Mary Bousted: The truth behind those A-level grades

Related Topics

Like other education ministers before him, Ed Balls has been badly briefed about tests. Every teacher knows that it's necessary to test pupils. The problems start when they have the wrong kinds of tests, and the results are used for too many purposes – at least 18 in England according to one senior figure. When tests are used for high-stakes targets, things start to go badly wrong.

Take today's A-level results. Why are grades so much higher these days? Because teachers, under pressure, are getting better and better at squeezing every last mark out of every pupil regardless of whether the students really understand what they are writing about or how long the information is retained. Spoon-feeding is endemic. No wonder lecturers in higher education complain about a lack of independent learning skills and results which do not seem to be reflected in performance at university.

This year's SATs marking debacle has laid bare the case that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, and others, have been making for years. This huge testing exercise is just not value for money. The results are insufficiently reliable at school level, and we could get the same national indicators of how well pupils and schools are performing with a small national sample, the way other countries do.

The same problems – of inflated results due to teaching to the test, which infect A-levels – also make SATs results unreliable. We know this because other research on the performance of English children, as well as the increasingly useful international testing, show a much lower rate of improvement than the SATs suggest.

But the response of national test enthusiasts has been to introduce yet more tests. The single level tests, now being piloted, risk making things worse as long as they remain connected to national reporting and target setting. The current plan is for twice-a-year testing slots, just ratcheting up the stress on staff, which is unfortunately but inevitably transmitted to most children.

The pity is that just a bit of tweaking of the proposals for single level tests would result in a much better system. The excellent aspirations for them voiced by Mr Balls could become a reality, if they really were under the control of teachers without the tyranny of targets. The idea of a bank of tests ,which could be used as and when to confirm the teacher's own assessment, could transform the atmosphere in our classrooms.

It would be better if politicians were a bit more open about the purposes of the tests. The damage is caused by using them as the most significant measure of accountability of schools, headteachers, and every classroom teacher. If tests were no longer used this way, there would be many other forms of accountability which could do the same job more effectively.

Quite apart from the very expensive tests, we have the very expensive inspection regime of Ofsted, the duties on local authorities to monitor quality and intervene when problems arise, and a host of advisers, supporters, and national agencies telling schools what to do. In total, this amounts to hugely excessive, overlapping accountability systems, so getting rid of nationally reported tests would scarcely leave schools rudderless.

And the damage that would be prevented? A generation of young people who know how to pass tests, but do not know how to learn, who think education is just about certificates, but lack intrinsic commitment to lifelong learning. And the capacity for lifelong learning is what will mark out successful societies in this new century.

The writer is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam