David Cameron’s election manifesto pledge to make pupils resit their SATs in year 7 if they do not reach the “required standards” in year 6 would mean, for English alone, at least 100,000 year 7 students taking a test in the spring or summer terms, having just spent all of the previous year preparing for and taking national tests.
The major flaw in this proposal is the lack of substantial comment from the government on what would be put in place to make any difference in learning for those students between the testing points.
Anxiety about whether children are on track for good GCSE results that simply leads to re-testing, ignores the often repeated adage that measuring the pig doesn’t fatten it. Re-testing offers no guarantee of success and may indeed be harmful to students.
According to the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Reading at the Transition report in June 2014, students who don’t reach Level 4 are predicted to have only a one in 10 chance of achieving five A* to C GCSE grades. The same report found that helping struggling readers catch-up with their peers is challenging and that it is highly unlikely that any single approach will be sufficient. This highlights the importance of using evidence to identify the most promising approaches and underlines the value of effective intervention.
Both one-to-one and small group tuition can have positive outcomes if the chosen approach meets the needs of the students and is not one-size-fits-all.
Helping older struggling readers and writers to catch-up can be challenging. A simplistic policy goal of improvement through testing ignores the multiple causes of literacy difficulty found in older students. Those in the group referred to by Mr Cameron have often already received extensive support with literacy in primary school. Each student will have a different profile of strengths and weaknesses with gaps in understanding or habituated errors and some may have emotional responses to learning which prevent them from seeing themselves as successful readers and writers. If it was simple to address these difficulties, the excellent work done by many teachers would have already made a difference. Perhaps there is already too much attention on test preparation in year 6 to the detriment of developing more robust and embedded literacy skills?
Students require excellent teaching and evidenced interventions. Single approaches or published programmes are unlikely to offer the whole solution. Rather than testing, teachers need to spend time teaching and the teaching needs to be more finely tuned to the variation in students’ profiles of literacy. A risk of introducing further tests into an already crowded landscape is that the professional learning and support that teachers need to help them address literacy difficulty is overlooked.
Teacher quality impacts students’ learning (Hattie, 2009) and all teachers need CPD which challenges them to enrich practice, develop deeper understanding of the literacy curriculum, and to engage as critical thinkers and decision-makers. Arguably, those involved with teaching struggling learners need this more, helping them to develop the skills to make informed decisions about the development of literacy based on sound literacy theory.
Our research with schools when designing professional development for the GROW@KS3 literacy intervention (http://ilc.ioe.ac.uk/grow-ks3.html) found that SENCOs demonstrated confidence with supporting the needs of students with SEN. However, English teachers often reported that despite specialist knowledge of literature, they were less sure about how to address the literacy difficulties of students working just at or below Level 4.
The “Catch up Premium” of £500 for each year 7 student who did not achieve Level 4 in reading and/or maths is only a partial response to the problem. Our research phase also showed us that schools were often unsure about the most productive ways of allocating the funding. An investment in professional learning may have greater pay-off than purchasing materials.
Reviews of instructional programmes (Slavin, 2008) found more positive effects from programmes providing extensive professional development to teachers in proven models than they did for those that provide alternative technology, curricula or interventions that did not change daily practices.
With a heightened focus on examining practice in schools, more is known about what works well for students. Many will make accelerated progress if the additional support involves:
Specifically targeted teaching in one-to-one and very small group settings (EEF 2014; Slavin 2008).
Development of bespoke approaches and contingent teaching (Wood, 1998) based on careful diagnostic assessment so that no time is lost teaching what is already under the students’ control.
Close observation and on-going formative assessment to shape teaching decisions during each lesson (Professor Dylan Wiliam: http://bit.ly/1HwRfUm).
4. Coherent build through learning cycles where students frequently receive feedback which helps them to improve their reading and writing (Professors John Hattie and Helen Timperley: http://bit.ly/1J6yoxM).
5. Support for students to set and review goals for their own learning to aid the development of meta-cognition (GROW@KS3).
Such interventions are available and they demonstrate what is possible for students who are still struggling with literacy in key stage 3. Rather than adding to the overcrowded testing landscape, we need to privilege an increasing focus on teachers’ professional knowledge and decision-making. If that becomes possible, then political, educational and personal aspirations for students’ literacy learning are more likely to be realised.
Helen Morris and Dr Val Hindmarsh are from the International Literacy Centre at the UCL Institute of Education.