I realise that I have not written a blog since Easter of this year (2106). This has not been because I had nothing to say, but I am feeling worn down by the tsunami of assessment currently crashing over schools. A great number of people are speaking out about the impact of testing on primary schools and their pupils and many of those, particularly the wonderful Michael Rosen, far more eloquently than I can. This week having experienced the horror of KS2 SATs, my concerns are overwhelming. I am concerned about the impact on children with special needs, children’s mental health and self-esteem and the value of the tests themselves.
I must be clear that I do not feel that summative assessment is inherently wrong. In fact, I was a SATs marker for seven years and a senior marker for one. I believe that summative assessment has a useful place within our educational system. While formative assessment allows us to identify what children are learning, their strengths and difficulties and enables us to plan to move children’s learning on, summative assessment can only provide a useful snapshot of a child’s learning at a particular point in time. But it is only a snapshot and so has issues of bias and unreliability as a source of evidence. Like a security camera shot which is only useful, if it actually captures an image of the perpetrator, assessment is only useful if it captures the child’s learning and understanding. If the camera is lucky enough to catch a useful image, often its value is reduced as it lacks the context to explain it. The same is true of assessments. In this case, our assessments are both pictures of the wrong things and without the context to explain them.
Based in an outdated world, these SATS do not assess anything useful about children’s learning, particularly in literacy. They assess a narrow, prescriptive curriculum which is out of step with the reality of the 21st century and its electronic and highly visual mass media way of life. It is harkening back to a mythical ‘golden age’ of education rooted in images of the 1950s; a black and white world of school boys in caps and short trousers, school milk and the 11 plus. Like other ‘golden ages’, this has no reality outside the minds of those proposing it. The raised standards the government are seeking, equally are part of this vision of past education reborn and test children’s ability to access that form of learning. However, the world and what we need from education has changed. We need to consider what children will need to learn to live in a future we cannot yet imagine, not a mythologised past. This testing regime is forcing teachers to teach to the test, creating an outdated and potentially useless education system which is unable to prepare children for the world they are going to live in, as it is rooted in the testing of outdated knowledge without understanding.
I would not suggest all education needs to be utilitarian. In fact, I believe that education should encourage creativity and spark the imagination. However, we are developing a system which is neither useful nor creative. As the media, a clutch of embarrassed Government ministers and umpteen Facebook quizzes prove the majority of adults cannot pass the current KS2 grammar test. This is because it is not about writing, either as an essential life skill or a creative art. It is about technical knowledge about language. You can write, and most people do, without being able to label the bits of language that you are using. Just as most people can look after a dog, without knowing the name of every bone in its skeleton.
I teach children with language, working memory and processing difficulties. They can use verbs and nouns, but cannot remember which name belongs to which. We need to ask ourselves: should the purpose of education be to use language accurately or to name the parts of the language? I am certain, that accurate language use is more useful, both as a life skill and a way to enable people to become creative language users, than the ‘naming of parts’.
Furthermore, the culture of pass or failure, of reaching age related expectations or not, has set up a culture of fear. We tell our children that they should try their best and that we will be proud of them whatever happens. But some of these children won’t meet age expectations and they know it. When they are marked as not meeting expectations, many of them will see this as being branded as ‘stupid’ or ‘worthless’. This heart breaking process is made even more iniquitous as these children are being asked things they cannot remember and are of no relevance. Throughout my adult life, I have had a recurring nightmare about being asked unanswerable questions, with ever changing answers, where right answers are wrong and wrong answers are right. I fear that is what the grammar tests feel like for so many children. It feels arbitrary and engenders powerlessness and fear. Is this what we want for our children?
This was clarified for me by the experiences of two children this week. One girl is supported in a special needs unit, and will go to special school in September, yet her levels are such that she can access the tests, just. As she can answer the simplest questions on the papers, she was required to sit each paper. As the week has gone on she has become more distressed, taking her anger and frustration out on her teachers, friends and family. She rejected the reader, she is entitled to, to help her with all the papers, but reading, because she did not want to be seen as ‘a baby’. In fact, she was so angry, no help would have made any difference. This experience was saying she should be able to do this, but it reinforced the message that she can’t. Her speech and language difficulties mean that it was too difficult and too far from her own experience. She needs to be concentrating on forming grammatically correct sentences, not identifying parts of them. She reads fluently but struggles to make meaning of what she reads. She was presented with a reading test and reading texts that emphasised all her problem areas and gave no support to her strengths. There were no simpler texts or questions to allow her to build her confidence. There were a large number of ‘find and copy’ questions which required the identification of key words she did not fully comprehend, without any familiar context to support her understanding.
One of her very able classmates, who would have been working at high level 5 and pushing into Level 6, in old money, explained to me after the reading paper:
‘I understood it, but I didn’t get it. I knew what it was about, but I didn’t care. There was nothing to make me want to read it. The dodos were OK, but why did they make it more complicated than it needed to be?’
I think she had understood the problem with the paper exactly. It was too distant; part of the mythical ‘golden age’ dreamed of by Gove, Morgan and their cronies, not part of the 21st century world of children living in one of the poorer parts of Surrey.
The government has on one hand, rightly, placed an emphasis on mental health. But their policies are not consistent. These SATs, the current testing regime and narrowing of the curriculum will have a negative impact on children’s mental health. As a dyslexic, I struggled at school. I had no diagnosis in primary school and was told that I was stupid, lazy or both, otherwise I would be able to read and write properly and not constantly lose things. This has left me, as an adult, with a default internal monologue that I am stupid and/ or lazy. I went into teaching, partly, to work to avoid this for others. But these tests will set up that internal voice for many children, as they are being set up to fail.
Teachers and parents can tell children they are valued, to try their best that they have other talents, but the world of the pre-teen is not a world of nuance. Things are, or are not. For so many the message of undoable tests, the language of pass and fail, of meeting or not meeting age related expectations will be all they hear and remember. They will give up and stop trying, because they can’t do it or believe that they can’t.
The government has set out an educational agenda, but I fear they do not understand the cost or worse do not care. These tests are both harmful and expensive. Never mind, that they are inefficiently run with a steady drip of leaks and problems. It is the future cost I fear more. The impact on a generation’s mental health and self-esteem will lead to truancy, disengagement from education and a feeling for children that they are worthless, failures and below expectations. These feelings make children more vulnerable to radicalisation or sexual exploitation, where they are told, even for a short time, that they are worthy, important and can meet expectations. The opposite to the message of our current testing system.
So how will these tests impact on our country’s future? Will they raise standards? Will this snapshot tell us more about children’s learning and predict their future? I fear not. It will lead to lasting expensive mental health problems and people disengaged from society. These negative impacts will live on and this seems to be a price that the government are prepared to pay for their educational vision.
Henry Reed’s poem ‘The Naming of Parts’– a war poem about naming of the parts of a gun, without explanation of its purpose.
Posted in: Inclusion
Tagged: 'The Naming of Parts', assessment, culture, grammar, levels, mental health, Michael Rosen, national curriculum, progress, reading, SATs, self-esteem, Special Educational Needs, testing, the whole child, writing