Speakers: Ian Hickman and Jon Le Fevre, founders of the Charter on Children’s Assessment; Nick Brook, NAHT; Ken Jones, NEU; and Sean Harford, Ofsted.
Tuesday 26 February 2019
All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood
‘The impact of testing in schools on child health and wellbeing’
Chair: Baroness (Floella) Benjamin
Speakers: Ian Hickman and Jon LeFevre: Head Teachers and founders of the ‘Charter on Children’s Assessment’; Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers; Prof. Ken Jones, Senior Policy Adviser, National Education Union; Sean Harford HMI, National Director, Education, Ofsted
Chair’s Opening Remarks:
Good evening everybody and welcome to this, the 40th meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood. Happy New Year to you all – I haven’t seen you since before Christmas! Keith and I have been very busy with the Windrush Commemoration Committee – we’ve been given £1m to put up a Windrush monument, and I can’t tell you how exciting that is. Out of bad always comes good!
So it’s our 40th meeting tonight – our 40th! Do you remember in the early days when we started and everyone felt depressed, thinking it’s not going to work – and yet, we’ve got so far ahead. We may not get all the credit, but our reports are listened to. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get the credit as long as we make an impact. That’s power!
This evening we are looking at the impact of testing in schools on the health and wellbeing of children.
We have an excellent panel of speakers this evening including Prof. Ken Jones. His organisation conducted a survey of over twelve hundred primary school teachers last June and July. Nine out of ten said the SATs-based primary assessment system is detrimental to children’s well-being and nearly as many said they do not benefit children’s learning.
Our Group has recently been looking closely at the mental health of children so we all know about the many challenges they face these days, and their time in school is a big slice of their life. Children right now are facing issues that they shouldn’t have to, because of a society that we have created that they have to be part of. We’re putting more and more pressures on them in their daily lives, and going to school is a huge part of that.
Childhood lasts a lifetime, as I always say, and those formative years in primary school are absolutely crucial for the development of the child, and what we are doing to them in scandalous – we have got to make changes.
There is no doubt that this is one of the most pressing issues of our time so I’m especially pleased to welcome along a senior figure from Ofsted tonight to help us to address these matters.
We have five speakers this evening so I’m going to ask you all to restrict yourselves to five minutes each so there is sufficient time for a Q&A and a general discussion.
Ian Hickman and Jon LeFevre: Head Teachers and founders of the ‘Charter on Children’s Assessment’
Jon LeFevre: To give some background to the Charter: I was a primary school teacher for nine years with Year R to Year 2, so I only had the stresses of taking children through key stage 1 SATs. These SATs are done in a very relaxed way and are used as an assessment tool to give teachers and idea of what the children can and can’t do. In 2016 I became Head of a growing primary school, so last year was the first year that I took the school through Year 6 SATs. It was an interesting challenge. We have a school vision, which is that the children at Pilgrim’s Cross are loving, courageous and trustworthy to become talented role models and make a difference in God’s world. That’s what drives everything in the school.
So when it came to Year 6 SATs and the assessments I started to talk to other schools to find out what they did to prepare for them and, to be blunt, I was absolutely shocked at what schools were doing to children in Year 6. As I’m sure many of you know, children are being put through morning, afternoon and lunchtime booster classes for these SATs. I found that children were being asked to come to school during the Easter Holidays for revision classes and they were being taken out of Art, DT, PE, etc. to do more English and Maths, given practice tests, SATs homework, and so on. I have a 10-year-old daughter who is in Year 6 now and we’ve been asked to buy the SATs revision book for her so that she can do her homework. And to me, all this is just wrong – morally wrong.
So we sat down as a Senior Leadership Team and said, well, if that’s our vision and what we want for our children, what do we do? Because we felt that doing those things to children at the age of 10 was not good for their wellbeing. If you put pressure on children that way you will end up with children whose self-esteem will be based on that score. You’ve got children who need more emotional support in that final year because of the SATs pressure.
I found out that schools would have a pre-SATs curriculum and and post-SATs curriculum, just for the test, and we didn’t think that was right for our children. I also found when I spoke to secondary colleagues was that, because the children were being boosted, their learning was shallow. The children didn’t really understand what they’d been practising and they would arrive at secondary school and fail in Year 7. From an emotional point of view that is not a good thing for children – to feel that they’ve been doing ok and then to fail. Secondary colleagues said that the inflated score for the SATs test led to children needing to be boosted in secondary schools in order to get whatever GCSE score had been predicted by the SATs.
