding to quit early. "They don't want to have their career blighted by the new regime," he says. "It is much more data-driven and much more hard-nosed ."

Also, heads are becoming reluctant to leave their schools in case Ofsted arrives unannounced on a day when they are not present – which, he argues, does not help them gain a wider perspective on the education system.

It is quite a shopping list of concerns to place before Mr Gove, who will address the conference over the Bank Holiday weekend. The Education Secretary, though, may take comfort from his assessment that there is unlikely to be any stomach for further strike action from head teachers over the Government's changes to their pensions scheme.

Steve Iredale predicts the union will refuse to agree to the deal currently on offer – which would see teachers paying more for their pensions and working until they are older – but adds: "Whether I think there is any stomach for strike action within the NAHT, I think the answer is 'no'."

All in all, though, it points to quite a tough weekend assignment for Mr Gove. "He says he wants to work with the profession, listen to the profession and actually take note of what they say," he says. "I think he listens – but take note?"

Next weekend will see.

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