Bad testing and distorted curriculum in our primary schools

This is a very important publication by Reclaiming Schools/NUT.

 It is about the corruption and degradation of the primary school curriculum in England. It has a large number of contributors with impeccable academic and professional qualifications. It is a great credit to the NUT, to have assembled such an impressive piece of work. It cannot be dismissed as special pleading by the trade union of an employee interest group. It is essential reading for everybody interested in our national education system and that should actually mean everybody. Teachers and parents are an obvious target audience, but it is especially important for politicians and journalists to read it too. The government won’t like it, but it should not be ignored.

 The only way I can do it any kind of justice is to quote a few key paragraphs from the contribution of each author. Then you need to read it for yourself.

It is essential that the troubles of primary education are exposed and debated. That is why the National Union of Teachers is pleased to publish this collection of articles. The Mismeasurement of Learning explains how primary education got into its present state; it draws from the experiences of teachers and researchers to make a detailed analysis of the way that assessment works; it opens the door to thinking about alternatives.

 Kevin Courtney, General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

  1. What this publication sets out to do: activists and academics together

Even though some strident voices would have us believe otherwise, there is a place in the busy lives of teachers for theory. There is also a case for looking carefully at evidence. It seems odd that such an obvious point even needs to be re-stated. But teachers, teacher educators and, of course, students and parents, have been faced with a barrage of policy that has been driven by dogma, ideology and good old-fashioned prejudice for over twenty years. This pamphlet, along with its predecessor, Reclaiming Schools, attempts to recover some of that lost ground. Of those voices which have attempted to drown out knowledge, expertise and experience, none has been more important and influential than that of Michael Gove. He claimed in 2011, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that student-teachers found university-based teacher education ‘too theoretical’. He dubbed academics who opposed his curriculum plans as ‘the Blob’

Dr Jon Berry, University of Hertfordshire

  1. How testing took centre stage

Regular national testing of all state school pupils, which has become such a controversial matter in recent years, was not in evidence until the late 1980s. How did it come into being? Two key factors certainly contributed. There was a heightened demand for accountability in all public services, and that was combined with a political move to apply the principles of marketization to school education.

So, in a nutshell, the Thatcher government of 1987 gave us national testing and no later government has been minded to abolish it. Few people imagined, however, that national testing or GCSE results would provide the foundation for a punitive and all embracing surveillance system, involving the publication of results, calculations of ‘value added’, ‘floor targets’, Ofsted judgements, naming and shaming, performance reviews and performance pay for teachers, and forced academies.

This is how testing took centre stage – surely it is time now to look for an exit.

Professor Roger Murphy, Emeritus Professor of Education, Nottingham University

  1. Campbell’s Law… or how the language of numbers does a disservice to our children

‘the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor.’ ‘When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure.’

Such ‘corruption’ lies in ‘teaching to the test’, ‘being selective of pupils who are likely to do well in the tests’, ‘concentrating on subjects in which pupils are to be tested’. Warwick Mansell, in his book Education By numbers: The Tyranny of Testing gives an account of the ‘games teachers play’ and how the results of the test scores can affect parental choice, head teachers’ pay, teacher promotion, and indeed closure or forced academisation.

Professor Richard Pring, Emeritus Professor, Oxford University.

  1. Testing times and the thirst for data: for what?

The emphasis on tests has made teachers and pupils depressed, harm themselves, and even turn suicidal. Highstakes testing and an oppressive data-driven accountability system de-humanise what should be an experience of enrichment, creativity and fun. Schooling is being reconfigured from being a public service to a business, and business demands data through testing.

The school’s management is also negatively affected by the obsession with capturing data by tests. Rather than showing effective leadership and vision by taking creative and considered risks, managers are expected to bean-count, account, measure everything and be as conservative and prudent as possible. The expectation is that they set further targets to be more conservative and prudent than the last time to get more for less the next time.

Dr Alpesh Maisuria, University of East London

  1. Developmentally informed teaching: challenging premature targets in early learning

Maria Montessori created a developmental model that proposed ‘planes’ of development in which children’s abilities to learn and theorise become progressively more sophisticated, while Jean Piaget specified four distinct stages, involving gradual development towards more abstract thought. Contemporary cognitive psychologist Professor Alison Gopnik presents copious empirical data to support her view that formal instruction in early childhood ‘leads children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present children look ‘for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options’. Stage-based theories of human cognition have also received support through neuropsychology.

Despite a century of empirical and theoretical advances however, the state education system has never become sufficiently informed about the human developmental process. Additionally, the school starting age has effectively become earlier since children are now expected to enter school at the beginning of the school year when they become 5, meaning that inevitably some are only just turned 4. Children are also immediately subject to statutory assessment, which means that formal teaching, particularly in literacy and numeracy, often begins during the pre-school period. The Early Years Foundation Stage (from birth to five) has 17 goals against which a summative assessment must be made at five; while the phonics check creates severe downward pressure.

In conclusion, the ‘too much, too soon’ approach and exposure to overwhelming competition puts children at severe risk of psychological harm. The entire system must be radically reconsidered, including nursery education to age 7, firmly based upon independent and collaborative discovery, to provide a strong foundation for later, more formal modes of learning and for mental health within a society that functions for the good of all.

Dr Pam Jarvis, Leeds Trinity University

  1. ‘Datafication’ in the early years

The nursery and reception teachers we interviewed explained how they were increasingly subjected to the demands of data production. They were aware of the pitfalls, cynical about the purposes of data, and yet they found their working lives constrained by exhaustive demands for the production and analysis of data.

‘The school’s outstanding status must be maintained’ The interviews showed how heads came under pressure, and how this can distort good practice.

I should be in classrooms supporting colleagues but I spend far too much time looking at assessment data and it is for proving to OFSTED that we are great. But actually I would be far more effective if I were in class and the children would benefit more.” (Primary school deputy).

Even very young children are being labelled as ‘failing’, and indeed headteachers are required to notify parents whether their child has passed or failed the Year 1 phonics test. One Reception teacher mentioned that some of the lower attainers were labelled Special Educational Needs (SEN) so as not to harm the teacher’s performance data (Roberts-Holmes, 2015). The detrimental effects upon children’s well-being were demonstrated by one teacher’s comments: “I am now pushing information into three-year-olds rather than developing meaningful relationships. Even in the nursery I now feel that pressure. If a child doesn’t recognize a number or a letter I go ‘aggghhh’ and hold my breath. Ihave to remind myself the child is three and not yet ready for it.” (Reception teacher, primary school)

Guy Roberts-Holmes and Alice Bradbury, Senior Lecturers, UCL Institute of Education

  1. An old and professional alternative to the present system

Today’s political discussions of education assume that imposing a fact-heavy national curriculum and rigorous testing will raise the standard of education. Those of us who were active in primary schools before the 1988 Education Act should speak out and demonstrate that there were excellent teachers guided by their professionalism long before the politicians made their forays.

As a young tutor at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, in what we then called ‘teacher education’ (not ‘training’), coupled with a research brief, I set out to encapsulate good practice in local primary schools. The resulting report Nine Hundred Primary School Teachers (1978) described the results of a massive study of classrooms carried out with a team of 30 research assistants. Lady Plowden, in her Foreword, wrote: ‘This most comprehensive report on the practices of primary education in Nottinghamshire gives a great deal of information about the day by day work of a large number of teachers. … There does not seem to be any danger of the schools in Nottinghamshire moving into the so-called ‘progressive methods’ in which ‘children do as they please’. … I believe that a national survey would similarly show that throughout the country teachers are in general responsibly structuring children’s experience in the classroom’

 Rather than destroy all this, the political task should have been to find ways of bringing all teachers to this high level of professional excellence. This required a recognition that, beyond the traditional 3 Rs, there should be concern for the emotional, social, creative and physical all-round development of every child.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey, Nottingham Trent University

  1. Flawed arguments for phonics

Even in a class where no child can yet read, there will be wide differences in their understanding of the critical features of print. A few children entering school can already read silently and with understanding, but most still need support to master written language in this new disembedded medium. The powerful place of commercial interests in determining government policies, the materials recommended, and even the supplementary funding for the teaching of reading is disturbing. Since 2010 the government and Ofsted have insisted that the method of teaching reading should be synthetic phonics, claiming this is backed by research. In fact,systematic reviews of existing evidence support only the following claims:

  • There is benefit from the inclusion of phonics within the early instruction in learning to read in English, within a broad programme.
  • There is not evidence to support phonics in isolation as the one best method.
  • There is not evidence for synthetic phonics rather than analytic or a mixture of approaches.

The phonics check costs around £260,000 a year to administer (printing, distribution,collation of results), not to mention teachers’ time, and substantial payments to commercial organisations such as Ruth Miskin Training for promoting a particular teaching method. According to the government’s own evaluation ( 2) the phonics check has brought no benefits:

‘There were no improvements in attainment or in progress that could be clearly attributed to the introduction of the check, nor any identifiable impact on pupil progress in literacy for learners with different levels of prior attainment.’ (p. 67)

Despite this, the Government is even considering making children who fail the phonics check in Years 1 and 2 retake it in Year 3. The assumption that the needs of those who fail to reach the arbitrary pass mark on this test may still be met by a continuing focus on synthetic phonics as the solution to their problems seems naive.

Margaret M Clark OBE, Emeritus Professor, University of Birmingham Visiting Professor, Newman University

  1. A focus group discussion with Teesside primary teachers

The benefit of focus groups over individual interviews is that participants can build on one another’s experience and understandings to form a coherent picture. Here an NUT organiser and a Reclaiming Schools researcher meet with three primary teachers in Teesside. [some selected replies]

What has been the impact of this year’s tests on your children?

 T1: He was an absolutely fantastic reader, he could tell you all about what had gone on, but he was going to fail his tests because they were too hard, and he was just sat rocking and crying in the corner of the playground. That’s what the tests are doing to our children.

 How have the new tests affected the childrens’ curriculum?

 T3: None of my children are reaching national expectations in anything except one or two in PE. The curriculum is setting our children up to fail. Only the very brightest children are going to be able to succeed.

Is there any one particular test you found that you had an issue with?

 T2: The very first words: ‘Maria and Oliver are attending a party in the garden of a house that used to belong to Maria’s family.’ A party in the garden of a house?

‘They sneak away to explore the grounds.’ None of our children are likely to have their own home, and if they do, it’s not likely to be anything like that. A lot of our children live on council estates, their parents are on very low incomes, they don’t the space to go and explore like it says in there. ‘Going away to explore’ sounds like it’s a park or somewhere like that. They don’t have the opportunity, so already that first paragraph is turning them off the whole passage.

T3: Looking at the third passage now, the dodo, it doesn’t look as if there’s anything that the children can relate to. ‘Discovery is helping to rehabilitate the image of this much ridiculed bird.’ That question really threw the children. The question, ‘What does rehabilitate the image of thedodo mean? And they’re given four options: restore a painting of the dodo, rebuild the reputation of the dodo, repair a model of the dodo or review accounts of the dodo. That’s way beyond their experience and their range of expression.

 Who do you hold responsible?

 T1: The Government.

T2: Yeah, I think they’re using our children as guinea pigs and they’re trying all these new things out, and they’re not working. They’re not benefitting our children at all.

T3: They’re using us as political pawns. I think they want us to fail. They want the children to fail so they can academise our schools. 

  1. Mathematics: conceptual understanding or counting by the rules?

Where the preamble talks about ‘a highly interconnected discipline’, the main body of the document is a list of disparate skills and knowledge. Each is preceded by ‘pupils should be taught to’, with few links drawn across different areas of mathematics and no emphasis on exploration or understanding. Significantly, the word ‘understand’ appears only twice in the whole document.

Along with the scrapping of the calculator paper and the proposed introduction of a times tables test, this change sends a very clear signal to children that mathematics is about memorising facts and using ‘standard’ written methods, with pencil and paper, for computation and not about conceptual understanding, mathematical reasoning or solving problems.

Gawain Little, Primary school teacher, Oxfordshire

  1. Primary arts are in trouble

In KS2 nearly a third of state primary schools devote only an hour a week to art and design. This is an alarming picture. It suggests that in many schools across the country children are missing out on foundational cultural learning experiences. This places the onus on parents. But research shows that lower income parents struggle to provide extracurricular arts activities for their children (Sutton Trust 2014), and that parents with higher qualifications are much more likely to ensure that their children spend more than three hours a week engaged in cultural activities outside of school (SQW Consulting 2013). This is clearly an unacceptable situation – leaving engagement in cultural education to parent’s capacity to pay is a recipe for a geography of cultural inequity. Parents with lower income depend on their children’s school to ensure the entitlementto arts education as described in the national curriculum.

Professor Pat Thomson, University of Nottingham

  1. Assessment and testing in Wales

Devolution of power to the Welsh Assembly in 1999 has enabled Wales to set its own educational direction. In the main this has been a distinctive and highly progressive journey. We have eschewed the marketization of education; we don’t have any grammar schools, academies or free schools; we do have a tiny private sector but a very large comprehensive one, including many bilingual schools.

In 2010, however, some disappointing PISA results for Wales led the relatively new education Minister to turn his back on this approach. Eventually a Literacy and Numeracy Framework was introduced accompanied by national tests each year in reading and numeracy for pupils from Year 2 to Year 9. This was part of a heightened accountability agenda including Estyn inspections and regular ‘challenge’ processes for schools from their local authorities.

So the Wales devolution journey has been a mixed one. We have used the opportunity to strengthen our public education system and to develop progressive policies such as the Foundation Phase and the Welsh Bac. On the other hand, we have also fallen under the neoliberal-inspired juggernaut that uses testing and accountability in an attempt to improve ‘scores on the doors’, with scant respect for the quality of education experienced by students and the professionalism of teachers. Watch this space!

Professor David Egan, Cardiff Metropolitan University

  1. Everyone’s educational future is always in the making: Learning without Limits

‘Learning without limits’ is an emergent movement to challenge the ways in which assumptions are often made that children have a fixed amount of ‘ability’ or ‘potential’. It rejects the placement of young children in ‘ability groups’ which can so easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy by placing a ceiling on children’s opportunities to learn. Early testing tends to encourage such assumptions that ‘ability’ and ‘potential’ are measurable and fixed.

What animates fixed ability thinking, and the prophetic pedagogy associated with it, is the belief that children come in kinds. Each child can, and must, be categorised as soon as possible into the bright, the average, and the less-able, or (as with the renewed clamour for grammar schools) segregated into ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’. It is asserted that different kinds of children require different kinds of curriculum, supposedly tailored to their essentially-different needs. Scores play a vital part in this sorting and sifting, for they enable crude comparisons and ranking of children.

A more educationally productive way of thinking about the learner would not only recognise the learner as unique, but would see him or her as always capable of remaking (and not merely receiving) knowledge and culture provided conditions are right. It would acknowledge that everyone’s educational future remains unwritten, unpredictable, open to change, and that the teacher has power to affect that future for the better by actions and decisions undertaken here and now.

Dr Patrick Yarker, University of East Anglia

  1. Speeding up the treadmill: primary tests and secondary exams

Every stage of schooling is seen in terms of readying pupils for the next stage, with no regard to what is appropriate at a particular age. The irony is that speeding up the treadmill in primary school is likely to undermine the real foundations of later development. Firstly, many pupils are experiencing a very narrow curriculum, with little beyond maths and a distorted version of English. Children in more disadvantaged areas suffer even more from this reduced experience, due to the greater pressure placed on their schools. Secondly, an increasing number of young children will experience the stigmatising impact of failure. This kicks in as early as the phonics test in Year 1, when parents are told whether their child has passed or failed. The elaborate nonsense of the KS2 grammar test represents a final blow: a signal that children are incompetent in their own language because they cannot label the parts! The 2014 National Curriculum was designed (if we can use that word) by aggregating targets from the top-scoring countries in the PISA international tests and pushing them down the years. English seven-year-olds are now expected to acquire the maths and science of nine-year-olds in Singapore or Finland. The resulting frustration could do lasting intellectual and emotional damage.

We should return to the Charter for Primary Education as a compass to re-orientate us towards a meaningful, sustainable education through secondary school and into adult life. ‘Successful learning and development takes time. Good primary teachers… pay heed to children’s existing knowledge and understanding and cultural backgrounds. Learning never takes place in a vacuum. Learning in symbolic forms (abstract language, mathematical symbols, scientific rules etc.) should build upon and work with the child’s experience, use of the senses, and creative and experimental activity…Children have the right to a broad and balanced curriculum that allows them to develop their talents in all areas.’ Assessment needs to reflect this.

Dr Terry Wrigley, Visiting Professor, Northumbria University

  1. Three assessment myths

Harder tests raise standards of achievement. Not so: the absolute reverse is true. When you pitch the level of difficulty so far above the heads of the children that half of them fail, you separate assessment from the act of learning itself. In this way you distort school life and reduce it to mere preparation for the next test. True standards of achievement are lowered by such testing. Hard pressed teachers, fearful of the future of their schools and perhaps their own jobs, ditch their initial training and their professional knowledge of what is best for their pupils and coach them to meet the demands of the tests. This coaching is not good teaching because the techniques are quickly forgotten once the test is over. No wonder secondary schools don’t trust SAT’s results!

Test results are accurate as a measure of progress through primary school. This is largely nonsense. In good schools children learn so much beyond the core skills and we need to judge progress over the whole field of children’s development. For too many schools coaching for improved test performance provides results which indicate only that there is progress in dealing with tests. Furthermore the results are expressed in figures, a score, and figures imply a level of accuracy which is spurious since assessment can only be approximate.

Teacher assessments can’t be trusted. This particular myth reflects the more general lack of trust in the profession evidenced by politicians as they use children’s test results as a means of holding schools accountable. In fact we can trust teacher assessments a good deal more than we can trust the scores achieved in ‘one shot’ tests of children coached to perform and then, inevitably, forget.

John Coe, National Association for Primary Education

  1. Since Christmas, I have only taught Literacy and Numeracy’: what the 2016 SATs taught us

 It’s by now a 25-year story: teachers’ work has become more intense. Their autonomy has diminished. Pedagogy, curriculum and assessment are determined centrally, and underpinned by a system of accountability that is increasingly precise and demanding.

In May, at the end of the SATs week for Key Stage 2 pupils, the NUT asked its members in primary schools to complete a survey on their experience of primary assessment. The results were immediate and striking. In just a few days, more than 6000 teachers replied, including nearly a thousand who identified themselves as heads and senior leaders. As well as answers to tick-box questions, they supplied more than 5000 written comments – a vast and passionate spreadsheet of experience. The survey scores indicated a high level of agreement about key features of the new system and the manner of its introduction. 97% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that primary assessment arrangements have been well managed by the DfE. Their ‘write-in’ comments were strongly worded. “Shambles” or “shambolic” were used more than 100 times. “Chaos”,“fiasco”, “farce” and “disgrace” were frequently employed terms. Ever-changing and contradictory guidelines, late communications, leaked test papers, and very high demands on teacher workload were all repeatedly mentioned.

The problems of the system were foretold in the 1990s; few could have imagined they would reach such an acute and critical state. If the Government are incapable of untangling the mess, only concerted action from parents and teachers will stop further damage to children and their education.

A version of this article was published on the website of the British Educational Research Association, August 2016.

Ken Jones, Senior Policy Officer, NUT Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths, University of London

Some further reading:


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