So we felt that we couldn’t do that even though the majority of other schools were doing all this. I then reached out to find other people who felt the same as we did and, luckily, there were some – Ian is one of them and there are others too – and we were able to create the “Assessment for Children” group. This is a group of Head Teachers and Educationalists who feel that what is going on in schools is morally wrong and not in the best interests of the children, and as a result of our collaboration we created the Charter, which I have distributed this evening. I’ll now pass over to Ian to talk about what is in the Charter.
Ian Hickman: I was delighted when Jon set up the group because in my school, a values and principles-driven school, we don’t focus on SATs. They are something we have to deliver but I want a rich broad-balanced curriculum for our children. I was delighted to get involved with the group and the Charter itself sets out some principles that we think that schools should sign up to. We want schools to prioritise children’s personal growth, long-term development, engagement as learners and their wellbeing over SATs scores. And we want them to ensure breath and balance of the curriculum and not narrow it for Year 2 and Year 6 in particular. We think it is wrong to place such emphasis on SATs scores for 10 and 11 year olds and we don’t believe in running booster classes, holiday clubs and so on, because that indicates that the tests have a much broader significance than just being a tool to aid teacher assessment.
We also want to recognise the way that SATs are used as a predictor of GCSE results. It’s important to us that children should leave primary education with assessment scores that are a true representation of their skills and knowledge. We also think that it’s our job to prepare these children for a life beyond primary education and to ensure that they’ve got positive attitudes to learning, a growth mindset and really strong character skills for the future.
We’ve met with Head Teacher colleagues in various different settings over the last few months and many of them sit and listen, and nod, and then we get a shoulder shrug. They feel that because of the public nature of the scores – league tables and so on – and the way in which parents use the scores the judge schools, it’s in their best interests to get the best scores they can. Key Stage 2 SATs outcomes are a key accountability measure for schools and although they are not the only measure, they are the first measure that is looked at when talking about standards for a school. High standards equals high SATs scores, and that means that there is so much pressure on schools to improve SATs scores and that is to the detriment of everything else that goes on. If you are a school in the “requires improvement” category then improving your SATs scores is a sure way out of it.
The knock-on effect of all this is not just to create stress in children, but also teachers and head teachers and this leads to staff recruitment and retention problems.
We don’t feel that there is anything contentious in the Charter. We think it should be an easy thing for schools to sign up to but we know that it’s not going to be for quite a few reasons.
Jon LeFevre: We’ve got schools who we’ve been talking to who, because of the accountability factor and the fear of losing an “outstanding” valuation, have got themselves into this mess and they really don’t know where to start to get themselves out of it because they really don’t know what is working and what isn’t. Of course if you have been boosting scores by different means, then there is a risk that your standards will come down when you stop it, and as a result you may be judged badly. For a Head Teacher, that’s significant.
So, we do what we do because we believe it’s right, but we understand the dilemma of schools who have been operating in this way.
Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers:
I’d like to start by saying that I very strongly support what Jon and Ian are doing. The pressure on schools in recent years to continuously improve their results has been enormous and what’s measured and what is being valued is narrowing. As you pointed out, the focus on English and Maths to the exclusion at times of all else is a direct result of this focus on SATs.
The unintended consequence of our accountability system is that we have celebrated and rewarded the achievement of outstanding results in schools, but we haven’t really cared that much about how those results were achieved. Even worse, the system has sometimes penalised schools where courageous things have been attempted in the best interests of the children rather than the position in the league tables.
As Jon and Ian have recognised, to stand alone is a dangerous place to be. There is security and strength in numbers and that’s one of the reasons I so applaud what you’ve done here in bringing together a community of schools to say what is right and what is wrong and agree what is ethically right. That’s very powerful. But it begs a question for me: why should it take brave and courageous leadership in order to do the right thing? Surely the system should be set up in a way that doing the right thing is the easy thing to do, so surely the system needs to change.
So I’d just like to make three points, which are really three requests for change. The first one is that we need to accept that data from tests may not tell you the full story of pupils’ success or a school’s effectiveness. Pupils are so much more than numbers on a page. Everyone who holds schools to account needs to accept the inherent limitations of data: it might suggest something but you won’t know until you go in and start asking questions or looking more closely. That’s why the role of inspection is so important in our system – we have fair, proportionate, reliable eyes-on-the-ground to make that judgement rather than to use proxy measures that have unintended consequences on the young people we are trying to teach. I would like to pay credit to some of the work that the DfE and Ofsted are doing in this direction – both recognising that things have gone too far. Recently the DfE has announced the abolition of “floor and coasting” standards which undoubtedly have cast a shadow over many schools. But whilst we still have headline measures, league tables and local media news proclaiming schools to be “the worst” because of their SATs results, there will always be a pressure on schools to do things that are more in the interests of the school than of the children.
