The IPPR recently suggested that national testing at ages 11 and 14 should be scrapped and replaced with a system that concentrates less on training pupils to pass a test and more on improving their reading, writing and maths skills. They go on to recommend a system whereby pupils who are at risk of leaving primary school with deficient skills in the 3Rs should undergo a more intensive program of teaching and support.
My personal educational experiences, along with perhaps my own limited experience as a school governor lead me to sympathise with this view. There is little doubt that we must have some assessment structures in our education system to allow school pupils to aim for qualifications and to take those on to future employment or tertiary education, but spending time training pupils to pass tests at such a young age is ridiculous. I was probably one of the last generations to escape large-scale national testing, and almost all of the tests I did before university were in the last 3 years of my secondary schooling – my overriding memory of study in those years was not of useful learning, but of exam preparation, and working out how best to get the best mark in exams. My techniques never left me throughout my university education and I feel I perhaps had a less conducive education overall because of it. To imagine that this system is infiltrating the early key stages and much younger primary school children is truly frightening.
I have no problem with the idea of personalised learning that has been proposed in the recent 2020 vision report, which seems to effectively promote the idea of “setting,” whereby students are taught in classes of similar ability. I am encouraged that this government proposal has attracted the support of the Tories. It must be ensured, however, that “setting” does not conflict with the overwhelming need for the secondary education system to be a comprehensive one. The continued use of grammar schools is divisive and does not have widespread public support, despite the almost-arbitrary selection of polling data by right-wing think tanks like the CPS. I suppose the comprehensive debate is one for another post, but as long as we have socially divisive systems like the eleven plus, and as long as there is a danger of the system of “setting” going down the slippery slope towards and beyond ”streaming” (where pupils stay in similar ability groups for all lessons, not being sorted by ability for each subject), then we have a danger of our education system widening many of the social disparities that this government has narrowed in recent years.
John Ritchie is Chair of BULS