Education Quandary

Are primary-school results improving? We don't know whether to send our children to primary or prep school

Hilary Wilce
Wednesday 10 July 2013 05:30

Hilary's advice

Yes, but not as much as the Government suggests. It likes to point out that, thanks to its 1990s push on literacy, three-quarters of 11-year-olds reached the expected standard in English in 2000, compared to just under half in 1995. But research is suggesting this was at least in part due to teachers drilling for the test, as well as to the tests themselves being adjusted to get the required result.

Professor Peter Tymms of Durham University has looked at the data and concluded that there were improvements in maths and reading, but that gains in writing were overestimated. Analysis by the Times Educational Supplement has shown that pupils who made great improvements in primary schools in 1999 made only modest gains at GCSE. Either, it says, the primary tests weren't painting a true picture, or the children slipped back.

One major study into how the tests were set, by Alf Massey of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, suggests the former option; it found that the pass mark for KS2 English was lowered in both 1999 and 2000, giving an "illusory" picture of how much children were improving.

Now the Government's own Statistics Commission has agreed that the English test scores exaggerated the actual rise in standards. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has directed the Government to look at the launch of a similar test in Texas, where pupils did well in that test, but not in any others. Naturally, the Government disagrees, arguing that the situation is different for maths and that there is no evidence of teaching to the test. But it is clearly on shaky ground.

You should conclude that test scores can be misleading, and that you must scrutinise any school's culture and atmosphere, as well as its results, before deciding where to send your child.

Readers' advice

It is questionable whether primary-school standards are rising. Narrowly defined, test-based data are a woefully inadequate indicator of whether overall educational quality is improving.

My advice is to look for a Steiner, Montessori or Human Scale Education school, where you can be assured that your children will receive a rounded education, that they will not be taught to the test‚ and where they will develop a life-long love of learning.
Richard House, Norwich

Throughout your child's life, she will be taught how to do the tests. In primary schools, this is much more subtle, especially at KS1. By the time your child reaches GCSE level, they will be doing practice tests for most of their lessons. There are few subject areas that tend to do this preparation for tests less than the others - even in art, pupils are taught how the work should be laid out for the highest marks. The only solution I can think of is home schooling.
Emma Wroe, Hertfordshire

All teachers drill their pupils to get results. If you can afford a choice, you should look for the school where you think your children will be happiest, bearing in mind that prep schools still have time for games, music and drama.
Kevin Lilly, Cambridge

Next week's quandary

I am 5ft 2in, and a primary head in London. Last year, I was threatened with violence by a father. Yet Ruth Kelly tells me we need more parent power. I am sick of parent power. Why don't we debate parent responsibility, and the things we should expect from parents to support the education we offer their children?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by 30 May, at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Include details of your address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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