The second point I want to make was one that was featured in a 2017 report we published. on redressing the balance between statutory assessment and in-school assessments. Statutory assessment is all about judging if a school is being effective. In-school assessments are about giving teachers information about what a child can and can’t do and what is the next step in their learning. We need a better balance between the two and what we’ve been campaigning for is a reduction in the amount of statutory testing and to strip out tests that just get in the way of getting on with the job of teaching and learning.
My third and final point is that we need to invest in the training and development of staff in schools. We seem to think that assessment is an inherent skill present in everyone, and it’s not. We need to invest in training to ensure that the assessments that are done are done in the right way. In the past training for assessment has not been good in terms of understanding how best to assess. We would like to see the “Early Careers Framework”, recently announced by the Government, expanded and increased in years to come to make sure that teachers have the very best skills.
Prof. Ken Jones, Senior Policy Adviser, National Education Union:
The National Education Union (NEU) is a trade union in the United Kingdom for school teachers, further education lecturers, education support staff and teaching assistants. It was formed by the merger of the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2017, so we are very new in one sense and very old in another.
I wanted to say something, as Nick did, about risks and bravery. As educationalists we are used to risks, we are committed to safeguarding, we avoid actions which might jeopardise pupils’ wellbeing: it’s second nature to us. I taught in schools for 15 years and as a teacher I would surprise myself with acts of bravery in defence of pupils that I realised I would not have done outside my professional role: I would have stayed out of harm’s way. So I wonder about certain situations which we as educationalists inhabit (without loud protest so far) where there are conditions in which pupils are not securely safeguarded and where their wellbeing is at risk from core features of our own system. I don’t think I need to labour this point; in one sense, it’s a public secret. The World Health Organisation 2012: “11 and 16 year old pupils in England feel more pressure about their school work than is the case in the vast majority of European countries”. Childline 2014: “School and exam pressures were one of the biggest causes of feelings of stress and anxiety affecting children and young people”. A recent article by Brown & Carr 2018 “The reduction of children’s self-value as learners to the outcomes of their test scores is supported by nearly 20 years of research. This is particularly concerning in the case of younger children who have been found to be more likely to make negative self-judgements. The associated pedagogies orientated towards teaching to the test have been found to seriously dampen children’s motivation and learner autonomy, significantly lowering self-esteem for lower-attaining pupils”.
As I said, this amounts to a public secret. My union is pleased that the Government is attaching more importance to mental health in schools, but we feel that in recognising the problem it hasn’t really recognised the causes. So it’s good when Damien Hinds said this week that all children in England will be taught how to look after their mental wellbeing and to recognise when classmates may be struggling, but as educationalists I think we need to probe a bit more deeply into the causes of the problems.
And here, there is a problem. It is the SATs, which will remain in place, whatever the qualifications surrounding them. It’s the case with Progress 8 and EBacc measures and those other influences pressing on secondary schools to create problems of the sort which researchers have identified. To close one’s eyes in the face of this situation is a problem and I feel that we need a different kind of bravery as educators, and that’s the bravery to recognise what’s holding back our work, and what’s affecting the welfare of our children – problems which stem from systemic or structural effects and not from causes from outside the school and not from accidental effects of school life. We have a deep deep problem, and one that requires a particular kind of intellectual and political courage to look at the roots of that problem.
Sean Harford HMI, National Director, Education, Ofsted:
I think we need to remember that almost 87% of primary schools are graded “good” by Ofsted, so if we think about that then the impact of the SATs themselves needs to be put into proportion. If it was a case of inspectors going round just using those data, then I’m guessing that we would have many fewer primary schools graded good or better. And yes I would (wouldn’t I?) say that Ofsted doesn’t only take into account the data, but I think actually the inspection evidence shows that that is the case.
We are in the middle of a consultation for a new framework from September, and I believe that because of the research we’ve done and the people that we’ve spoken to that we are on the way to identifying ways of mitigating some of these excesses of testing that we’ve found. In our research we found in primary schools that it was not unusual to find schools stopping teaching anything other than English and Maths, with maybe a bit of PE, from October in Year 6 onwards. We also found that often the English and Maths curricula were constructed very well while the level of curricula thinking going into other subjects dropped off dramatically, so it’s clear where the focus is being put. I will absolutely agree that when the accountability system was set up 30 years ago there were two arms to it: the performance measures that the Government would publish each year to provide information to parents, and inspection, to try to be the eyes on the ground to check the quality of education. Inspection over time has changed, mostly around the resources put into it, but the reality is that as that resource reduced the work we did tended to intensify the focus on the data rather than being a complementary check and balance on that data. And that is I think how we have ended up in the wrong place. While we have certainly played our part in this, what has happened is that people are focussing on the measures and that’s why a rational decision from a primary school is the focus on English and Maths – because that’s what they get measured on. That’s why it’s so important with inspection now to look much more broadly at the curriculum itself and to see what the wider experience of children is. The chasing of “the scores on the doors” has been intensified by us, no doubt, and the DfE have had their hand in it and, quite frankly, schools have had their hand in it as well. Schools can’t step back and claim to be totally blameless here: decisions have been made. If you step back from it and say, hang on – is it such a cliff edge then, if 87% are good or better, is it that if we dip below the average, bad things will happen to us? Well the inspection evidence isn’t that that will be the consequence. But everybody understands why that response is as it is, but we feel it is incumbent on us to play our part to nudge the system away from that to make sure that people are doing the right thing.
I’ll give you a couple of stories. I inspected a primary school in the Wirral last year and sat down with the Head Teacher to talk about various things and we got onto extra-curricular activities and visits. I noticed that they did a residential trip in Year 6 and I expected (rather cynically) that it would be after SATS, but I found that it was in September. When I asked why it was scheduled then, I was told “we try to engender teamwork in our pupils, for pupils to find themselves at a really important stage in their education when they are going to leave us in a year’s time, so we need to prepare them with resilience and things that can help them, in what is, let’s face it, a tough year”. And I thought, hallelujah! Someone’s made the right curriculum decision about something that many schools consider as a “nice to have” after SATs are out of the way. So I’ve seen bravery, or whatever you want to call it, schools making the right decisions . . . and I bet that those children actually do better in their SATs as a result of that experience.
My second story is about a young girl who wrote to me following an article I wrote in TES referring to schools “beasting” children with comprehension activities in Year 6 to practise for the SATs. The problem is that the comprehension task is in the SAT to try to assess the child’s level of reading. Unfortunately that has been translated into “we need children to do comprehension activities very well”, which is not the same thing. The young girl wrote to me to say that she used to love English as a subject, but she had a Year 6 where 3 times a week she had to do comprehension activities and exercises to get better for the SATs. And if we are doing that to children even academically, let alone what that potentially does in a wider sphere, then we have an issue that we clearly need to address. I haven’t got time for more now, but I do think that where we are going with the new framework to look at the wider curriculum and to make sure that schools are doing the right thing for pupils, means that we are going in the right direction.
Questions and Comments:
Baroness Benjamin: I’d like to know when this happened, and why it happened. When did we take our eye off the ball? Was it because of changes in Government? Was it because of pressures on schools? What is it that’s got us to where we are? I’d also like to ask each of you to tell us one wish that you would like to come true.
Jon LeFevre: Whether it was the truth or a myth, I think it was the accountability system that made things as they are today. Head Teachers have to take responsibility for decisions taken, but I do believe that we’ve been faced with comparisons between schools, league tables, etc., and the belief that it’s the SATs data that results to the Ofsted grade. In my opinion that has snowballed and that is why things have gone the way they have.
What do we do next? I think we need to look at how the data is used, and I think that the moves by Ofsted outlined by Sean represent a really good step, but there are other players (e.g. the DfE and also schools) and the issue we have is that as long as the data is the main accountability measure, people will not stop doing this. That’s because they can’t stop doing what they’ve been doing without a drop in standards, because it’s inflated their standards. Now I do believe that we can get really good outcomes with a strong curriculum and good teaching, but that takes time. I think if schools were told to stop all of the focus and then given a few years to build a really strong curriculum so that the children really understand their learning and they get results that are true and not inflated.
Ian Hickman: As Sean said, with all the players in the system, everyone has contributed in some way but I think there is a lot of fear in the education system. Your results are very public: the percentage of children who get to a certain standard of reading can appear on the front of your local newspaper and so on. It’s a very public thing and might not reflect how good that school might be. Undoubtedly there are schools that aren’t good enough – of course there are – there are teachers that aren’t good enough, head teachers that aren’t good enough, politicians that aren’t good enough – that’s just the way it is. But there’s too much fear in the system. My wish is that we change the language around standards and outcomes. All we need is SATs scores, and we’re not looking more broadly and focussing on other outcomes. At my school I want children who show leadership, who are responsible, who care, who have good learning habits, high aspirations for themselves, and none of these things are measured or made public.
Nick Brook: I think Sean has given a good account of how we got here, where we started with league tables and Ofsted, and we’ve got into this situation because those two things have converged and put pressure on people.
Baroness Benjamin: But the question is, why did we get to league tables in the first place?
Nick Brook: I think there was a bit of a perfect storm, because the accountability system put enormous emphasis on particular small measures but it happened at exactly the same time that the professional agency of teachers had been eroded. Rather than the leader having the confidence to say “I’ll do it this way because it’s the right thing to do and here is the evidence to show that what I am doing is precisely right and in the interests of my children” we’ve eroded that over a long period of time to a point where you ask someone to jump and they say, how high? What we need to be doing here is taking the actions that Sean described, let’s reduced the emphasis on those very narrow test results that reflect how a child performed on a particular test in a particular hour on a particular day, but at the same time we need to build the confidence of the profession and developing the profession.
We need to start valuing the leadership of learning over the management of data; we need to ensure that leaders know what great teaching actually looks like; what you do to support a teacher that is struggling; to properly understand pedagogy. If we properly invest in our workforce and give people the confidence to know that they are one of the leading professionals in the world, then they would have the confidence to challenge inspectors when they come in. When I was working with Sean at Ofsted, what I would hear from HMOs all the time was that they wanted to be challenged. They wanted the leaders to stand up and say, “no! this is why I am doing it this way” and felt disappointment when too many people rolled over because that’s what they’d been conditioned to do over the years. Well it does come back on all of our shoulders, but we need Ofsted to change, without a doubt, we need Government’s obsession with data to lessen, but we also need the profession to step forward and take ownership too.
Baroness Benjamin: I’ve been visiting schools over the last 44 years and I’ve seen a real sea change in the way schools are run, the attitude of teachers, system, children learning etc. and I think it goes much deeper than 30 years. I think that something happened in this country that allowed all this to happen.
Sean Harford: The answer goes back to James Callaghan’s Ruskin College speech in 1976. What he set out there at that point were the real problems in the education system. Roll forward a few years and the National Curriculum was brought in, because there were real problems in the curricula of schools and you could quite literally be a pupil in a Year 4 class for example, and if the teacher of that year group was a music specialist, you could almost guarantee that you were going to get a fabulous musical education that year, but quite often not a lot else. At secondary level when I was a teacher I took over a Science Department and I couldn’t work out when looking at the curriculum in Key Stage 3 why 90% of it was biology, with 5% each for physics and chemistry. It turned out that the guy who’d been given the task of writing the Key Stage 3 curriculum was a biologist. So, there were real problems that needed to be solved. We can have a debate about the solutions and so on, but the idea of having a National Curriculum was not the wrong idea necessarily, but it might have been implemented badly, and it might have been coupled with other things that at the same time led us to where we went. I remember primary teachers being told that not only were they going to be teaching numeracy between 10 and 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, but actually what they were going to be teaching at 10.15. So this has been a slow burn.
Ken Jones: My wish is that I would like to see SATs abolished. The criticism of SATs is mounting up and it’s difficult to find anyone who has a good word for it, and yet a much smaller number say it’s got to go. There’s an imbalance there that puzzles me. If it is so bad, if it is at least partly responsible for these dire effects, why continue to defend it? There are other assessment systems available: the argument isn’t between SATs and no assessment – no one thinks that. There is plenty of work around assessment across the world and in this country that would help us evaluate the work of pupils separately from the effectiveness of schools. SATs amalgamates those two questions in a quite disastrous way and it’s time to look at this more boldly than policy makers do at the moment.
Helen Symonds, Let Kids Be Kids: We represent 30,000 parents who are obsessed with getting rid of SATs. There has already been a meeting of the Education Select Committee who concluded that SATs were pointless and damaging to children, so I can’t understand why we still have these tests. In a recent survey we conducted of 1000 parents, 98% said they weren’t as bothered about academic achievement in their children as much as the personal development side. And can anyone tell me what benefit they are to the children – not to the school or the Government, but to the children?
Baroness Benjamin to Sean Harford: What would it take to make the Government see this and change?
Sean Harford: I work for an inspectorate and therefore I’m not an apologist for the Dept. for Education. I’m not sure the majority of parents don’t worry about academic achievement – they definitely do when we hear from them, as they see academic success as the passport to the next stage of training or education or whatever. I realise you mean “not at the expense of everything else” but we need to be careful that we don’t run away with that idea. We don’t actually need SATs to inspect.
Baroness Benjamin: How else would you measure?
Sean Harford: There’s a massive difference between tests at the end of Key Stage 2 and GCSEs and A levels but unfortunately people have conflated these as if they are the same things – life-defining exams. At a recent Early Years event my wife attended in Islington, there was a stall selling graduation gowns for nursery!
Jon LeFevre: Just to go back to the two reasons why we assess. The first one is to find out what children do and don’t know so that we know what to teach them, and the second is for us to get better as teachers. As Ken Robinson says, tests tell you how good a teacher you are. I don’t think SATs ticks either of those boxes, because they’re not used to identify what children do not know – it’s just the score that’s scrutinised.
Baroness Benjamin: What processes and training do Head Teachers go through when they are appointed? Would their training cover something like this?
Nick Brook: Actually very little. We’re in a position now where the good steps that the Government are proposing around the early development of teachers should be echoed for Head Teachers because exactly the same issues are there for new HTs as are there for new teachers, and the attrition rates are similar.
Giles Platt, London & SE Primary PE Health and Wellbeing Development Association: I work as a Regional Primary PE Advisor in the London Borough of Bromley and beyond. First of all I’ve got to say that I’m in full agreement with our speakers tonight. I don’t believe in the quality of league tables any more than I unfortunately believe in HMI inspections in terms of the many opportunities to game both systems. Can I draw attention to the landmark media report in produced by the Guardian in 2002: 26 steps to get better results. I think we have a recurring situation here but the DfE just doesn’t seem to learn and is entrenched in its view about assessment. Schools should never have to resort to the things they do because of league table pressure. I point to previous heavy scrutiny of data by Ofsted: I acknowledge that Ofsted have been at the forefront of steering towards broader-based inspections. What do you think?
Sean Harford: Two things I heard in your question there were about the data, and the perception that data is king. 87% of schools are rated good or better. If we were only looking at data we wouldn’t have that kind of profile – it’s as simple as that. So whilst there might be interest in data because that is part of it, we are proposing that we will refuse to look at internal performance data of schools. I don’t mean that stats but the internal data that the schools have to show children’s progress. I was part of a Commission led by Becky Allen, looking at data usage, and the clear thing was that it drives workload and it’s not useful – and it gets bent out of shape by being scrutinised externally. Currently in our consultation, that is only gaining about 50% support – almost 50% want to keep it. We thought teachers would respond enthusiastically but they haven’t. There is so much data now in the system that people cannot see the wood for the trees.
I don’t see HMI being a way out of this at all. HMI consists of people who are very experienced educationalists, highly trained to assess schools on the quality of education being provided. Due to Government regulations, we don’t go into outstanding schools (20%) so we visit good schools for a day or two once every 4/5 years and other schools (15%) more often. This is something that has got to be driven by professionals in schools. As Nick said, stepping in and saying “this is the right thing to do” – how do you empower that? I hear lots of arguments saying “don’t grade schools; don’t do this; don’t do that”. But there is a danger that if you take away everything you will miss something about this. Wales has had a quite a significant slip back in standards over the past 6/7 years in its attempt to tackle the kind of problems we are talking about. They took SATs away and standards have dropped. Now, I’m not saying that that is the causality of this, but it’s not a panacea, I don’t know that they are any happier so we just need to be careful that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Baroness Benjamin: Children here were a lot further back than Caribbean children when I arrived, and I was shocked. Maybe education isn’t as valued here. My daughter is a teacher and she often has to phone parents to ask them to come to parent/teacher evenings, as many of them don’t seem to attach much importance to their children’s education, seeing it as only the job of the teacher. She says she spends half of each lesson just encouraging pupils to want to learn.
Paul Wright, Health EDCO: I am an ex-primary school teacher and governer and I’m now in public health specialising in health education. It was great to hear the news yesterday about the curriculum for health education, relationships and sex education. My question is, are we seeing something new here? Is it the start of that hidden curriculum – the life skills – or is it just a magic pill to take some of the stress away from the tests?
Ian Hickman: It feels like a sticking plaster. I read what was put out yesterday with interest. Schools already teach a lot about relationships because relationships between pupils are really important and we are preparing them for what comes next. It does feel like they have said “we’ve got an issue with mental health and wellbeing so let’s teach something about that and it will solve that problem”. It won’t. It’s right to say that there are lots of issues and lots of unintended consequences. There isn’t one thing you can pinpoint to solve all the issues. We have to stand up for our children and do what we think is right. and that’s really what our charter is.
