Long before he became famous for searching for his own name on Twitter or appearing on a celebrity dancing show, Ed Balls was the education minister who decided to scrap Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) in English, Maths and Science for 14-year-olds in England. The move was triggered by the collapse of the marking process in 2008. Rather than try to fix them, Balls decided to ditch the tests.
Iconoclasm has its appeal. It can be a cathartic process, particularly when the icon that is being smashed has been the focus of so much attention. Teachers who taught English, Maths or Science to 13- and 14-year-olds had their work framed by these tests. They became sick of marking practice questions. Removing this tyrant freed teachers and school leaders to focus on what they thought was important. And that was part of the problem.
There are plenty of bad ideas in education with a small army of consultants ready to push them. After the SATs for 14-year-olds had gone, some schools simply started preparing students earlier for GCSEs – the exams taken at age 16 which, unlike SATs, are a formal qualification and sit on a student’s record – and that had the effect of narrowing the curriculum. Other schools adopted project-based, cross-curricular approaches, encouraged by the new knowledge-lite Balls reforms to the national curriculum.
However, learning English, Maths and Science is actually pretty important and the SATs measured whether that had happened. Whatever the flaws in any system of testing, you cannot do well in a maths test unless you have learnt the maths. These other important if nebulous things that schools and teachers could now focus on were not being measured and it is hard to improve at anything without a standard to work from.
Before we abolish something, we should always ask: Why was this thing introduced in the first place? What purpose did it serve? This is not a call for blind conservatism – some institutions and practices outlive their purpose or perhaps never even delivered on it in the first place. Some purposes are malign, such as the construction of a monopoly to gouge consumers. In this case, iconoclasm is the right way to go. But let’s at least understand this purpose when we make the decision. Let’s tear down these icons in full knowledge of what they are and why they are there.
When the leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, told delegates at a union conference last week that he intended to scrap the remaining SATs taken by children at ages six and eleven, he said he wanted a new system that, “…prepares children for life, not just for exams… Our assessment will be based on clear principles. First, to understand the learning needs of each child, because every child is unique.” This does not sound like Corbyn has done a full analysis of the purpose of these assessments. Instead, it reads as if he is recycling progressivist educational tropes about individualism. Again, I will point out that there is nothing inherently socialist about individualism.
When SATs were introduced, they applied to both England and Wales, but Wales phased them out between 2002 and 2005. When Ed Balls abolished SATs for 14-year-olds in 2008, they had long gone from Wales. But that’s not the end of the story. In 2013, alarmed at evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Wales reintroduced testing for all children aged 7 to 14 in reading and maths. If abolishing assessments of this kind is a panacea, what kind of monster would reintroduce them?
We are having a similar debate in Australia about our NAPLAN literacy and numeracy assessments that children take in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. In addition to the kinds of argument deployed by Corbyn, we also hear claims about the extraordinary levels of stress these assessments cause children – claims that have characterised the debate in England.
If children are feeling stressed about sitting assessments that do not form part of any formal record then it is clearly the adults around them who are to blame. Either teachers or parents are winding these children up when they should be calming them down and reminding them that assessment is just a normal part of schooling designed to help the adults help the children better. If we are really creating generations of teenagers who are stressed-out by a school assessment then I fear for them when they have to take a driving test or be interviewed for a job or ask someone out.
And imagine we remove these assessments. What will happen when a child is not progressing but the teacher assessment says that he or she is? Does the parent have a right to know? If so, how will the parent know?
If we smash the icon of national assessment without understanding why we made it in the first place, we may find we have to make a new one.