Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts writes Kiri Tunks
Globally, education is under assault from governments and multi-national corporations who see it as a legitimate and lucrative business opportunity with an estimated market value of $4.4tn or more.
This assault, termed by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg 'the Global Education Reform Movement' or GERM, has created a model of education that puts profit before pupils while masquerading as the saviour of education for all. It claims competition between students, teachers and schools drives up standards and that ‘testing’ is the only way schools can be accountable to parents and taxpayers. A worldwide movement, it is reducing education to what can be measured and made profitable.
The drive to improve results has resulted in almost constant testing of our children with ‘practice’ tests a routine feature of the UK school experience. This means less time for learning and discovery and an inevitable narrowing of what children learn as they are taught to the test.
Now, the government wants children starting in Reception to be ‘assessed’ using one of six possible tests (chosen by the school) to give them a baseline level in English & numeracy. Within the first six weeks of starting school, each child will sit with a teacher for a 15-30 minute test and answer questions to establish their ‘ability’. This data will then be used to project progress targets for the child at KS2, KS3, KS4 and beyond. Typically, such data is not treated as aspirational but is instead translated into ‘Target Minimum Grades’: not a guide then but an expectation.
Parents should be concerned at the increased push to formalise learning for very young children when good practice in other countries sees formal schooling start as late as 7. There are those who say these tests won’t harm the children and that the psychological impact is over-played. There is much evidence and expertise in the field that suggests otherwise but time will tell.
The government argues that this assessment will give a clear picture of every child’s ability as they start school. Such an assertion assumes several things.
It assumes the data from the tests is reliable. But how can this data be reliable when we will be testing children of significantly different ages (a potential difference of 11 months)? How can it be reliable when schools are choosing which test to use from six different commercial providers? How can the results of a test from one provider be moderated with those from another?
It also assumes that teachers don’t already gather useful information on a child’s ability and development. They do. Teachers use the comprehensive EYFS profile document which covers 17 areas of development as opposed to just English & numeracy.
Then there is the assumption that assessment need only cover literacy & numeracy and that such an assessment is a good predictor of ability or progress across all disciplines or skills
The government also suggests that this assessment will reduce workload for teachers (even though many teachers are being told they need to do both the EYFS and the Baseline test). But even proposing the replacement of the EYFS profile with a one-off test is a cynical ploy. It may appear to reduce workload but it will bring with it a whole new set of problems.
What if your students don’t make the ‘expected progress’? Already, under PRP, have to justify progress to maintain or improve their pay or prove their competency. Now, this data will be used to challenge all teachers, across a child’s entire school life, on their progress. It will be used to hold teachers’ pay down. No account will be taken of other contributory factors. There can be no ‘excuses’ for failure.
This test is being ‘trialled’ from September 2015 and will be ‘optional’ from 2016 so it looks like schools have a choice. However, all primary schools are judged on their performance at the end of Key Stage 2. Schools using the baseline test will need to show that ‘pupils make sufficient progress’ from their starting point.
Schools who choose not to use the test will have to meet an ‘attainment floor target’ of 85% (compared to 65% now). Schools who fail will be forced to become sponsored academies.
The truth is, the industrial scale of testing which is becoming the norm in our schools, does not benefit students. The government is quite clear that these tests are about assessing ‘school effectiveness’. More and more, teachers are under pressure to teach a ‘pre-determined content domain’ which means that students are only taught what is prescribed. Any idea we once had of learning being a journey of discovery is under serious attack.
The GERM is not interested in schools because it cares about children. It sees schools as a potential for profit and teachers and their unions are a huge obstacle to its plans. Our job as activists is to make sure parents and communities understand that testing and accountability is a smoke-screen for privatisation; that attacks on teachers’ pay and conditions are not about dealing with failure but about ridding schools of challenging and expensive pedagogy; that not everything worth learning can be measured in a test; and that instead of giving them more say in their child’s future they are handing over their learning to what pleases the market.
The National Union of Teachers has committed itself to campaigning against these tests within the UK but also building campaigns with teacher unions from other countries against global providers like Pearson. In light of the election result we are going to have to redouble our efforts. We need to talk to parents about our concerns but also about the broader question of what education is for and the kinds of schools our children deserve. The imposition of these tests goes way beyond the question of how we measure a child’s progress. It questions the very nature of what kind of education we want for our society.
Kiri Tunks is a teacher and National Union of Teachers activist in London. She is currently standing for the post of NUT vice president.