Jon LeFevre: We do this because it is right – but it’s not without stress and fear. It’s right that schools should be inspected, but talking to colleagues, the fear is that if Ofsted don’t look at internal data then the only data they WILL look at is the SATs, and that will bring us right back here again. Those schools who are judged outstanding will want to hang on to that grade and – not to be rude – some of them have only got that grade because of gaming the system and not through treating children fairly and properly.
Sean Harford: My biggest fear is that potentially the narrowest curriculum might be in outstanding schools who are purely focussing on the SATs to keep the wolf from the door – and we can’t go into them, apart from a very small sample. We’ve been very clear to the Government that we think the exemption should go so that we can go in and either confirm that they really are outstanding or breathe life into them if they aren’t.
Jon LeFevre: Wellbeing is a big issue for us. We work in Andover, a deprived area, so most of our schools have family support workers, we have ELSAs, I pay privately for play therapy – we have a huge emphasis on the emotional wellbeing of our children. We do this so that they can access learning, and we are hoping that that is valued. But there is still the fear that if internal data doesn’t figure in the inspections then we will be back where we are.
Baroness Benjamin: It seems to me that the problem is getting worse because society isn’t dealing with the issues and they are landing on schools to provide solutions.
Ken Jones: I’ll say something in defence of Wales and take up the point about the magic pill. Welsh education is aware of issues associated with abolishing SATs. Responses haven’t been to rush to bring back SATs, but rather to answer a different set of questions, for example: “What kind of education, broadly, do children in Welsh schools need?” And the answer to that isn’t “Ah, it was SATs after all!” We don’t say that. I don’t think you can take Wales as a dreadful experience which England must learn from. Wales is, like Scotland and Northern Ireland , an attempt to re-think the curriculum in ways that haven’t been attempted here, and part of that is a rethinking of assessment. There is a lot to learn from other countries.
Sean Harford: There will be lots to learn from them if it’s good and it’s shown to be effective, but if it’s another thing that education lurches into only to find out 10 or 15 years later that it wasn’t the thing to do, then that’s a different matter. So it’s great that this is going on, but I’ve been to Scotland and looked at the Curriculum for Excellence and talked to teachers and they say it isn’t a panacea – so we just need to be careful.
Nick Brook: I’m interested in Wales. There will be lessons to be learned from their journey and it’s exciting stuff.
Francis McGlone, Liverpool John Moores University: I’m a Professor of Neuroscience. We’ve moved away from the impact of testing on children’s health and wellbeing. I’m running a study in Liverpool schools where we are taking measures of Cortisol in children whilst they are preparing for SATs. We will get the data that these tests are damaging the children’s brains. Cortisol is a hormone and an indicator of not managing stress. If you don’t handle stress well it damages the hippocampus where – ironically – memory is. The increase in testing can only be overcome when we’ve got scientific data: we can only change opinions by putting some hard facts in place that SATs cause damage. What we will get from this study is that not only do these tests damage children, but teachers as well. Children are freaked out by continuous practice. There’s an intervention by the way, that works and it is peer-to-peer touch. Gentle touch works, but we’re moving away from touching due to paranoia about paedophilia. I’ve been on BBC News and in the TES to say that not touching children is a form of abuse as nerve fibres respond to gentle touch. We’re touching less; we’re seeing fewer male teachers coming into the profession from fear; nursery nurses are told not to touch children – but the neuroscience is underpinning this and it needs to get out there. I came all the way from Manchester today to say this.
Baroness Benjamin: I’m known as the “Hugging Chancellor” at Exeter University because I hug every single graduate. Whenever I do a school visit, I hug the children. I absolutely agree with you. When I first came here I asked the Minister if I would get arrested for hugging! He made it quite clear that there is nothing written down against hugging, as long as it’s not inappropriate. So how do you measure hugs when you visit a school to see how children are treated, Sean? Does it ever come up when you visit a school?
Sean Harford: No, not really. One of the myths about inspection is that we should police the whole education system. If it becomes a problem for a teacher; if they get complained about for example, it’s more likely to go through other routes that coming to inspection. The Local Authorities are responsible for the safeguarding and welfare of the children in their area whether they are in a maintained or an academy school. So actually we need to stop looking to an inspectorate that comes round every 4/5 years – or never – to solve these issues, as it’s not a solution.
Ian Hickman: We hug all the time at our school. Schools are brilliant at turning policy, or possibly a myth, into “a thing”. So this mental health and relationships issue – that will become “a thing” and we’ll have checklists to tick and so on to show someone that we’re doing it.
