The top 3 priorities for ministers on primary assessment

As the education select committee prepares to grill the schools minister Nick Gibb about primary assessment tomorrow, Nick Brook sets out his three priorities for the government’s upcoming review.


As we await the launch of the government’s primary assessment consultation, teachers will be turning their minds to this year’s SATs.

Setting work to produce writing samples, marshalling the evidence to tick off each of the secure fit criteria for as many children as possible – it all seems horribly similar to last year.

We must not lose sight of the wider challenges that will directly affect the impact of reforms

But I hope that the government’s consultation will announce some real, immediate changes. Changing “secure fit” back to “best fit” would be an easy improvement to make.

Scrapping key stage 1 SATs altogether would be a sensible and very welcome move. We’ll know in a matter of weeks, one way or another, how far the government is prepared to go on this.

The consultation is likely to focus on the nuts and bolts of a future assessment system. However, assessment reform cannot happen in isolation.

Whilst designing the best possible assessment system, we must not lose sight of the wider challenges and constraints that will directly affect the impact of reforms.

Here are the three key areas I’d like to see improved:


1. Review how statutory assessment data is used to hold schools to account


Over-reliance on statutory assessment data raises the stakes of testing and ultimately distorts curriculum emphasis and outcomes.

Unless we address some of the worst aspects of the current accountability system, including acceptance of the inherent limitations of data, even the most sensible assessment arrangements will become skewed.

Floor and coasting standards cast a shadow of fear over many schools and school leaders. Poor test results can trigger an avalanche of interventions, based on a presumption of school failure, which are distracting at best and career ending at worst. It is easy to understand why schools in this shadow struggle to recruit teachers and leaders.

There needs to be better join-up amongst those that hold schools to account and a more constructive approach to intervention. Most importantly, we need to replace the presumption of failure with an expectation of support. Encouragingly, we’re starting to see a shift in the rhetoric on intervention from DfE. We can only hope that this translates into more positive engagement on the ground.


2. Improve governance of the assessment system


This must lead to a stable, proportionate cycle of design, evaluation and implementation for every national assessment.

Effective national test design is a complex skill which requires careful thought and substantial evaluation.

The scale of national assessments in a system the size of England means that effective implementation of change is a major challenge in itself. Frequent reforms and constant tinkering around the edges can therefore have a negative impact on quality.


3. Assessment for Learning is not an intuitive skill possessed by all


There needs to be substantial investment in the training and development of staff in schools if this is to be done universally well. Not all schools or academy chains will have in-house expertise to draw upon and external support will come at a cost.

School budgets are already at breaking point and by 2019-20 will be underfunded by the tune of £3 billion nationally.

Investment to continually develop the skills of the workforce must not be seen as a cost-cutting opportunity. The government must not compromise the effectiveness of the workforce in the name of efficiency.


Follow @SchoolsWeekLive from 9.45am tomorrow for our coverage of the primary assessment education committee hearing

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