Primary assessments a mess? Unions should propose a radical alternative

The schools sector is up in arms about primary assessments – both baseline and the standardised tests. I deliberately use the word “sector”. Teachers, school leaders, parents, unions, assessment providers: everyone is furious.

One way to deal with late information and daft processes is a boycott. Get teachers to refuse to carry out the tests. Unions have threatened this in past weeks.

But boycotts allow the government to paint the profession as obstructive and, in doing so, make parents worry about the impact on their child.

A provocative alternative was instead whispered to me this week. It’s a little out there but it would shake things up.

Here it is: instead of boycotting, why don’t the unions come up with a brand new assessment, designed and agreed by its members?

Teachers would then use this new (better) test to assess pupils – but there’s an important proviso. Teachers would promise to pass the data to secondary schools to support transition, and to parents so they know how their child is doing, and to the schools’ overlord (a local council or academy chain) so it can judge performance BUT – and here’s the critical bit – they also promise not to pass it to the Department for Education, the media (gulp), or Ofsted.

Why would teachers do this? Largely because they don’t want to annoy parents and aren’t worried about sharing information that is actually used to help improve pupils’ learning. What stresses teachers out is the use of very difficult and very uncertain testing processes that will nevertheless be used for “accountability” – or, as the sector affectionately thinks of it, “figuring out who needs to be sacked”.

While there may be strong statistical reasons for the government holding off on its decision about what score will constitute an “expected” standard, it does seem convenient that when the decision is made, the score could be the exact level where the number of schools that fall below it happens to be the precise number the government can afford to force into becoming academies.

That sounds cynical, I know. It is cynical. But it’s a cynicism you’ll hear on the lips of so many education people because their faith in “accountability” has been completely eroded by the past five years of reform.

So, what would such tests proposed by the unions look like? And how could they be created?

People may shudder, but it’s simply a fact that online testing has come on in leaps and bounds.

The work currently being carried out by Chris Wheadon at the website No More Marking shows that tests of just about any skills can be created and accurately measured by comparing one answer to another.

For such a test to work, every year 6 teacher would have to commit to uploading their pupils’ work and helping with judging, but it would be very quick and easy, and would give each teacher a reasonably good indicator of the pupils’ standing in comparison to the general population.

Next, to avoid “teaching to the test” – the bane of every year 6 teacher’s life – teachers would be given little or no notice of what the tests involve.

I know this sounds crazy. But remember: these tests are not being used for “accountability”. They would be a genuine measure of pupil capabilities. The data would be used to genuinely help secondary schools prepare, and parents understand their children, and academy trusts to worry about whether they are giving most resources to the schools where children are struggling most.

Think how fantastic that would be! Think how revolutionary!

The toughest part of the plan is getting the assessments written – especially in time for this year’s planned assessment period in May.

It’s not easy to write good tests, but I suspect a two-day hackathon by assessment experts would probably get something reasonably useful, at least for an initial go at this new world.

This is an outrageous plan. I understand that. It involves snubbing the government, creating a new alternative, and setting unusual expectations for data sharing. It also reduces transparency – something that makes me, personally, quite nervous.

Outrageous ideas are sometimes important to consider though. If I was a union weighing up my options in the face of panicked members, I could certainly see the attraction. Is anyone willing to step up and make it happen?

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  1. I like it! Are you saying that we dump the ‘official’ tests…that would be a boycott wouldn’t it…would DfE argue ‘illegal’? In the circumstances, however, a radical (indeed ‘outrageous’) approach is urgently needed. NUT are asking for the tests to be suspended, but have put forward absolutely nothing in terms of practical steps towards that. NAHT(sadly) are too cautious, too wary of upsetting Mr Gibb (that’s my view anyway, as an NAHT member). The unions are paid by their members, and need to start proactively representing the views of members, with determined action,….otherwise we might just question the need for unions.

  2. So let me get this straight. You are suggesting that teachers produce a national testing system in the next couple of weeks, from scratch, because the government has not been able to achieve it over the last 2 years? You are correct that it sounds crazy, because it is crazy.

    Do you remember Laura when you were a teacher, how long it took just to co-ordinate the student reports of one year group in your school, using a system that was already set up?

  3. Donna Gittins

    Sounds like a great, but completely impractical idea. Why not just have a dialogue and moderation session with your main feeder high schools. The proposed alternative is still based on testing mainly. Most y6 pupils have sat many practise papers from a range of reputable companies in almost test like conditions and the should inform your judgement. If they are the main driver then it’s no better. For writing, why not just use the previous assessment tool and allow high schools to adjust for new curriculum when better overall guidance is available.

  4. Sue Cowley

    As a parent I am furious about the mess that they have made of primary assessment, not only because of the assessments themselves, but because of the impact of what is in the assessments on the way that children are being taught. I am just about at the point where, if the unions don’t do something, I will remove my child from school in Year 6. I don’t honestly think changing the tests is the answer, I think refusing to administer them is the only solution at this point. I think many parents are unaware of what is actually going on, because it’s all quite complicated and they haven’t been given a set of results within this new system yet.

    • Your right parents don’t know. So I take it you will be at the forefront of telling working class, poor and immigrant parents how phonics enables them to close the gap and achieve better.

      Oh you mean middle class parents like yourself..sure.

  5. Tim Taylor

    It sounds crazy but it could be done. And remember it doesn’t have to be done by the end of May, that’s just the date for SATs. If schools opt to do this new assessment it could be set later in the summer term.