Testing: Flogging a dead horse

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

With so much testing chaos, Dr Bernard Trafford asks whether ministers will ever admit that the time has come to change our approach

During a particularly difficult battle at the school of which I was then head, a wise chair of governors once said to me: “If it hurts too much, you can always stop banging your head against the wall!”

I wonder if politicians ever feel like that. First, the accidental publication by the Department for Education of key stage 1 exam papers online. Then, having expressed dissatisfaction and concern about the stress put on pupils by government tests, parents witnessed children in tears because the new, tougher SATs last week were too difficult.

Are the wheels falling off? Or is the chaos, as suggested by ministers and commentators (generally from the Right), the result of feeble-mindedness on the part of schools? Such reactions are predictably robust. Of course tests must be harder, we’re assured: standards can only be seen to be rising if more children fail exams. As for stress on pupils, the same voices claim that schools should be preparing children for tests in a measured and sensible way, so that they are made ready without anxiety.

It doesn’t work that way, as all teachers and parents know. The average child takes every test seriously: and these aren’t internal school assessments but Government Tests. Younger children in particular want to do well, seeking approval from their parents and teachers: it’s natural.

Critics have lambasted schools for transmitting anxiety to children: but they would be superhuman to avoid doing so. Schools are under immense strain, with added pressure because they know those SATs figures will be used to create targets against which they will be measured, although with all the changes, they don’t yet know how such benchmarks will work. Schools do their best to absorb the constant pressure from government: similarly heads try to soak up pressure to protect their teachers. But they are under the cosh, particularly those in difficult circumstances.

Fair enough, says the Right. They should be under pressure if they’re not great: but those self-appointed guardians of high standards wilfully neglect the fact that schools are full of people with human frailties and (like most of us) an inability to shrug off the relentless pushing from government.

One flash of honesty emerged during the last SATs row: schools minister Nick Gibb admitted on radio that children shouldn’t worry about the tests: they are not measuring the kids, but their schools. At long last, the truth.

And now it appears that Pearson, the firm contracted by government to compose and administer SATs, has suffered a lapse in security with the leak of a key stage 2 test a day before it was due to be sat.

Should heads roll? If so, whose? In the old days a minister might have walked. Does the whole mess prove finally that SATs just won’t work? With such anxiety, hostility and plain ineptitude surrounding these SATs, how long can they continue?

Education secretary Nicky Morgan regularly repeats the tedious mantra about how essential these tests are to parents and children and raising standards: yet we know her colleague Mr Gibb doesn’t believe it.

Ms Morgan preaches at teachers’ conferences instead of listening to them. Even when a u-turn is announced on the forced academisation of schools, she declares that government will do it anyway: it just won’t enact legislation for the purpose.

You have to admit she and her ministers are tenacious. They cling to their path, however rocky or wrecked it becomes. Is that tenacity? Or pig-headedness? I confess I’m reminded of my old chairman’s advice.

Moreover, when I look at the department and its leaders, it becomes ever more evident that they are engaged above all in flogging a dead horse.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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