Thursday, 24 March 2016

Year 6 SAT tests: Pity our children – and our schools…

The Department of Education has issued new instructions for the implementation and assessment of Y6 SATs but teachers and schools are struggling to make sense of them. Alice McIntosh, parent of a Year 6 child, shares their alarm.

I've just got home from the briefing on SATS for Y6 parents organised by my daughter's primary school. It wasn't a very reassuring experience. To be fair the staff did as good a job as they could in explaining the new SATS to parents, and tried to answer our questions, but the deputy head used the phrases 'it has been a bit chaotic' and 'I know this sounds completely bonkers' quite a lot.
First thing, our Y6 children are the first to go through the new tougher curriculum, and it was only brought in as they started  Y5, so they haven't had much time to cover material that used to be covered in secondary school like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions and the notorious use of exclamation marks and fronted adverbials.

Poor kids…
But not to worry, the school is 'playing catch' up, running booster maths classes, sending maths homework every week, and doing extra SPaG (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar). Yes I know about that, I spent so long persuading my daughter to finish pages of fractions she didn't want to do that we didn't have time for the next chapter of her bedtime story. The rest of the curriculum has been a bit squeezed, but, don't worry, the kids are still getting PE and doing history, and when the SATS are out of the way they can go back to all those things the children enjoy.

Last year, high achieving children took SATS for their expected level, and extra hard SATS for the higher levels. We learn this year, in what just seems to be wanton cruelty to 10 year olds, that everyone will take the same paper, and it will include the higher level work. So the children are not expected to get this higher level work right, may not even have been taught it, but they will have to struggle with it in exam conditions and feel like a failure when they can't do it.

And they are doing lots of practice tests. ‘But how can they if these are the first tests?’, asks one parent reasonably enough. Ah well, the Department for Education has helpfully published sample maths tests on their web pages, and now commercial publishers are developing practice tests to sell to schools. Of course they are, very entrepreneurial.

What about children with Special Needs? Well, if they have a Statement of Special Educational Needs they can get help in the tests, like help reading instructions in the maths test, but not help with reading the reading test obviously. What about all the children with SEN who don't have a statement? I've read the open letter from the British Dyslexia Association, and it seems like no child with dyslexia is going to meet the expected standard for spelling.

It is vital your child gets an early night and eats a good breakfast during SATs week, and if your child is poorly on the day bring them in to school anyway and they can go home after they have taken the test. If they are so sick they really can't come in then there is an all-new policy that children can take the tests on another day. Did you know all the Y6 children in England take the same tests on the same day? The child will have to be kept in isolation from all the other children when they come back to school, in case they tell them what is on the test, but once they have taken the test they missed while they are sick they can go back to class as normal.

On to reporting SATS results, and, 'levels' familiar to us from Y2 SATS (and every parents evening and report since) are now out, clearly leaving the staff a bit nostalgic. Well, I never found them very useful, so what is replacing them?

Scaled scores apparently, where 100 is the expected standard, above 100 is above the expected standard, below 100 is below the expected standard. Sounds a bit like IQ scores to me, where in any cohort the mean score is always 100, 115 is a standard deviation above the mean, 130 two standard deviations above the mean, 85 a standard deviation below the mean etc. So, will they 'norm reference' or adjust the 'scaled scores' so that 100 is the mean and 50% of children get over a hundred, and 50% get less than 100? Or is it an inflexible 'expected standard' and if 90% of UK children in Y6 fail to meet the expected standard then 90% will get less than 100?

Well, the staff said they actually don't know as the Department for Education haven't told them yet, and they don't know if or when the Department for Education will tell schools, let alone parents. OK, so we will get a raw score and a scaled score for our child, but we won't get any sense of what they mean either in relation to their peers or in relation to concrete statements about what they can and can't do. It really brings it home that this farce is not for the benefit of children or parents, or new teachers in secondary school. This is all about generating data that can be used to produce league tables of schools, so the schools can compete against each other in a fake market in education. I can think of other things to spend the £40.1 million per year on.

I wanted to ask how the SATS results will affect the performance related pay for my daughter's teachers, but I felt too sorry for them.

Alice McIntosh is a pseudonym.

Monday, 21 March 2016

We need a broad coalition to defend our community schools from this latest attack

This was all supposed to be about parent power and choice, wasn’t it? The government has clearly decided that this particular story has run its course. Perhaps there was too much debate about academies’ records, too much resistance from schools, parents, local authorities, a slowing rate of change. So, the government has decided to change the game and take matters into its own hands.

Last week, the government announced that it will be bringing forward legislation to ensure that all maintained schools will now become academies, either as part of multi-academy trusts or, exceptionally, as stand-alone schools, regardless of what anyone else thinks. The requirement for schools to even have parent governors will be removed, meaning that parents will have no formal voice in their schools any more. Schools will be run by trusts on a business model that removes them further from their communities. We as parents, resident in our communities, will have less say than ever in the lives of our schools.

If the government has abandoned its rhetoric of choice, it also seems to have ditched the tiresome burden of evidence-based policy-making. There is simply no evidence that academies in themselves improve performance.
[1] In fact sponsored chain academies in particular tend to perform less well than maintained schools. The number of voices saying this has only been growing in the last few years. Regardless of this, Nicky Morgan has decided that our schools will be academies, one way or another.

It seems likely instead that some sections of the government have grown tired of waiting and want to speed up the process of creating a market of competing trusts and chains with a dose of what used to be called ‘shock therapy’. The endgame for some in the government, as we have known for some years, is the creation of schools owned by shareholder-owned companies and run for profit, as has happened in Florida, Michigan and other areas of the US. Stories about empowering parents and improving schools got the Conservatives this far but not far enough and not fast enough. So, it’s decided to resort to simply dictating to parents, teachers, schools and communities.

What you can do now:

Our Community, Our Schools was set up to defend and promote our community schools and the progressive vision of education that sits behind them. The government’s latest move is a devastating attack on our schools and the idea that they should be embedded in and answerable to communities and the public. The government’s move has prompted widespread outrage and has the potential to mobilise a very wide coalition in protest. But if we are to frighten the government and give full expression to this potential, parents must be actively involved and at the centre of campaigning. We must ensure that we are reaching deep into our communities, raising awareness and involving more people than ever.

OCOS is planning how we can play our part in building a broad campaign now, but in the immediate term, here are some things we can do:
There are two petitions circulating which you can sign. Both have more than 100,000 signatures but we need to make them as big as possible to get attention to the depth and breadth of feeling on this issue. Please sign and share both:
If you can make it, attend the emergency protest called by the NUT in central London, assembling at 6.30pm at Westminster Cathedral: