What is primary education for? Now the Government has spoken. In its long-awaited consultation on key stage 2 accountability primary education has essentially been given a tight remit: its purpose is to make pupils “secondary ready”. Nick Clegg declares that “every primary school should make its pupils ready for secondary school by the time they leave”, whilst David Laws observes that “all children… can arrive in secondary school ready to succeed”.
Their comments are a demonstration of just how far we have moved from the principles of the Plowden Report. Lady Plowden – a former Conservative county councillor – devoted a chapter to the purposes of primary education, concluding (para 505) that “a school is not merely a teaching shop, it must transmit values and attitudes. It is a community in which children learn to live first and foremost as children and not as future adults”. In place of the Plowden vision of primary education, the consultation document offers – in definitional terms – preparatory schooling.
And there is, of course, merit in this: the consultation’s root argument is that Level 4 attainment is in itself not sufficient for secondary readiness. Too many children secure only a Level 4c, and, as the government declares “the difference in academic achievement at secondary school between these pupils and those who manage a ‘good’ level 4 (level 4a or 4b) is significant”: whereas 81% of those who secured level 4a in English and mathematics went on to secure at least 5 A*-C GCSEs, only 47% of those who secured level 4c did so. The response, much trailed, is to abolish levels.
However, the problem we have currently is not with the principle of levels but with the pitch of level 4. It would be possible to establish level 4 at (quoting again) “the level at which 11 year-olds would be considered ‘secondary ready'”. What this suggests is that the problem is not necessarily levels but an accountability regime that encourages primary schools to ensure pupils score level 4, however insecurely, and the weakness of secondary school literacy and numeracy provision in Year 7. The new “scaled score” “would be the same for all tests and remain the same over years”. 85% of primary pupils will be expected to reach this score – a tough target if the score really is set at the equivalent of Level 4b.
The numerical score will be more precisely calibrated – it will distinguish between pupils scoring (say) 57 and those scoring 58. Most assessment specialists would observe that this suggests a confidence in the validity and reliability of assessment regimes which is hardly borne out by the evidence. Some who secure well above 58 will not merit it – because of on-the-day test performance, or marker error – just as some who score lower should have done better.
This is an inevitable feature of assessment but the consultation document puts its faith in the certainty of numerical scales whilst letting secondaries off the hook for the way they use and respond to scores.
The aspiration is to hold the difficulty of the test constant over time, so that children with similar attributes do equally well in any year. It is not too difficult for PISA to achieve this –questions are kept private so that some can be re-used and the difficulty of new ones scaled against them, whilst the test is administered only every three years to a sample. But it will be impossible to keep KS2 questions private as teachers administer the tests, and they will do so to all pupils in all schools. If questions are not re-used then it will be difficult genuinely to scale the test each year to secure consistency. But if questions are re-used it will be difficult to make the test sufficiently different each year to avoid a repeat of the gradual grade improvement as teachers learn what is expected. It remains fundamentally difficult to separate improvement in test preparation from improvement in knowledge and skills.
The abolition of national curriculum levels dismantles a national assessment framework which, whatever its weaknesses – and these were more apparent at key stage 3 than key stage 2 — provided a national standard. Levels have been sorely abused in reporting. There has been too much pressure to level individual pieces of work and to trace specious sub-levels of progress. Husbands’ First Law of Assessment Policy is that the weight applied to any measure will always exceed the validity of the measure.
The consultation essentially takes the system back to the 1980s before the TGAT report, giving “schools… freedom to design their own systems of measuring pupil performance”. Few will do so. Most will buy in commercial systems. Some of these will be good. Others will not. Ofsted inspection may help to drive out poor systems, but the loss of a common national framework – something which international visitors have generally admired – is a big price to pay.
A further innovation is the introduction of a new reporting method which will place “each pupil” in deciles against peers nationally. The consultation suggests that “only” parents and schools will know this information, but the reality is surely that the press will inevitably get hold of it at regional and perhaps school level through FOI, which suggests that it will be abused. It is not at all clear what purpose this decile information will serve. Rank order tests have their uses, but whether they drive high aspiration is a tough question: it’s useful to know distributions of performance as outputs of an education system. However, if the purpose is secondary readiness, there are obvious questions about how pupils’ place in national distributions affect secondary teachers’ expectations. The secondary assessment system is already strongly tilting towards norm referencing, and the primary system appears to be not far behind.
All of these measures are about attainment rather than progress, reflecting the government’s view of the core purpose of primary education. The consultation leaves open the question of progress measures through primary schooling, asking for responses of whether to take a baseline at seven or at five. Both turn out to be problematic. Testing at 5 is expensive – it involves one-to-one assessment by teachers and teaching assistants — and outcomes on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile are not a good predictor of age 11 performance. But testing at age 7 is not a genuine baseline since it incorporates school performance up to Year 2, and most primary schools cover the age range 5 to 11. Given the sharper accountability at 11 that flows from numerical scores and pupil ranking, measuring progress from age 7 offers schools a significant incentive to ensure children perform poorly on an age 7 baseline.
The core message of the consultation is that the concern is with absolute attainment – secondary readiness – rather than the progress made by primary schools. And this, of course, explains what, for the Liberal Democrats, is the big news in the consultation: the significant increase in the pupil premium which will rise to £1,300 from 2014/5 – a major element in funding. This is a further twist in the evolving purpose of the pupil premium – once intended as an incentive to primary schools to admit more disadvantaged children, then a compensatory payment for the additional costs involved in meeting the needs of disadvantaged children, it is now more clearly a fund to secure threshold levels of attainment. The evidence is that after a faltering start, schools are becoming cannier in the way they spend it, using research more intelligently to inform decision making. But given the expectations on them, they will need to: “as more and more children have surpassed [current expectations of a]…basic level, primary schools will now be asked to raise their game”. After each hill, there’s another.
I should like to thank Becky Allen for helpful comments on an earlier version of this post