Amanda Norman, University of Winchester: SATs in Year 2 and Year 6 – it’s become a thing with phonic screening. Children at a very young age (Year 1) are being screen for phonics. We have continuously asked what the purpose is of baseline assessment in Reception. We’re talking about parents coming into a school culture where they are given information about testing, which can create a “them and us” feeling, and I think if there becomes a disengagement with the family there becomes a disengagement with the children themselves. I know of children who have not achieved their phonic screening test in Year 1 and nothing happens and they take it again in Year 2, and don’t achieve it again, and yet nothing happens as a result. They have had no support and what follows is that children repeatedly failing phonic screening become more and more aware of failure, and therefore become more disengaged.
On the subject of touching children, there are lines in the curriculum about touch, on the one hand mentioning the value of touch but on the other, warning teachers to be careful. It is quite challenging for teachers.
My question is, we are testing earlier and earlier, and it seems to me that testing is being increased in primary schools. How do we overcome this?
Nick Brook: We need to be cautious. Testing is like cholesterol – not all of it is bad. You need to know what to teach them next. I’ve got some stats from surveys of children about testing, and 48% of pupils say they don’t mind taking a test and 14% even said they enjoyed it. Now I know that that means that more children did mind taking tests, but we shouldn’t conflate the lot. What’s clear from tonight it that there is real, real concern about the anxiety and the stress that is created by these high-stakes tests at the end of Year 6.
Amanda Norman: Yes, but it’s happening earlier and earlier.
Nick Brook: Yes, I know what you mean. One of my children is in Reception and we had parents’ evening last week. The teacher had fantastic information about what our child can and can’t do, and what they are working on with him. However, the child doesn’t know he’s been tested or assessed because the teacher has been doing her job very well.
I agree that it would be ludicrous for children of that age to be brought in, sat down, given a test etc. but they can be assessed in many other ways.
I agree around the phonics and multiplication tables – strip them out.
Ian Hickman: One of the key jobs of a teacher is to find out what they can and can’t do. Early years baseline, yes, I’d expect Reception teachers to do that. Testing is not the problem but the issue is whether it’s going to be used as an accountability measure. That’s the problem.
Marie Williams, Dream Networks: I’m a social entrepreneur and a PhD student, specialising in esteem and play. I’d like to ask what actually enables children to be able to be tested, and in their environment, feel like they can improve their wellbeing? Where do you see the gaps?
Jon LeFevre: You can learn a lot by putting challenges in front of children and giving them real-life experiences and problems to solve. If you observe and listen to children doing that you learn so much about them.
Ian Hickman: It’s important that we expect high standards of our children, but standards are not just SATs scores. We expect high standards of conduct, etc. We provide broad experience so that they can express and challenge themselves and set high expectations for themselves in the future. These challenges can be anywhere – in a maths or PE lesson or outside building dens and structures and all sorts of things.
Baroness Benjamin: One of the things I would love all schools to do is philosophy. Very young children can understand the meaning of life and learn to use their ideas and their brains no matter what pressure they are put under and work out for themselves the purpose of themselves, who they are and what they are doing. A lot of children don’t understand why they are at school and why they have to learn, and philosophy and the learning about the world about them will get them to understand this. Children can do it but they have to learn how to do it. I do see some of this now in some schools that I visit, but we need to do more and do it deeper.
To Francis McGlone: have you told the Government about your research?
Francis McGlone: I can’t get close to them.
Phil Royal: We’re going to ask Francis to speak at a future meeting.
Baroness Benjamin: Perhaps with Phil you could put some questions down, ask what the Government is doing. So, to wind up, can I ask each of our speakers to add to your wish list now that you have heard from various different people here tonight.
Jon LeFevre: If anyone has any influence for getting Osted, unions and DfE together to look at what is being done to these children, that would be my wish.
Ian Hickman: My word would be “joy”. Being a teacher is a real privilege so I think we should have more joy in the education system.
Nick Brook: I’d go for funding.
Sean Harford: Picking up on what a number of people have said here tonight, actually this is about making education broad, deep, rich – and moving people away from focussing on one or two things. If I went to a school and they were teaching a broad-band deep rich curriculum, my heart would soar.
Ken Jones: Less dogma, and more free-thinking, learn from what people already know, stop hanging onto beliefs that were generated 30 years ago and which are long past their sell-by date.
Baroness Benjamin: It’s like making a cake. We know the ingredients that have to go in but it is how you mix the cake that matters. We don’t have to actually follow the recipe to get a great cake.
After some further discussion, questions and comments, the meeting closed at 7.30 pm.